To Revolutionize PD, Administrators Should Follow This Simple Rule: Think Like a Teacher

At the end of last school year, an assistant principal commented: “Sometimes I forget the power of seeing myself as teacher. That is where I feel strongest, where I do my best work.” We were engaged in a conversation about how professional learning had been organized for our building. I shared critical feedback from a teacher perspective, and in return, she shared the administrative perspective on how the schedule was created and how teachers were organized. At the end of the exchange, however, she also shared this powerful reflection: to do her best work, she wanted to re-frame her role as a teacher first, administrator second.

I forget the power of seeing myself as a teacher first, administrator second.

When thinking about successful professional development, administrators at all levels should remember to switch those proverbial hats. A vibrant classroom is not about an organized spreadsheet, assignments turned in on time, and attendance recorded. Neither is a professional development. Instead of seeing adult learning as a place to assert authority, deliver a lecture, or offer a one-size-fits-all training, administrators should see professional development as an opportunity to promote authentic, learner-centered experiences. Professional development offers administrators a chance to re-engage with their teacher identity, and to re-frame their role as a facilitator, leader, and guide.

The following are a few ways this approach could revolutionize professional learning in our schools and educational communities.

Strive to see a roomful of individuals with different needs and differentiate!

Although it is admittedly impossible for teachers to craft individual lessons or materials for every student, teachers are directed to consider individual student needs and accommodate learning to meet those needs. Students have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to accommodate processing needs, reading needs, and behavioral needs. Other students have 504 plans for physical needs. By law, teachers are required to make these accommodates to allow every student access to the curriculum.

Teachers also seek to identify gifted learners in their classrooms–who masters material quickly and needs additional challenge to stay engaged? Highly accomplished teachers seek to support these students by offering them greater challenges, encouraging self-directed learning, and promoting them as classroom leaders to help other students in the classroom community.

What if principals saw their faculty in a similar way? Depending on the learning, some teachers might need additional supports to be successful, while other teachers have mastery in certain skills and content knowledge. Principals who think like teachers will offer options for both leadership and support depending on the content and learning focus. Principals will seek to differentiate professional development to meet the needs of the diverse learners in their faculty.

Jozette Martinez discusses this further on her post “How to Create Teacher Led Professional Development

Learn best practice when crafting adult learning experiences. Continue your own learning!

Effective teachers see themselves as life-long learners. They seek to read books about best practices in learning, and they attend conferences to see these practices modeled. Teachers meet with special education experts, school psychologists, and coaches to acquire new strategies for reaching every student. Effective teachers understand that learning never ends and their toolbox is never full.

Likewise, principals should have opportunities to extend their learning beyond the required certification courses. They should seek to understand more deeply the best practices for adult learning (androgony) and how to implement them across a range of learning structures and content areas. They should also seek to learn directly from teachers about what kinds of environments best promote learning for themselves and their peers. School districts need to prioritize professional learning not only for their teachers but also their administrators.

Principals have to see professional learning as crucial to their ability to lead and teach others. They have to ask for it, advocate for it, and prioritize it. That’s not easy task, but it is what they ask of teachers. So it should be what they strive to model.

Liz Prather discusses adult learning further on her post “Professional Development and Adult Learning Theory.”

Get rid of the thirty-slide PowerPoint and take the constructivist approach!

An energized, empowered learning environment begins by honoring the learners and all they offer to the experience. This environment is built by those who see themselves as learners and teachers first. They prioritize leadership over management. This applies to both teachers and administrators.

Principals: Do you want teachers to create classrooms with engaged, active and challenged learners? Do you want teachers to shrink their lecture time and boost their project-based learning experiences? Guess what, you are going to have to model those learning experiences.

Professional development isn’t simply learning content or comparing data sets–professional learning should include experiential learning. What if the next professional learning experience didn’t include a PowerPoint? Administrators and leaders should think about the classrooms that demonstrate the most engaged learning. They should identity the teachers who have gift for inspiring leadership in their students. They should find assignments that challenge students to higher-order thinking. Then, they should reflect on the following:

  • How can these teachers and their lessons be models in planning a professional development session?
  • What additional considerations should be made for adult learners?
  • Who would best lead this experience?

Thoughtful professional development should seek to create the environments that reflect the classrooms we all want to see in schools. In her blog, Renee Moore highlights research that begs the question “Is Professional Development a Waste of Time and Money?” If districts want to avoid this trap, they need to change the planning, construction, and implementation of their traditional professional development.

Remember that authentic learning requires authentic relationship.

Teachers do not receive classrooms full of only eager, well-supported students. Instead, they receive students who have recently skipped a meal and are distracted, students who are focused on that last terrible comment on their social media wall, students who think they aren’t capable of learning, and students who think they hate reading or math or just school in general. To be effective, teachers have to show students that they care beyond a grade. Teachers have to build relationship and rapport with students before asking them to take risks, to try a task that seems impossible. Teachers are not given students with standard talents, abilities, attitudes, interests, or self-confidence. Yet, they are asked to reach each student and help them meet their potential.

Likewise, principals and school leaders are faced with a diverse faculty. Not every teacher will be willing to engage, not every teacher will view the professional development plan as valuable. Yet, having a culture of mutual respect and positive rapport can elevate professional learning. Even with an overwhelming work load and seemingly endless meetings, administrators need prioritize building relationships with faculty. These relationships help repair past hurts and help heal ingrained cynicism. Relationship and trust may be the only way to improve the professional development of a school where teachers have shut down and administration feels like any initiative is a waste of time.

Paul Barnwell addresses this damaging culture in his blog “Are Teachers Unwilling to Change?”

Change the mindset, change the learning.

Although a number of factors influence strong professional development, the most important may be the mindset of the principals and administrators who plan it. Do they view their role as a teacher–striving to understand learners and support their individual strengths or needs? Or do they view their role as a manager–planning a tightly-controlled experience that produces neat rows of data? Creating effective professional learning requires all of us to think like a teacher. There’s incredible power in that perspective. Enough power to revolutionize even professional development.

This post was originally published on my blog at CTQ. 

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