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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 7

The Principal Connection / Who Owns Teacher Growth?

Just as student learning depends on the expertise of teachers, the expertise of teachers depends on the quality of their professional development. Providing opportunities for teachers to learn is difficult, however, given hectic school weeks and diminished dollars. Professional development is often stuffed into a teaching week like mortar into bricks—just enough to hold things together.
It makes a difference who arranges professional growth opportunities. When ownership of teacher professional development lies with the principal, teachers are disenfranchised as professionals. To truly empower teachers, we must move the responsibility for professional growth from our desks to theirs.
Our work is to create a culture in which continued professional improvement is an expected, intentional part of the fabric of teachers' work that is supported through time and money.

Transferring the Responsibility

As I matured in my leadership as an elementary school principal, I transferred the responsibility of staff development to the teachers with whom I worked. I had endless respect for these colleagues. Together, we changed the way we conducted the business of adult learning. We scrutinized our budget and made professional development a top priority, sacrificing the purchase of extra materials to add to our professional development budget. Teachers were parsimonious with “their” money and stretched dollars in innovative ways.
A group of teachers volunteered to form a professional development committee. They created and managed the budget and set criteria to prioritize teacher requests. Teachers who wanted to attend conferences or purchase materials related to professional development had to request funds from this committee, and so did I. These teachers wrestled with the need for continual teacher learning and the logistics of fitting such learning into their busy schedules. Their creativity was astounding.
The committee required that all teachers attending outside conferences bring back to the staff a synopsis of their learning and copies of pertinent handouts. Teachers became mini-experts on such topics as inclusion and data analysis.
I also attempted to be “head learner.” During some parts of the busy school day, I read professional journals with no apologies for taking this time for my own learning. I attended professional development opportunities, leaving a sign on my door that read “Out Learning.”

Refashioning Schedules and Reaping Gains

  • Teams held paper-bag lunch meetings. Once a week, teams met in quiet classrooms to plan curricular projects, share successes and challenges of the past week, and find ways to organize students and curriculum more effectively. Teams had agendas and took minutes.
  • Our 5th–6th grade multi-age team arranged for one 45-minute period each week during which other educators—the school social worker, resource center teacher, speech clinician, reading specialist, and me—in turns taught a mixed class of 5th and 6th grade students. Each of these “guest teachers” spent six weeks teaching a specific specialty (my specialty was public speaking) and then rotated to another class, repeating the program for a new student group.
  • Program assistants assumed bus and lunchroom duty to free teachers for meetings. Because these hours added to the contractual time of paraprofessionals, we kept a bank of the extra time each aide spent supervising. Aides drew from this reserve if they needed extra hours for leave in personal emergencies, scheduling convenient times with their teachers.

Discovering Through Doing

Unexpected benefits evolved from this effort. Teachers became experts on specific topics. Pam, a 1st grade teacher, spent time with upper-grade teachers explaining new strategies for differentiating reading instruction. Leticia, a bilingual teacher, held miniworkshops on teaching English language learners. Jack, our “numbers guy,” who usually presented test results to parents, taught us to analyze and use data effectively. Differentiated professional development emerged from the needs teachers expressed.
Much professional literature now suggests that professional learning communities are at the heart of effective schools. These teachers and I did not begin with the intention of creating learning communities, but true communities emerged as we wrestled with issues that confronted us—one of which was finding time for professional development.
My elementary school colleagues and I studied education research and held it in high esteem. But those teachers—who cared about kids and related to one another with respect—hammered out the “Monday morning” reality of creating working teams. We learned by doing what the literature consistently suggests: Both students and teachers enhance their learning when they intentionally share knowledge and talent.

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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