We’ve all been there: the in-service day where a consultant has been brought in to enlighten teachers on the latest best practices in education. Sometimes these presentations are filled with boring slides, confusing jargon, or obvious information, and we leave wondering why consultants get paid so much more than we do. But even when the presentation is dynamic, clear, and novel, the message is: This is the expert. Which means: We, the teachers, are not.
Of course there’s value in bringing in perspectives and ideas from outside our school walls: Consultants understand aspects of education that we haven’t explored as deeply, or they bring in ideas from other fields that we teachers don’t know about. Or they see problems we’ve habituated to. But schools are full of creative, committed, passionate people, each with a well of knowledge from our work experience and from our lives beyond school. Teachers are always thinking, designing, and discovering. We’re the kinds of lifelong learners we say we want our students to be. Why not tap into that learning?
If you imagine teachers as learners and experts, there are four ways to structure peer-to-peer professional development: one teacher-expert presents and colleagues attend as learners; one teacher-learner presents and colleagues attend as experts; a group of colleagues comes together as experts; or a group of colleagues comes together as learners.
In a workshop, a presenter shows a group how to do something that’s made a positive impact on students. Then, with the presenter’s support and guidance, the group tries doing it themselves. Perhaps you’ve been to workshops at professional conferences, but there might be teachers right at your school with knowledge and skills to share. (Maybe you are one of those teachers!)
For example, Stu makes math videos for his eighth-graders to watch at home so they have more time in class to work together solving challenging problems. He’s experimented with different ways of making, editing, and distributing the videos. He’s figured out what to do if a student didn’t watch the video for homework, how to spot students who didn’t understand fundamental aspects of the content, and how to help students work together for shared successes. If his colleagues want to help students understand material more deeply, devote more class time to critical thinking and creative problem-solving, and teach collaboration skills, they don’t need an outsider. They have Stu. So, imagine that at a faculty meeting, Stu gives a presentation to his colleagues about how and why he makes his videos, and then during the next meeting, everyone tries making videos about their own content. A science teacher video-records a lab demonstration so her students will be able to watch the video at home and have more class time to ask questions and perform the lab. A group of English teachers screen-captures a slideshow about integrating textual evidence into essays for students to watch before essay work periods. As the teachers make their videos, Stu circulates and answers questions. A few weeks later, he gives a follow-up lesson for those teachers who want to go deeper.
Every teacher has something to share. My colleagues are perfect examples. Kelly encourages girls and students of color to see themselves as scientists. Elizabeth, Kyle, and Mike had their students make up songs and stories to show what they’d learned about integers. Jane gets even the squirrelly kids to read better and more deeply. Mark does this thing at every spring concert where the eighth-grade band is playing, and then the seventh-grade band joins in, and then the sixth, and then all the kids are playing, all together. The level of commitment and cooperation he gets out of those kids is awesome, in the original sense of the word. What if we all learned how to do that? What expertise do the teachers at your school have? How could the rest of your faculty benefit from that expertise?
A council is the reverse of a workshop: the presenter is asking for expertise instead of offering it. The principal, or whoever organizes meetings, solicits teachers’ questions ahead of time: How can I teach grammar more effectively? What creative project can I assign instead of the Civil War essay? Why did so many of my students fail the stoichiometry test when it seemed like they were prepared? How can I get Donny Crawford to talk in my class?
At the meeting, teachers break into groups so that each presenter has about four to seven colleagues who serve as a “council” to offer their thoughts in response to the question. In each group, the presenter describes exactly what’s happening and what they want to see instead, and then they ask their questions. Their colleagues ask questions to make sure they fully understand the situation and the presenter’s goals, and then the presenter is silent while the group discusses the matter and offers insights.
