11/29/2017
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The following guest blog post was written by Elisabeth Stock, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of PowerMyLearning. PowerMyLearning is a grantee-partner of New Profit that helps teachers team up with colleagues and families to design engaging, personalized learning experiences for students.

Why does teacher professional development (PD) get such a bad rap?

Not only is it derided by teachers, but it is one of the first targets when budget cuts are called for (NPR). Even former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ridiculed PD, saying that when he asked teachers whether it was improving their job their response was either to laugh or cry. They were not “feeling it.” (U.S. News)

But how can this be true if we know teachers are made, not born? How can we help teachers improve their craft, if not through PD?

At PowerMyLearning, we are very Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 10.10.47 AM.pnginterested in this question about PD because improving teacher practice is core to our work. At PowerMyLearning, we use a triangle to guide everything we do. This triangle includes students and the adults that matter most – teachers and families. The arrows in the triangle highlight the core learning relationships or interactions that, when fully realized, enable students to master rigorous content and own their learning.

What interaction do we hope to “see in the arrows” so that students become successful learners? We hope to see teachers using evidence-based teaching practices to personalize student learning in the classroom, teachers and adult family members working together as a team, and adult family members participating as active learning partners with their children at home.

Teachers can be the main drivers of all of these interactions and thereby enable all of their students to become successful learners. But how?

This bring us back to the question of PD: How can we help teachers drive the interactions in the triangle if PD is so loathed?

Let’s first look at what comes to mind when teachers hear the expression “PD.” Often teachers think of a one-and- done workshop: sitting with 50+ other teachers in a big air conditioned windowless room with a PD provider (who often has limited personal teaching experience) talking at them for hours on end.

When I was a teacher, I dreaded these workshops. I found it insulting that anyone would expect me to be able to go back to my classrooms and implement “this next new thing” with no tools and no ongoing support.

Yet the reason teachers think of these workshops when they hear “PD” is because, unfortunately, these workshops represent a large portion of how PD is currently delivered.

But what if we look at other forms of PD – like coaching and professional learning communities – what do we see then? Does a different story take shape?

A study by McKinsey & Co. that analyzed what the world’s best schools were doing right found that “developing teachers into effective instructors” was one of the top three drivers of school quality. This study highlighted two effective approaches to professional development that high-performing school systems used to develop their teachers: (1) providing coaching, and (2) enabling teachers to learn from each other (or collaborative learning).

This is what we are doing at PowerMyLearning to help teachers effectively drive the interactions in the triangle. At PowerMyLearning, the PD we offer is coaching and collaborative learning via professional learning communities (PLCs). And surprisingly, not only is this type of PD more effective (as the McKinsey study shows), it also evokes a very different like/dislike response from teachers. At PowerMyLearning, 84% of the teachers we coach say our PD was among the most valuable of their careers. As one teacher shared, “having a coach from PowerMyLearning was GREAT for my sense of purpose and morale, and it made me feel more connected to my colleagues."

An important reason why teachers get so much out of our coaching and PLCs is because we have built both experiences on top of our PowerMyLearning Framework for Teachers. This Framework was designed to help teachers develop the expertise they need to drive the interactions in the triangle. It can be used by teachers and their coaches to map and monitor growth and to understand the tangible evidence of exemplar practice. Our Framework was field-tested over multiple years and incorporates research evidence about the best practices in teaching and learning. It includes the following six domains:

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A story about Rebecca Chen, a teacher at Nava Academies in Los Angeles, helps bring the utility of this framework to life. Rebecca had the opportunity to participate in our job-embedded coaching program and in a PLC that we helped run during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. As part of both experiences, Rebecca and her coach (Katie Roth from our team) worked together to create bite-sized goals that were tied to our Framework and could be accomplished in a week or so. Katie then provided Rebecca with short “to-dos,” or actions that could help Rebecca achieve each goal.

“Especially for new teachers, it’s so helpful to have a coach and to work with colleagues in a PLC,” Rebecca said. “Setting weekly goals encouraged me to take accountability for my instructional growth and professional development.”

The structure of the PLC also fostered a collaborative environment, in which Rebecca and her colleagues could identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and measure and report on progress.

“Sometimes you have great ideas but you’re not sure how to implement them,” Rebecca explained. “Bouncing ideas off of Katie and other teachers provided a channel for others to give their tips and tricks for similar ideas that they have tested.”

Throughout her time working with Katie, Rebecca adopted new practices aligned to all areas of the PowerMyLearning Framework and made the most dramatic growth in data-driven instruction, defined as targeting instruction to directly address students’ learning needs.

I for one am not surprised that when PD is delivered as structured coaching and collaboration (instead of one-and- done workshops), teachers like Rebecca thrive. As a country, we must move away from the type of PD that gives PD a bad rap and move over to the type that McKinsey describes in their study and that teachers actually enjoy – coaching and collaboration.