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February 1, 2009

Perspectives / All Teachers Can Learn

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When asked about the tough stance many policymakers currently take toward teachers, one middle school teacher and administrator had something to say. On a visit to the ASCD offices, ASCD book author Robyn Jackson noted, "If teachers aren't raising test scores sufficiently, reformers say they should be weeded out. The same people believe that 'All students can learn.' Why don't they start believing that 'all teachers can learn'?" Robyn asked.
Her book, with the provocative titleNever Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching (ASCD, 2009), reflects her faith that "the gift of being a master teacher is not the exclusive domain of a blessed few" (p. xv). Anyone can become a master teacher with the right kind of practice and mind-set, she writes. As her title slyly implies, however, the process entails taking a good look inward. "You want to raise your expectations of your students," she says, "but first you have to raise your expectations of yourself."
This issue of Educational Leadershipexamines the many ways that educators can improve their practice and refresh their mind-set, starting with an idea whose time has come: the professional learning community (PLC).
In a look at how high-achieving nations invest in their teachers, researchers Ruth Chung Wei, Alethea Andree, and Linda Darling-Hammond (p. 28) note that, internationally, time for professional learning is built into most teachers' work hours. More than 85 percent of schools in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland provide time each week for teachers' professional collaboration. And in South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, teachers spend only about 35 percent of their working time in the classroom; the rest is for sharing, planning, and working together.
"I believe that the professional learning community is the most powerful strategy and structure available now for schools to improve their effectiveness," says Shirley M. Hord (who with Stephanie A. Hirsch writes in this issue). "I am, however, concerned about the wide variation in definition of PLCs. The word learningseems so frequently ignored. But isn't it continuous professionallearning that increases, expands, and improves quality teaching, the most significant factor in whether students learn well? Meeting together is only a necessary beginning."
In "Moving Beyond Talk," Debra Smith, Bruce Wilson, and Dick Corbett (p. 20) elaborate on the conditions that heighten the quality of learning in collaborative communities, among them voluntary participation and trained facilitators. Hord and Hirsch add rules for principals who want to help learning communities move from talk to action (p. 22).
Another author in our issue, teacher Bill Ferriter (p. 34), has found that an electronic meeting of the minds can enhance his learning, especially because "adult learning is often pushed aside in schools as educators sprint through the day." His solution was to join the education blogging community for 20 minutes each morning. "Some blogs leave me challenged. Some leave me angry. Some leave me jazzed. All leave me energized and ready to learn more," he writes. Blogs are not only a forum for public discussion, but also a way educators can prepare themselves—and their students—for a future driven by networked learning.
In her research column, Tracy Huebner (p. 88) reminds us that teacher learning is an iterative process, involving both group interaction and self-reflection. Teachers who at first reject a new idea may yet assimilate that idea and make it their own. "It challenges the myth that once teachers walk into their classrooms and close the door, no messages get through," Tracy writes. "In fact, we know that classroom doors are permeable."
In our lead article, Sonia Nieto (p. 8) reminds educators of the many reasons they entered the profession—from the desire to engage with intellectual work to the hope of changing students' lives, from a belief in the democratic potential of public education to anger at the conditions of schools today. All of these are at the heart of what makes for excellent and caring teachers. She writes:Probably the most significant action school districts can take in changing the nature of professional development is to provide meaningful and engaging programs that respect the intelligence and good will of teachers. … The conditions in which they work are often trying. If we are to keep good teachers in the classroom, [we] need to find ways to create environments in which teachers can form strong collaborative relationships with their peers and in which they can continue to learn about themselves, their students, and their students' communities.
Her advice to first-year teachers is worth repeating:"Make a friend." By this I mean … work to create a community.…When teachers develop allies, they remain fresh, committed, and hopeful.
And they also learn.

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