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by Luke Zeller
Last month, I attended the first general meeting for Teachers Lead Philly. Teachers from across the city gathered after teaching all day to talk about what teacher leadership and development should look like if we were given the chance to say something about it. We certainly had voices and perspectives to share about our profession.
Our meeting was centered on an article by education professors Susan Lytle and Bob Fecho called “Meeting Strangers in Familiar Places: Teacher Collaboration by Cross Visitation,” which discusses a program designed to alleviate teacher isolation and promote collegial learning. In this program, pairs of teachers are allowed to visit one another's classrooms to build long-term reciprocal relationships. We used the article as a theoretical foundation to discuss our own views on what teacher-led professional development should look like.
The article was written in 1991, yet we empathized with its descriptions of the isolation that teachers feel in their classrooms. Still, today, it feels like we are each on our own teacher islands, professionally removed from one another. (Meanwhile, other countries have more regular opportunities for teachers to meet.)
We agreed that an authentic commitment to cross-visitation within our own schools and school district could lead to the meaningful and rich professional development that is so crucial for successful schools and school systems. Our world is not static, and we recognize that teachers today need to be dynamic, life-long learners; therefore, we need the type of professional development that will promote self-critical inquiry into our own teaching practice. We need to be proactively involved with our own professional development by reflecting on and generating knowledge about our practice so that our teaching never devolves into a static transfer of information.
Much of the professional development we are put through tends to be centered on transferring technical teaching skills. Professional development in these contexts puts me in a passive position of listening to yet another expert on how I should be teaching my students at my school. There was general consensus that much of the professional development we are subjected to does little to transform our practice in meaningful ways.
In contrast, authentic teacher collaboration through a system of cross-visitation would put us in an active position to think about our practice by sharing and discussing our teaching with others.
During our meeting, I sat in a discussion group that focused on the implications that teacher-led cross-visitation would have for school district policy. One of the concerns in our group was the amount of busy work that we already felt swamped with. Our half-hour lunches and 45-minute preps each day are already taken up by making photocopies, making phone calls to parents, planning lessons, grading, meeting informally with students, etc. How would we find time to visit each other’s classrooms?
For policy, this is a serious issue. If we believe that high-quality teacher-led professional development could have a significant and positive impact on our schools, then we need to give it that respect with the time to do it well.
Would it be possible to give teachers during a “Professional Development Year” an extra prep, for the year or even just one semester? Are there creative ways to distribute prep time so that teachers can truly focus on their professional development instead of filling out some paperwork to meet a requirement? When we are teaching five classes and are responsible for 150 students, it is very difficult to find extra time. If, however, we were given that time to proactively engage in our own professional development, I believe teachers would look forward to their opportunity to grow. I know that I would.
Luke Zeller teaches English at Frankford High School. He is interested in promoting student learning through inquiry. You can contact him via Twitter.
A version of this article appeared on the Teachers Lead Philly website.