What if teachers' ran their own professional development through projects? And what if teachers themselves received funding for these projects? What if the purpose of such projects was not only to spur individual professional learning, but also to develop leadership skills and initiate an exchange of knowledge among one's peers?
In Ontario, Canada, teachers pursue this kind of self-designed professional learning through the publically funded Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP). Since the 2007–08 school year, 1,500 people—mostly teachers—have initiated 225 teacher learning projects through TLLP, 83 percent of which have been collaborations among several educators.
Part of the beauty of this professional learning structure is that it represents a successful joining of the education policy arm and teachers' unions. The program meshes education research, education policy, and teaching practice and is a prime example of how researchers, policymakers, and practicing teachers can work together instead of pursuing conflicting agendas.
The Context: Building a Collaboration
The province of Ontario serves 2 million students, and approximately 120,000 teachers work in Ontario's K–12 public schools. English, French, Catholic, and nonreligious K–12 schools all receive public funding through the provincial government. The Teacher Learning and Leadership Program was developed in 2003 in the context of a new Ontario provincial government. From the start, the new education minister deliberately avoided the kind of "top-down" approach to education policy that many Canadian teachers felt had characterized past approaches. The new administration was determined to create a professional development program for teachers that was supportive, collaborative, and sustainable.
In 2005, recognizing that all stakeholders needed to come together if they hoped to enhance education in Ontario, Ontario's education ministry called together a Working Table on Teacher Development. All groups who represented Ontario's schools—including the Ontario Teachers' Federation (OTF) and its affiliates—were included. This Working Table was charged with making recommendations for how the government and other bodies should support teachers' professional learning, keeping in mind that teacher quality is the single most important factor in student learning. To inform this work, the ministry assigned two university professors, Kathy Broad and Mark Evans, to write an extensive literature review on the best content and delivery modes of professional development for experienced teachers (Broad & Evans, 2006).
Defining Professional Learning and Opting for Choice
The Working Table first made distinctions among training (skills all teachers must learn to do their job, such as lesson planning); staff development (a systemwide set of learning activities driven by the system's needs, such as enhancing early literacy instruction); and professional development (self-chosen activities that teachers can do individually or as a group, such as action research). The Working Table participants decided that the ministry should focus on supporting the latter kind of learning. Teachers have different learning styles and professional needs, and they should have the chance to pursue those needs independently. At the same time, any ministry-supported program should give teachers choice and connect teachers' needs to the goals of the ministry of education and other official bodies. Effective professional development needs to positively affect students as well as teachers. Toward that end, the group concluded that a high-quality teacher learning program should be
- Built on the three Rs of respect, responsibility, and results. The program must respect the complexity of teachers' learning and, ultimately, be responsible for boosting students' success.
- Attentive to adult learning styles. Teachers should have choices of meaningful, relevant, and substantive content and ways to learn.
- Goal-oriented. The program should be clearly connected to improved student learning as well as to changes in daily practice, remaining respectful of varied contexts.
- Sustainable. It should provide appropriate resources (including a clear support system from colleagues) and time for practice and self-assessment.
- Supported by research and data. This base in research would ensure that professional development reflects up-to-date theories and practice (Working Party on Teacher Development, 2007).
The Working Table affirmed that this program should tap into the tremendous resource of experienced teachers who can provide peer leadership and that grantees should be strongly urged to team up with fellow classroom teachers, resource teachers, or other players in the education field.
Creating a Teacher-Led Program
These ideas formed the basis for Ontario's teacher learning and leadership program. The program was designed and developed—and continues to be sustained—collaboratively by the ministry of education and the Ontario Teachers' Federation (OTF), who decide together which teacher projects of the many submitted will be funded.
At the beginning of the school year, teachers submit a description of their proposed project and a request for funds (most range from $1,000 to $10,000). All funding is used to cover costs for materials and teacher release time; lead teachers don't receive a stipend for spearheading their projects. Teachers must show how their project will address participants' professional learning and contribute to student learning; they must also delineate the experience that different teachers will bring to this effort. They outline a budget and show how they will measure both students' learning and their own, and they describe how they will share the learning with colleagues. Teachers are encouraged to expand their project to other schools, networks, and regions; 91 percent of projects have included other schools in the teacher leaders' boards (the Canadian equivalent of a district), and 43 percent have reached beyond their board—for example, by developing a conference or websites.
After a panel chooses the cohort of Ontario teachers whose projects will be funded that year, the ministry and OTF sponsor a conference to introduce essential leadership knowledge to these educators and show support for them. Presenters clarify any questions about finances and offer training sessions to draw out skills among project leaders (typical sessions include "Developing and Delivering a Dynamic Workshop" and "Persuasion, Not Pontification: Promoting Your Project").
As teachers from past cohorts describe their successful projects to those just starting out, teacher leadership multiplies. Meeting with other participants in the beginning not only motivates project participants, but also helps them realize they are part of something larger than themselves: Their learning can improve students' lives as they stretch themselves and become members of a developing professional community.
