Redefining Professional Development: Educators as Leaders and Learners

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This essay is part of a series written by leading education practitioners in response to a Carnegie Corporation of New York report on improving education equity by addressing fragmentation.

It’s mid-May at Baychester Academy, a public elementary school in the Bronx’s District 11. Like all schools across New York City, the school day draws to a close with a ritual exchange: teachers usher students out of classrooms to meet their parents, patiently waiting by the school’s main office.

But then something unusual happens: Educators from across the district begin to arrive.

Fifteen of them snake through groups of students who are streaming out the doors. Another ten arrive soon after, having battled 45 minutes of traffic. And by 4:00 p.m., nearly 40 teachers and administrators from four elementary schools in District 11 are packed into Baychester’s cafeteria. Jenna Petrella, a kindergarten teacher at District 11’s P.S. 41, stands up, grabs a microphone, and passionately declares, “We all believe that change is not just necessary, but that it’s possible. And it starts with us.” The cafeteria surges to life with applause and shouts of affirmation.

Since when did professional development become such a hot ticket?

The Bronx’s District 11 is one of seven Chapter sites of The Teachers Guild, a nationwide professional learning community that supports teachers’ growth as creative leaders. With a philanthropic grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Teachers Guild’s Chapters program guides educators through a yearlong design process to create learner-centered solutions for their classrooms and schools.

Through this work, District 11 educators are focused on designing solutions that infuse joy and curiosity into their classrooms. In one example, a group of teachers and students from P.S. 175 built a GreenThumb Garden, where students could produce food, help beautify their school, and learn key academic concepts. At P.S. 41, another team designed Fun Fridays, which embedded more creative, hands-on activities into the schedule to boost student experimentation and love for learning.

Such creative efforts are in stark contrast to the typical “sit-and-get” professional development sessions that many teachers experience. In a place like District 11 — where more than 90 percent of students are nonwhite and more than three-quarters are from low-income families — it also affords students the opportunity to take part in more engaging activities. In all Teachers Guild Chapters, educators nurture their creative leadership abilities — listening more deeply to their students, experimenting with and measuring the impact of new ideas, and reimagining their roles as professionals and learners.

If we want to prepare our students to become the problem solvers and ethical leaders of tomorrow, then we have to equip our teachers to be the creative, equity-driven leaders of today.

If we want to prepare our students to become the problem solvers and ethical leaders of tomorrow, then we have to equip our teachers to be the creative, equity-driven leaders of today. To this end, The Teachers Guild focuses on bolstering collective teacher efficacy, or the shared belief that they can create change. Notably, John Hattie’s Visible Learning research identifies collective teacher efficacy as the leading way to positively impact student achievement. A staff that believes it can collectively make a positive impact on students is essential to building a healthy culture in which both students and educators can thrive.

The Teachers Guild hones this approach to collective, integrated work in school districts as a member of the Integration Design Consortium (IDC), a larger initiative of Carnegie Corporation. The IDC believes that efforts to improve young people’s lives are too often pursued in isolation, resulting in well-intentioned strategies that frequently do not match the realities in which they are implemented. More on the IDC can be found in the Carnegie Corporation’s new report, From Fragmentation to Coherence: How more integrative ways of working could accelerate improvement and progress toward equity in education.

As part of the IDC, The Teachers Guild is able to bring many best practices to bear:

• Instead of focusing solely on compliance-driven metrics, The Teachers Guild brings together educators around a shared purpose that allows them to think more broadly about what defines challenge and success in their classrooms.

• Instead of providing professional development that lacks relevance, The Teachers Guild attends to the circumstances of educators, partnering with them to codesign learning experiences for teachers and administrators in a district.

• Instead of operating in a silo, The Teachers Guild listens to its partners and repeatedly adjusts its programming to respond to the evolving needs of the teachers and administrators it serves.

The result is a professional learning program that reflects key components of working integratively.

In the second year of a two-year partnership, District 11 educators and The Teachers Guild are embracing these practices of integrated work. This year has seen an increase in the number of teachers involved, and these participants are helping to iterate on programming from the first year, thus assuming greater ownership of their professional learning with The Teachers Guild. Bolstered by administrator support, District 11’s teacher leaders are codesigning and leading trainings for their colleagues across the district. Teachers are applying the design process in their roles as community leaders, not simply as a method to address discrete challenges in their schools.

It’s now 4:10 p.m. at Baychester Academy. The crowd of students and parents has cleared, and the teachers have gotten to work. They are challenging themselves and their colleagues to grow as professionals and learners by designing solutions that attend to the complex needs of their students. In doing so, they are becoming more than deliverers of content, but leaders who are pursuing change for and from their classrooms.

Larry Corio serves as Learning & Impact Specialist for The Teachers Guild, a professional learning community incubated in IDEO's Design for Learning Studio. A former education researcher and high school teacher, he is especially interested in activating educators to become better evaluators of their own impact in classrooms.