RABBI ZEV PAM
All of our schools offer professional development, and all of our schools have faculty meetings. Are they having the desired impact that we want? Does our faculty attend enthusiastically or begrudgingly? Traditional professional development is often “stand and deliver”, a onetime presentation by an expert presenter (typically from outside the school). All too often teachers’ response to professional development is tepid at best, and follow-up is minimal. Faculty meetings commonly attend to housekeeping and other technical matters. Time is at a premium and teachers are saddled with numerous responsibilities. How can we transform those opportunities into powerful learning experiences that inspire teachers?
Collaborative Learning, Not Professional Development
Over the last three years, we have implemented a Professional Development model that has built our teacher capacity, strengthened our team, and created a positive change in our staff. The most fundamental shift was to move from “Professional Development” to instead focus on “Collaborative Learning”. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Our goal was to become a staff that learned together.
We dedicated significant time and resources to the process and identified three overarching outcomes for staff:
In a survey, the teachers reported the following benefits from our professional development model:
• Increase in morale and positive attitude among the teachers
• Growth mindset in teachers
• More communication among the staff
• Created camaraderie, growth, and collaboration
• Increase in ongoing learning, teaching knowledge and skill
• More positive attitude in teachers’ lounge
In the words of one staff member, “I really like the continuing education that has been a constant and critical component…I am growing and improving as a result.”
The key components of this model include shifts in how the professional development time is structured, how its presented, and in targeted, graduated themes.
In order to have on-going collaborative learning, there needs to be dedicated regular time for that purpose. This is important but extremely challenging. As Shirley Hord (Hord, 2010) puts it, “Educators have typically been isolated physically from others because of the structure of school facilities and the schedules that dominate the school day. This has resulted also in mental isolation, with no colleagues for interaction.” In our yeshiva system the challenge is compounded as many of our teachers are only part-time employees. Finding time within the school day is almost impossible and asking staff to stay-on after their regular hours is an unfair burden.
To address this, our school leadership was willing to invest in providing a sizable stipend for each of our current staff members, adding on to their contracts an additional 30 hours of dedicated collaboration time each year. For all new staff members, it is now a standard part of the contract. This investment enabled and also communicated a strong commitment to the collaborative learning process.
We structured these additional times in the following way:
• 3 days of In-Service before the start of the school year
• Monthly after-school meetings (1 hour)
• Bi-weekly department meetings held during lunch time
The in-service and after-school meetings are times designated solely for whole-staff learning opportunities. During the three days before the school year, we introduce a theme for the year and dive in with an intense focus. At the after-school monthly meetings we continue and broaden our work from these before-school workshops. Department meetings are smaller and geared to address the practical issues of that particular department. We use that time to allow staff to share the decision making for specific issues to each department (for example—curriculum questions, recess procedures, or even report card structure). Housekeeping items are saved for memos, or when discussion is needed, for the department meetings.
No matter when the meetings are scheduled, time is valuable, and teachers have no shortage of other tasks that demand their attention. If we ask for their full attention, then we owe them to make sure that their time is being put to good usage. The way in which the meetings are run is therefore critical. They need to be engaging, relevant, productive, and practical.
Typically, these sessions would be in a workshop format and include the following three components:
In the beginning of the process, I personally led most of our Collaborative Learning sessions. I wanted to lead the learning, not as an expert “presenter” but as a facilitator of staff learning. This had a dual purpose. Firstly and most importantly, this ensured that the heavy lifting of the learning was being done by the teachers themselves. They directed the learning and I was just the guide. The result was that teachers had a far deeper connection to the ideas and internalized the learning. Secondly, I wanted teachers to view my role more as an instructional leader than a principal. This helped define my relationship with them, as teachers began to view me as a resource and leader who could help them become better at their practice. As our team has grown more cohesive and become reflective learners, teachers have begun to take on more of a leadership role and have facilitated sessions as well.
Conversations are a powerful venue to inspire ideas, deepen learning, and create relevance. As Hord (Hord, 2010) put it, “Knowledge is most fruitfully constructed in a social context.” Additionally, conversations are key to developing meaningful relationships. According to Lambert and Mitrani (Lambert, 2013), “Well-designed conversations are the building blocks to a collaborative culture. They create opportunities to examine assumptions, reflect on practice, solve problems, celebrate successes, and navigate the complexities of change.” In these sessions, we incorporated many opportunities for purposeful conversations, often producing lively and insightful dialogue.
As part of a well-designed workshop, utilizing a variety of instructional strategies helps keep the learning engaging and stimulating. Teachers are like any other learners and learn best when there is a variety of different modalities and there is active learning. Another important benefit is that it models the type of best practice that we want to see happening in the classroom. At the end of every session, teachers would be asked to produce some product (for example a poster or exit ticket) both serving to review the material and to encapsulate the learning.
Examples of instructional strategies utilized include:
• Quadrant Partners
• Standing Partner
• Thumb Up – Thumb Down
• 4 Corners
• Graphic Organizers
• 3-2-1 (highlight three sentences, two phrases, and one word)
THEMES AND TOPICS
Perhaps the most central part of collaborative learning is the actual learning itself. What I have found most effective is anchoring the learning around themes and supporting it with a framework of effective teaching. We designed our learning goals with a four-year plan in mind.
Year 1 – Vision
The most important first step is establishing a shared vision, consensus of values and beliefs, and of purpose. This sets the foundation and direction for all collaborative learning that will follow. It’s critical to define what effective teaching is, what it looks like, and to develop a common language about it. We utilized the framework proposed by Charlotte Danielson as our guidepost to discuss effective teaching. The workshops in year 1 focused on developing that shared vision and laying the groundwork for our faculty to begin to work and learn together. We also developed our vision for our professional learning for the next three years. We chose to focus on the first three levels of Marzano’s five levels of operation for a high reliability school (Marzano, 2013) (see Figure 1), with the idea of first building our school environment, then our instructional practices, followed by curriculum development.
Year 2 – School Environment
Based on feedback from teachers (especially in their department meetings), we determined that improving the safe and orderly environment in our school was a top priority, especially as it pertained to discipline. The workshops in this year focused on learning about the causes of student misbehavior, ways of creating positive environment to proactively reduce misbehavior, how to identify and address learning/social emotional needs of students, and practical strategies of responding to student behaviors.
Year 3 – Instructional Practices
This year’s learning focused on the way students learn, different modalities, brain research, and higher order thinking. The practical skill was incorporating more instructional strategies to provide more active learning.
It’s important to keep your finger on the pulse and occasionally make course corrections. While in the middle of year 3, based on feedback from staff, we realized that our work on School Environment was not finished. We took a short break from Instructional Practices and reinforced School Environment again.
Year 4- Curriculum Development
We will be implementing year 4 in this upcoming school year and look forward to working together to identify curriculum goals and align the scope and sequence.
Supporting the Process in the Classroom
Alongside the Collaborative Learning Sessions, support in the classroom is an important piece of follow-up to help make the learning into reality. Teachers often need help in implementing new ideas and encouragement to keep trying when things don’t go as planned. Classroom observation and feedback, new teacher mentorship, and assigning instructional coaches can all be powerful ways of supporting teachers as they experiment with new ideas.
The impact that collaborative learning has made in our school has been tangible. There is a noticeable increase in teacher effectiveness and our staff is more cohesive. There have been some unexpected side benefits as well. Through this process teachers have felt more empowered, their talents have been recognized, they have taken on more leadership, and feel more connected to the school. Finally, and most importantly, we have seen an increase in successful student learning.