Continuing Revelation about Our Teaching Craft
“The best professional development for teachers is teachers teaching each other the art of teaching.”
I happened upon this quote several years ago while working as a professional developer at a literacy initiative. Ironically, I was reading the research on the most effective forms of professional development for teachers. My job and the organization focused on designing and facilitating workshops, creating teacher resources, and providing instructional coaching for teachers. It was humbling to consider that a teacher’s best and most effective learning could happen amongst their own colleagues and without the presence of our organization! But I understood. The workshops are important and new learning about best practices is essential, especially in this, the learning profession. But it is the ways that these new ideas are shaped and honed by teachers working together in a culture that strives towards excellence that is the most powerful and lasting form of professional development.
In my early years of teaching in New York City, I saw the truth in this statement. I had a few years of teaching under my belt, and after graduate school I joined a faculty that was deeply engaged in studying the teaching of literacy, numeracy, and social studies and had a great deal of expertise. I knew I had a lot to learn, and I felt at the bottom of a steep learning curve. As I sat in grade-level meetings and listened to the ways my colleagues talked about the language they used with children and the lessons they were planning, as I observed their teaching and asked for their feedback on my own, I began to refine my own ideas about teaching. At our meetings, we would discuss things such as: “What is the best way to teach children to write a strong lead for their personal narrative?” or “How should we phrase this question in order to help children think deeply about our social studies topic?” Then we would put our heads together to create units of study and plan the lessons that would lead to optimal learning. We were teaching each other the craft of teaching.
On a daily basis in Friends Select’s lower school, I witness this mindset and gravitational pull towards learning from colleagues. Teachers meet, ask questions, think together, plan, revise, teach, and revise again. They ask big questions, such as: “What’s the best way to structure a social studies curriculum about the neighborhood?” or “How do we help children develop cultural competencies through our social studies?” Grounded in a deep commitment to the learning and success of their students, teachers meet together and explore questions such as: “What’s important for children to understand about gender at different stages of their development?” and “How can we incorporate learning about issues of equity and inclusion into our curriculum?” This collaboration between teachers is a core component of our strategic plan, Advance Friends Select, which prioritizes our continual search for excellence in teaching and learning. One pillar in the plan is “Professional Development and Ongoing Discovery.” Interestingly enough, the teachers on our committee recommended as a priority that we continue to “build a culture of sharing and development by drawing upon the expertise within our faculty to enhance each other’s teaching and learning.”
In recent meetings, lower school teachers have worked with Claire Yoo, in her capacity as lower school coordinator of equity and inclusion, to use James A. Banks’s 5 Dimensions of Multicultural Education to assess some of our social studies practices. Teachers discussed equity pedagogy and considered how the design of a lesson, how the delivery and the methods of engaging students could allow learners from diverse backgrounds to meet with success. They asked, “How can we help students learn from multiple perspectives on a historical event so that they learn to interrogate those stories told by the dominant culture or the victors?” and “What are some ways in which we can teach children to question whose story is told and whose is not?” The discussions that followed, and the future next steps are evidence of the priorities of our strategic plan at work.
Time for collaboration is a key factor in our ability to collaborate and learn with and from each other. Leveraging each other’s expertise in our collective pursuit of increasingly stronger teaching requires time together both in and out of the classroom. This year, we are creating structures that afford teachers increased opportunities to examine and revise their social studies curriculum, support each other in refining their workshop instruction, study student work, and envision meaningful projects. In addition to time dedicated during faculty meetings, grade teams and specialist teachers are engaging in monthly curriculum development meetings after school. We are working to implement team retreats during the year—off-site work periods that allow teams of teachers to reach that “flow” in their collaborative work that is often difficult during the typical 30- or 40-minute grade level meetings. And, drawing upon the research in support of professional development that takes place within the teaching setting, we are dedicating resources towards spending several days in school with Kathy Collins, an expert reading teacher and thought leader in literacy instruction. Like residents studying the moves of a master surgeon in a teaching hospital, we crowd into the classroom where Kathy is teaching and we lean in close, watching her every move as we learn together in real time.
The value of professional learning within off-site workshops and conferences is undeniable, as teachers grow their knowledge of content and best instructional practices. However, thinking together about pedagogy and content as they merge together within our classrooms—the lesson design, the specifics of a practice, the fine-tuned details, and lesson implementation within our context and with our own students—can only be done by our teachers themselves. A school where the adults in the building are actively learning is a school where children learn best. When our teachers come together to teach each other the craft of teaching, we enjoy the continual revelation of ways in which we can enhance our teaching craft, and we move closer to excellence.