Finding Professional Development Opportunities at the Graduate Level
There isn’t an industry-standard prerequisite for teaching in independent schools. Some faculty members are hired with great pedagogical preparation, others with highly specialized content knowledge, and others with skills that support non-classroom programming, such as coaching, counseling, and advising. And while accountability standards exist through the school accreditation process to promote excellence in teaching, schools must take it upon themselves to offer professional development opportunities, so their teachers can feel supported and keep growing.
According to a report based on NAIS member schools in the US in 2014–2015, about one in five independent school teachers had fewer than five years of classroom experience. The report also found that current hiring tactics were aimed at recruiting diverse faculty members who had been successful professionally and/or in their own academic pursuits. These hiring practices have provided for a rich and diverse tapestry of talents and leave room for individualized development, particularly when a person is asked to fill the shoes of the triple threat (teaching, coaching, and advising/residential), as they often are in boarding schools.
Given the varied backgrounds of faculty, many schools rely on piecemeal approaches to ensure that teachers receive the specific professional development they need, in a modality that is conducive to the scheduling complexities present in all independent schools. Existing one-size-fits-all professional development available through faculty meetings can be useful for some but redundant for others. The time available for these workshops is also limited, providing little opportunity for long-term follow-through and integration. There are also few graduate programs that provide the appropriate mix of content and accessibility.
In 2016, The Williston Northampton School (MA) developed a partnership with Mount Holyoke College (MA), a nearby liberal arts college with a graduate-level teacher leadership program, to build upon the Williston's existing professional development opportunities, provide an accessible degree option, and address the unique constellation of Williston faculty member strengths. They created the Independent School track of the Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership (MATL) program.
Partnering on Professional Development
In researching opportunities to get faculty members the professional development they needed, Williston staff learned of the MATL program at Mount Holyoke, which was a few years old at the time. The program was built for in-service teachers, who want to further their education and cultivate leadership skills. The classes, which can be completed online through videoconferencing or on campus, are offered in the evenings and over the summers. The curriculum places an emphasis on practical applicability, so educators can immediately put new learning into practice. With one course per term, and typically with one synchronous class meeting per week, the two-year program allows students to design a course of study around their individual professional development needs and their schedules.
Mount Holyoke's existing MATL model was a near-perfect fit for Williston’s needs. The program could be completed fully online, accommodated the needs of different schedules, and could be modified to offer tailored faculty development tracks. Mount Holyoke also expressed willingness to move online class meetings away from high-conflict times, such as Wednesday evenings when coaches had commitments. After months of planning, and in partnership with Williston staff, Mount Holyoke College developed a track within the program, specifically for independent school educators. It includes a curated combination of graduate courses on topics such as student development, inclusive and trauma-informed teaching, independent schools, content-specific pedagogy, coaching, and universal design for learning. During the final semester, graduate students put their learning into action with a project that contributes to the professional culture at their school.
The Benefits of the Program
From the start, Williston made a commitment to fully fund all faculty seeking the degree; it turned to donor support for faculty-development projects. In the three years since it launched, eight faculty members have enrolled, and the first cohort of three graduated in spring 2018. Williston staff now includes more teachers with higher-level degrees, and faculty who have completed the program have brought new expertise to the various aspects of their roles. An added benefit: Each faculty member completed a capstone project in service to the school. Mount Holyoke has opened the program to all independent educators in 2017, and teachers from other independent schools across the country have enrolled.
The track has evolved based on input from Williston faculty and other independent school teachers in the program, as well as from other feedback, including that of the New England New Teachers Seminar hosted by Connecticut Association of Independent Schools and the Association of Independent Schools in New England. Alumni of the program have proposed several courses, including athletic coaching, new faculty mentoring, and student counseling and advising, which will be offered in the coming year. Existing classes have also been modified to broaden their scope to include independent school perspectives and examples.
From the faculty perspective, the program has provided an accessible and highly engaging way to develop their craft and advance in their profession by earning an advanced degree. During the program, one of the first graduates, Andrew Syfu, had been reflecting on “What is the purpose of education?” This led him to his capstone project, through which he researched approaches for implementing social-emotional learning into the school’s advisory periods.
Syfu, who learned about different models of teaching and has challenged himself on his personal style of teaching, has expanded his professional network and serves as an ambassador for the two cohorts that have followed. He’s considered a thought leader among the Williston faculty. “I am 10 times more active in faculty meetings than I was before starting my coursework,” Syfu says. “With the knowledge I’ve gained, I feel confident I can contribute value to discussions about teaching and learning.”