Let’s say Donny’s English teacher notices that he never contributes to class discussions, and she wants advice on how to get him to participate more actively. If she asks the rest of his teachers how they get him to talk, she might learn that he loves to discuss current events and then try connecting literary themes and conflicts to the news. Or, the teacher could bring her question to her department members to see how they encourage participation. She might discover that some teachers define “participation” more broadly, and that while she’s been focusing only on how often Donny speaks, she hasn’t paid attention to how thoughtfully he listens or how thoroughly he takes notes. The teacher might also learn new ways to elicit participation, such as through partner discussions and writing prompts. In any of these cases, presenting a question to her colleagues helps the teacher expand her understanding of the student or practices.
By presenting a question, teachers benefit from the collective expertise of their colleagues, who in turn benefit from hearing and wrestling with a colleague’s dilemma. Even if the groups don’t solve every problem, presenters might leave feeling surprised by successes they hadn’t noticed, inspired by their colleagues’ insights, aware of new resources, and ready to try new methods. If nothing else, just hearing group members recognize things you value and having them struggle along with you can be an immensely powerful experience. And the whole group becomes stronger by working together toward the success of one of its members.
Although some schools establish a culture where teachers can take risks, many teachers will understandably want to avoid the embarrassment of exposing their imperfections to their colleagues. If you’re thinking of trying a council at your school, try asking people with high status, access, and visibility—such as a department chair or an “old guard” teacher—to go first. That way, those with less power know that no one is above asking for help. You might try using a protocol to structure the conversation. While some people prefer more free-flowing discussions, protocols make peer-to-peer feedback a safe, inclusive, compassionate, and constructive process.
The Toolbox Share
While the workshop and council formats position some teachers as experts and others as learners, the toolbox share takes advantage of everyone’s expertise. A chair, dean, principal, or other leader poses a “How do we…” question or solicits one from the group. How do we incorporate movement into our sixth-grade classes? How do we communicate with parents at our school when a kid gets a bad grade? How do we examine math resources for bias?
The question can be about curriculum, instruction, assessment, management, communication—really any meaningful aspect of teaching. Everyone in the room takes a turn responding to the question, because everyone is assumed to have valuable ideas to contribute.
Let’s imagine that in advance of a history department meeting, the chair has asked, “How do we use historical fiction in our classrooms?” Individual teachers might bring specific books, photos of their classroom libraries, or historical fiction writing assignments to the meeting. Each teacher describes how he or she uses historical fiction to help students understand history. As different teachers present, the group might ask questions like, “How do you get them to use specific historical details in their writing?” or “How do you make sure they can sort out what happened and what’s embellished?” or even just, “Where do you keep your books? How do students sign them out?”
Rather than having one expert share a “best” practice—and narrowing the faculty’s repertoire to include only that practice—teachers can expand and diversify their collective repertoire to include more ways to help students learn. What kinds of “How do we…” questions might you ask your colleagues?
The bring-back is in some ways the most empowering type of meeting, because no one is the expert; everyone is learning together. Presenters share their discoveries with their colleagues, who then discuss how this information or practice would work in their classrooms.
Let’s say Ines just came back from a technology conference, where she attended a session on how game-
making helps students use their creativity and understand the interconnections among ideas. Ines downloads the slide deck from the conference website and brings it to her next team meeting. Her colleagues look at the slides together and then talk about how they could use game-making projects to help students understand concepts in their classes. The science teacher starts thinking about how her students could make games to learn the parts of a plant, and she flips open her laptop to look for more resources about game design. The history teacher says he once had his students make board games about the U.S. Constitution but didn’t repeat the project because it took too long; now he’s thinking he might revive that project using the guidelines Ines brought back from her conference.
In a bring-back, everyone explores and experiments together—in much the same way as we aim for our
students to do.
Implementing the Four Approaches
School leaders—directors, principals, chairs, and deans—can build a coordinated faculty-led professional development program by using all four approaches to advance school priorities. Let’s imagine that a school has established multicultural competency as a priority. The principal could identify teachers who skillfully promote inclusion, perspective-taking, self-reflection, and anti-bias action. These teachers could present workshops to the rest of the faculty, who might then have questions about developing culturally relevant pedagogies in their classrooms. These teacher-learners could pose their questions to groups of colleagues during the next faculty meeting, using the council format. Next, academic departments could do toolbox shares on how they’ve confronted bias in their curricula. Along the way, teachers who attend outside conferences on social justice could bring back resources to share with their grade-level teams and discuss how to apply what they learned in a way that’s age-appropriate for their students.