A Look Inside the Projects
A glance at TLLP-funded projects gives an idea of the breadth and depth of teacher learning that's possible when teachers organize professional development connected to their own contexts, strengths, interests, and needs. Projects range from "Working Together to Improve Boys' Literacy" (in both French and English) to "Engaging Young Readers with E-Books" to "A Plan for Work-World Readiness." There are projects focused on every subject in K–12 schools and projects that integrate music into language arts, science, and social studies. Teachers have devised support strategies for students falling through the cracks. In one project called "The Success Room," teachers work with any 7th or 8th grader who is struggling with academics or work habits; they sometimes bring the students' peers into the process. For example, if a student hasn't been handing in homework, a teacher in the Success Room talks with both the student and his or her classroom teacher and arranges a support system to help that student succeed.
To get inside the power of the program, let's look at two projects up close.
Fostering Math Talk
Math teacher Nicole Walter Rowan realized that she and other teachers at Agnew H. Johnston Public School, a K–8 bilingual school in Thunder Bay, Ontario, needed a deeper understanding of how to help students think and talk about math. Walter Rowan and a group of 12 colleagues—several of whom had earlier participated in an action research project on "math talk"—wanted to address students' weaknesses and uncertainties in math. The teachers decided to work on improving both their practice as teachers and their students' math awareness.
Four educators, forming the leadership team of the project, worked collaboratively with interested classroom teachers to deepen their collective understanding. They aimed to build a community of like-minded professionals. Supported by a university professor and a staff developer from a New York-based group called Math in the City, this leadership team helped their fellow teachers explore and practice math talk strategies.
In several workshops the team led during the school day, the teachers studied teacher talk and actions as portrayed on a video (part of Pearson's Young Mathematicians at Work series) that modeled actual teachers fostering student discourse during math class. The leadership team, along with outside consultants, identified exemplary teaching strategies appearing at key points in the video—for example "teacher asks students to apply one student's strategy that was different from their own to solve a problem"—and discussed these strategies with the learning community.
As teachers watched the video together, they practiced spotting instances in the lessons in which teachers modeled each of these effective strategies and students displayed heightened mathematical awareness. Teachers in the video prompted students to "turn and talk" about math understandings at pivotal moments in exploring math concepts, and the Agnew teachers saw how the experienced teachers sensed when to stop kids at a pivotal moment. Through these workshops, the group developed a shared vocabulary and began to envision what a classroom involved in collaborative mathematical problem solving could look like.
Two teachers from the leadership team then planned and cotaught lessons with other team members. Each coteaching session included planning, delivering instruction together, and debriefing. The focus of how lessons were planned and cotaught differed, depending on the needs of each teacher and his or her learners, but the focus generally centered on teacher and student talk and the effect of the chosen strategies on students' thinking.
The impact of this learning project was powerful. Teachers developed more confidence in how to question students and elicit responses that showed math understandings. Many went public with their teaching for the first time. Shared pedagogical knowledge and vocabulary made it easier to view one another's instructional practices with a critical lens and give feedback. The team members began to realize that their own practice was authenticating and expanding the research they were learning about. Eventually, a nearby school board took notice of the Agnew team's work, and this board is now supporting its own similar initiative.
Spreading the Graphic Novel Gospel
Matt Armstrong, Heather Murphy, and Anne Doorly, teachers at Adult High School focused on spreading a practice they had honed—using graphic novels to boost older struggling readers' literacy—throughout a wider circle. In Canada, an adult school is one in which students older than 18 can retake courses they must pass to pursue a diploma or take additional courses, such as English as a second language. Armstrong, Murphy, and Doorly had found graphic texts to be a promising resource with adult learners who need motivation to continue reading or who are still learning reading skills. They had developed extensive strategies for how to use graphic texts fruitfully, organized all their notes on how to use these texts into an easy-to-share binder, and were primed to provide workshops on this instructional practice to others.
The team started by introducing these materials to five English teachers in the team's own school. As a result of these workshops, all five began using graphic novels in their classes as well, and they saw struggling students become heavily engaged in reading.
At the school board's English professional development day, Heather Murphy and Anne Doorly shared strategies on using graphic texts with about 150 teachers from other schools. They provided participants with an electronic version of several graphic texts, including Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and a version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
The team expanded its presentations to additional groups of teachers that year and the following year. As they presented to each new audience, the team learned more about how to facilitate their peers' learning; for example, they learned their peers mostly wanted hands-on, practical ideas. This video produced by the Ontario Teachers' Federation shows this teacher learning in action.
Joining Learning and Leadership
Teachers teaching teachers is a powerful strategy for finding, developing, and using all talents. Teacher Leadership and Learning recently funded its fourth cohort of projects, and the ministry plans to keep the program going. TLLP shows what can happen when teachers propose professional development efforts centered on what they know, what they want to learn, and what they hope to share with peers. The program recasts the traditional paradigm that stresses compliance rather than collaboration, disparages teacher unions rather than builds shared solutions, and imposes research on teachers without rooting new knowledge in everyday teaching and learning. This program is also a robust example of how practice, research, and policy can join to change learning for both teachers and students.
Permission for usage granted by the Ontario Teachers' Federation.
Broad, K., & Evans, M. (2006). A review of literature on professional development content and delivery modes for experienced teachers. Toronto: Canadian Ministry of Education.
Working Party on Teacher Development. (2007). Report to the Partnership Table on Professional Learning. Ontario: Ontario Ministry of Education.
Ann Lieberman is a senior scholar at Stanford University; 650-723-2128;
Click on keywords to see similar products: