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Teacher to Teacher

Strengthening PD at your school

New York Teacher

High standards for students call for high standards for the staff members who work with them. That means providing quality professional development. Here are some ideas for strengthening the professional learning community at your school.

One aspect of professional learning often overlooked is individualized support for teachers at all levels. Most schools have teachers at every level of expertise and thus there need to be tiered professional learning opportunities to fit staff members’ individual needs. Teams of paraprofessionals and teachers should also receive common-planning time as well as opportunities for professional learning specific to their needs.

In my learning community, planning for professional development is reflective of the professional community. Teachers have a significant voice at every stage of planning, implementation and evaluation. There are opportunities for inter-visitation, study groups and workshops led by peers and by experts.

According to the UFT-DOE contract, every school should have a professional development team to plan and review school-based PD. My learning community has benefited greatly from the thoughtful planning of our PD team of teachers, administrators and other staff members.

At the beginning of the school year, our PD team sends out a survey to staff members asking them to list possible PD or study-group topics and to share any concerns with programs used schoolwide. The survey also gives them an opportunity to volunteer to run teacher-led workshops.

Our PD committee carefully records the survey results and then communicates with all staff members about possible topics. To ensure that our PD reflects our staff’s real-time needs, we use a staggered planning approach. We gradually roll out workshops and study groups in cycles. We set aside time for inter-visitation in each cycle, an extremely personal and effective way of learning from peers. Teacher-facilitated, non-evaluative classroom visits allow teachers to collaborate and develop instructional knowledge and skills. At the end of each cycle, we relay our findings in roundtable talks and shared Google documents.

This process personalizes a “one size fits all” system and allows teachers to pick and choose their professional learning opportunities wherever possible. Professional learning facilitated by peers breaks up the monotony and breathes new life into stale practice. When teachers work in a safe school environment, they are more likely to take risks and speak freely about what is working in their classrooms and what they need to develop.

As an example, our pre-K site was interested in developing Reggio-inspired documentation. Teachers were given the opportunity to visit Reggio-based schools and to form study groups. Teachers came up with a list of core elements that should be part of this type of documentation. After a year of learning, our assistant principal photographed documentation boards around the school. Teachers met as part of a large roundtable to view and discuss the documentation. The result was true peer collaborative learning where everyone was able to see how far we came and we shared and discussed new ideas.

In every school, the answer is usually there in the room. There is sure to be a teacher who has specialized training in the specific subject area you seek. Peer-to-peer learning is a vital component of a high-quality professional learning program.

Student achievement depends on rigorous standards and a knowledgeable team of dedicated educators. My school has found that collaborative planning creates a community that is truly invested in its own professional learning.

Sandra Fajgier is a prekindergarten teacher at K280 in Brooklyn.