Sunday, February 9, 2014

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” 

At the end of each year, I read Dr. Seuss' "Oh the Places You'll Go" to my first graders. I love this quote because it resonates with some of the core values I hold to be true in my teaching: trust, value, and choice

As educators, we spend 9 months building trusting relationships with our students and families. We value every student and family's unique perspective, background and experience, ensuring their voices are heard and respected. Finally, we create opportunities for student choice, for authentic and engaging work.

Why, then, do we ignore so many of these best practices in educator professional development? I believe the pillars of effective professional learning should directly mirror those we strive to achieve in classrooms with students.

When my students have a rough patch, behaviorally, I remind them that I am not their babysitter. If I spent my time monitoring their every move I'd have exactly zero time to teach. Because I teach almost exclusively in small groups throughout the day, my students spend about 1/2 of their day working independently, in partners or in small groups on specific tasks, away from me (while I'm teaching other students in small groups). It would be impossible for me to monitor what they're saying and doing every moment of their day - and I don't need to! Instead, I intentionally foster a community of trust and respect in my classroom. When given the expectations, structures, and supports even 6 year olds can be trusted to stay focused on the task at hand and to take responsibility for their learning.

Instead of trying to micro-manage, track and control every moment of educators' professional development, we should shift our emphasis to creating a culture of trust. If we create the opportunities and structures for educators to improve their practice, we must trust that they will, in fact, act as professionals and pursue their own development. Accountability can play a part, of course, but "seat time" alone should not be used as an indicator of professional learning. Instead, we need to look at other ways to track and evaluate educator PD through competency based learning opportunities and aligned accountability systems.

As educators, it is critical that we value and respect our students' unique experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives. In DPS, two indicators of our teacher evaluation framework are devoted to this very idea. By valuing and respecting each of our students we create a culture of equity and foster a motivational environment in our classrooms.

An important component of quality PD is the ability for educators to share and learn from one another's unique experiences and perspectives. In my work helping with the implementation of personalized learning in my building this year, I've been lucky enough to work closely with many veteran teachers at my school. I can't count the number of times I have overheard talented teachers emphasizing their own "stupidity" or lack of understanding, usually related to a specific new tech tool or style of teaching. Teachers are so accustomed to being told "You need to learn X, Y, Z" that we forget how much of "A-W" we bring to the table already! The sheer body of expertise that exists in each building is an immense resource, just waiting to be tapped.

My students learn best when given opportunities to choose their own path, process and drive their own learning. While I have a set of standards that each student will need to master by the end of the year, I strive to create opportunities for my students to practice and show mastery of these standards in a variety of ways. As my students grow more comfortable with the customizability of our classroom, the ideas for these paths often come from the students themselves. Naturally, I also have a handful of students who are working 1-2 grade levels above or below our first grade standards. I don't force these students to complete work that is far above or below their level, but instead allow them to work on tasks that are "just right" for them.

Allowing for this level of choice and flexibility in my classroom can make things more "messy" for me. I can't sit down and grade 25 multiple choice tests to determine a grade. However, the pros far outweigh the cons. By empowering my students, I am able to foster an environment in which students learn to take initiative, advocate for themselves, ask tough questions, and take ownership of their learning. By stepping to the side and allowing my students to take control, their creativity, passion and commitment can take them to new, previously impossible places.

Naturally, educators are more engaged in their professional development when it it stems from their own questions, ideas, and interests. While there will probably always be a certain (hopefully small) set of mandated, "top-down" required PD, the more we can create opportunities and structures for professionals to have choice in time, place, process and content... the better off we'll be. Educators naturally lean toward professional development that is authentic, applicable, and valuable for their own practice. Instead of attempting to anticipate each and every PD need in the district and mandate requirements that might fill those needs, we need to step aside and allow the professionals to work out their next steps and needs, then build our school and district support around those ideas.

This shift in PD is not simple, quick, or without complications. However, the challenge is well worth the effort. By sharing and working together, we can advocate for ourselves to ensure professional learning opportunities are authentic, applicable and beneficial to our work with the most important people in the world: our kids.

If you're interested in personalized professional development, please join the conversations in the edcamp Denver and Blendtastic Bombastic communities on Google+!

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