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November 1, 2018
Vol. 14
No. 7

Administrators' Support Matters for Teacher-Led Learning

Learning is not an activity reserved solely for students. Every year, teachers spend significant amounts of time attending on-the-job professional development. School administrators provide these sessions to teachers. These sessions are intended to help fulfill state-determined licensure requirements as well as to be a valuable resource for continual learning—but they often leave educators with mixed feelings.

The Majority, Not the Individual, Drives Decisions

In my experience as an educator, most administrators oversee the financial side of professional development for teachers, which means they are often the ones who decide the content of the sessions. They might decide topics based on district initiatives, current instructional programs, or what they believe are the most important skills teachers need.
The problem with this approach is that one decision is made for a large group of teachers, all of whom have a variety of instructional skill levels and learning needs. This method ironically goes against the current best practice of differentiating instruction in the classroom to meet the needs of students with a variety of skill levels. As a result, many frustrated teachers sit in on sessions that do not actually meet their unique learning needs for professional or personal growth.
Luckily, a movement has spread across the nation to allow teachers to be in the driver's seat for their own professional development. Some schools set up professional learning communities, or PLCs, within their buildings so that teachers can learn in smaller groups of learners with similar needs, differentiate learning, and increase ownership and motivation. For example, teachers might organize groups vertically across multiple grade levels, horizontally across the same grade level, or by skills or content area expertise.
In addition, the advancement in technology has made access to quality learning opportunities more available to educators, who can virtually "meet" others with similar needs and interests to discuss educational trends and topics through avenues such as EdCamps, Twitter chats, and Facebook groups. These options make learning accessible anywhere, anytime, for anyone.

The Effects of Individualized Learning

Professional learning communities give teachers exposure to current best practices and support through collaboration with peers and instructional experts. As educators enhance their skillset, they can better identify students' unique needs.
For teachers to take charge of their own learning, especially in schools where they are used to school or district leaders dictating professional development, they need encouragement from administrators. As a teacher, a new teacher coach, and a PD consultant, I have had to approach professional development opportunities from many angles to find what works well for teacher-led implementation. Here are four ways administrators can encourage teachers to take charge of their own learning experiences:
  • Connect teachers to online and offline learning opportunities. Bring in experts for in-house PD, share local educational conference details, and encourage virtual learning on or off the clock, including through Twitter chats, Facebook support groups, and recorded or live webinars. Twitter chats, listed by date, are my preferred form of PD because I can connect with passionate educators across the globe who are also taking charge of their learning. To get involved, figure out which chats you want to participate in from TweetReports' compiled <LINK URL="https://www.tweetreports.com/twitter-chat-schedule/" LINKTARGET="_blank">chronological list</LINK> and <LINK URL="http://alwaysalesson.com/blog/twitter-chat-how-to/" LINKTARGET="_blank">don't forget to use the chat's hashtag</LINK> when you contribute.
  • Survey teachers for feedback. Ask teachers to regularly reflect on their own instructional performance, including areas of expertise and growth, in short email surveys, and then give them the option to share results with colleagues.
  • Share the learning. Allow teachers time and space to share what they are learning with each other in staff meetings, school newsletters, or districtwide learning symposiums.
  • Celebrate progress. Create a culture that celebrates experts-in-progress by acknowledging hard work and room for growth. Teachers should feel excited to continue learning instead of embarrassed for lacking expertise. Try a "shout out" board of affirmations or devote a section of a school newsletter to acknowledge those who are making progress.
Teachers must also take responsibility to make learning opportunities in and outside of PLCs successful:
  • Reflect. Consistently evaluate practice, noting areas of improvement and accomplishment through journal writing or even by jotting quick notes for improvement on lesson plans, so they are easily accessible while teaching.
  • Set goals. Prioritize where you're going to improve by setting specific steps for incremental progress during the school year. Create vision boards to display near your desk that will remind you of goals.
  • Take action. Reach out to the administrative team and mentors to share goals and seek support. Find an accountability partner who can be a weekly sounding board for any issues you may have.
  • Celebrate progress. Snag your favorite treat on the way to or from work. Share your successes with friends and family, even if they seem small. Check off goals as you achieve them as a visual reminder of all your hard work.
When teachers lead their own learning, everyone wins. Replacing prescriptive professional development with more individualized practices tailored to educators' personal challenges, interests, and strengths ensures that every teacher can grow in productive ways.

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