While of course it’s important to respond to emergent issues, school leaders can plan a professional learning curriculum that balances the four approaches, provides opportunities for teachers to work in various groupings, takes full advantage of faculty strengths, and addresses articulated priorities.
Leaders can create an empowering professional development program by:
Noticing expertise within the faculty and staff. Instead of relying only on official roles, administrators can seek the full range of experiences, knowledge, and skills each person brings, and then tap experts to give workshops.
Listening for common concerns. If a particular topic keeps coming up in conversation, it might be ripe for exploration in councils. This is a collaborative way for administrators to respond and is also a less threatening way to discover sources of struggle without asking outright, “What are you having trouble with?”
Doing classroom walk-throughs. An administrator might notice patterns and develop “How do we…” questions to use in toolbox shares.
Tracking attendance at professional events and books teachers are reading. A monthly survey would allow an administrator to find resources teachers can bring back and discussions they can start about how to apply and adapt the practices they learn about.
Allocating time and funding. If teachers prepare high-quality professional development experiences for their colleagues, they should be compensated.
Tracking outcomes. Through conversations, surveys, and observations, administrators can find out whether and how teachers are using the knowledge and skills gained through peer-to-peer professional development.
Sharing Values and Vulnerabilities
Inviting outsiders to deliver professional development is much safer than asking teachers to open up to each other and take responsibility for one another’s learning. Hiring a consultant is expensive and might ultimately be unhelpful, but no one in the community is putting his or her own reputation on the chopping block. In-house professional development requires a lot more bravery.
Asking a council of our colleagues for help can feel risky: We’re exposing our frustrations, mistakes, and imperfect knowledge. But presenting our expertise in a workshop can be risky, too. We might draw envy or criticism. We might stumble over our words, not know the answer to a colleague’s question, or bore our audience. Even at a meeting where everyone is on the same footing, like a toolbox share or bring-back, colleagues with conflicting ideas about the “right” way to do things might bicker—or worse, nicey-nice each other at the meeting and then make judgmental comments behind each other’s backs. We can avoid these kinds of risks by letting the expert who has no dog in any fight come in and tell us what to do.
But when we avoid the risks of sharing our vulnerabilities, we also avoid the rewards of sharing our values—what matters to us in our work. As Kelly Wilson, author of Mindfulness for Two: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Approach to Mindfulness in Psychotherapy, puts it, “When we turn away from suffering, we miss the other things, rich and varied, that are inextricably linked to suffering. Values and vulnerabilities are poured from the same vessel.”
You wouldn’t be afraid of your colleagues’ judgments if you didn’t value your relationships with them and your students’ successful learning. As teachers who care, we open ourselves to feelings of anger, disappointment, embarrassment, guilt, despair—and also joy, fulfillment, and vitality. We can hide these feelings from each other, or we can share our authentic experiences in the service of improving our practice, supporting each other’s growth, and ultimately helping our students learn.
Build Your Toolbox
Looking for ideas to get your colleagues thinking about how they can contribute to a toolbox share? Here are some more questions to get the ball rolling.
- make algebra fun?
- teach grammar in a way that improves student writing?
- incorporate discussions of current events into our curricula?
- include service learning in our programs?
- make the best use of new technology without letting it use us?
- use our classroom spaces to promote learning?
- ensure 100% participation?
- make room for risks and failures?
- use the iterative design process?
- teach compassionate behaviors?
- give students brain and body breaks?
- take care of ourselves?
Have more questions to add to the list?
Share them on the NAIS Idea Exchange on Connect. Go to connect.nais.org.
The School Reform Initiative has a variety of free downloadable protocols for peer-to-peer feedback: schoolreforminitiative.org/protocols.
For another example of in-house professional development, read “A Teacher-Powered Approach to Professional Development” on the Independent Ideas blog: nais.org/independent-ideas.