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Commentary: Teachers should lead professional development, not researchers

By thenotebook on Oct 25, 2012 12:15 PM

This is a guest blog, and the ideas expressed are solely the opinions of the author. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Send submissions to notebook@thenotebook.org.

by Julio Núñez

If we want to get serious about improving academic outcomes, we must do away with the misconception that researchers and consultants are the experts in the classroom. They observe teachers and students for minutes at a time. At best, they walk away with mere snapshots of a choreographed reality.

Those who spend the bulk of their time in controlled quarters can easily account for any change or deviation from a theory. But the lab or ivory tower is not the classroom - isolating any given variable is virtually impossible. Despite the best intentions of these professionals to brainstorm ideas for effective practices, their disconnect from everyday teaching challenges has many unintended consequences.

Ask a teacher what he or she would change about the profession. You might hear the following as the top three items: parental involvement, adequate resources, and relevant professional development.

Teachers, like everyone, are limited in what they can do. They could reach out to parents, sure. Yet it’s up to parents to return phone calls, to respond to letters, to show up to conferences. Teachers could employ their classroom resources more creatively, but creativity only goes so far if materials are nonexistent. Educators could maintain a positive outlook, reassuring themselves that those 60 minutes spent listening to a so-called expert proclaiming how easy teaching is, if only teachers would follow his suggestions, have not been a complete waste of time, but rather a recess from their daily obligations. Nonetheless, professional development is the area in which teachers could become agents of change.

So, what to do? Dissent, as in a democracy, benefits our schools. Teachers need to push back against senseless policies or irrelevant training. It is an ethical, moral, and professional obligation of educators to agree with effective practices. But it is also their duty to disagree with ineffectual practices and exert pressure to remove them.

Professional development is an area in which teachers can become leaders and reclaim their profession as their own (not as someone’s social experiment or ATM). They should model their training with the word collaboration as their base, and embrace only the best ideas, the way practitioners in medicine and science do. Best classroom practices are those that have been tested time and again by different cohorts of students. The best promoters of these practices happen to be teachers who implement them daily and tweak them until they’ve mastered them.

It is true that there is no silver bullet for fixing systemic problems. But it is also true that revamping professional development and shifting the focus away from researchers and toward practitioners is worth trying. The current model is not working. If teachers want to do away with their weaknesses, they have no choice but to explore and exploit the strengths of their colleagues.

This strand of our education system can change when teachers decide it is time.

Julio C. Núñez studied public policy at Georgetown University and is currently a teacher in Philadelphia.

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Comments (19)

Submitted by Brian Cohen (not verified) on October 25, 2012 1:42 pm
I completely agree with the concept of teachers being in control of their professional development. I am glad that the School District still has a policy in place for Observation Days (Policy #308-2.8 in case you are curious). Additionally, I think it behooves us to seek out new opportunities to create learning spaces. A colleague and I just started the Reflective Teachers Network, a group of educators from across the city (private, public, parochial, charter, etc) to just talk about issues affecting US. There are no researchers there and we provide suggestions from our own expertise (if you are interested in joining in, just contact me). That being said, I do think there is a reason and purpose for research - we need to know general trends and how to apply those trends in the classroom. Reading books about adolescent development, brain chemistry, and the like can be very useful. But, if I have to sit through another webinar and/or powerpoint lecture, I may scream.
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Submitted by Start Making Money Today (not verified) on February 14, 2013 2:51 pm
I like reading an article that will make people think. Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!
Submitted by Gamal Sherif on October 25, 2012 3:06 pm
Julio and Brian are speaking our language! Scope out Teachers Lead Philly (http://www.teachersleadphilly.org) for more information on how teachers can work together to influence the policies that directly influence curriculum, instruction and assessment. No worthwhile reform will take place unless teachers are leading and influencing the policy. Yet teachers are heavily stressed with high teacher:student ratios, inflexible school schedules, or PD that is not aligned with their professional interests or the needs of their students. The divestment in public education and the vilification of the professionals who work with children has got to stop. We could go on, but we also need teacher-driven solutions. Teachers Lead Philly is addressing this by cultivating a city-wide network, supporting peer observations (*see link below), sharing readings, and meeting in person and virtually. Our next get-together in Thu, Nov 15 and we're facilitating peer observation all year long. Looking forward to meeting you, Julio! * See the District's Professional Growth Guidelines, Policy 308, Section 2.8. for the policy. http://www.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/administration/policies/308.html As for TPERS, the code should be F-17 for "Observation."
Submitted by History Teacher (not verified) on October 25, 2012 3:47 pm
The problem especially with PD in the district is that it is scripted, usually irrelevant unless you're a brand new teacher, and is led by people who either don't know their info, or a teacher in house who was such a bad teacher, they took them out of the classroom and gave them the PD job. The only PD's I look forward to are the one's not run by the district. The ones that are content specific, led along the lines of-here's some info to increase your knowledge and here are some strategies to use to deliver it to your students.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 25, 2012 3:49 pm
I am not trying to hijack this post, but I think this is a great article to let everyone know about my MY science cohort. I am looking to start a cohort of about 8-10 (if not, even less) middle school science teachers this summer to do our own PD work to create a bank of successful, interactive, engaging labs and lessons to use in the classroom. There are very few PDs for MY sciences and if you teach both 7th and 8th grade, like I do, you are responsible for being an expert in 6 different fields. I would like to get people together who are interested in helping to improve the experience in MY science classrooms across the district. Please just leave a comment so I can justify leaving my email on the discussion board here if you are interested in being a part of this. This will require a decent amount of work over the summer, but you will leave with a number of engaging units and labs to keep your students looking for more. I have the full support of professors and staff at Drexel University and will be seeking grant funding from the NSF for this teacher-led, teacher-driven PD
Submitted by rtp (not verified) on October 28, 2012 8:25 pm
I don't know what my plans are for the summer yet, but I have labs I do with my 8th graders that I would be willing to share. You can reach me at rtpenning@philasd.org.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 29, 2012 9:09 am
If you decide you are interested, you can also email me at phillymysciencecohort@gmail.com. I have a couple interested folks but would love to add four to five more
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 25, 2012 4:51 pm
I just want to let you all know that I absolutely believe all of you are on the right track and that I encourage you all to speak up and begin new teacher led initiatives. I attend many of the meetings of the new teacher led organizations and I am absolutely impressed with what I see and the knowledge that you possess. I also encourage you do some of your own school based research projects and report your results in publications such as Rethinking Schools and the Notebook. As to reading professionally sound research studies which are actually scholarly works, I believe, as professionals that you are, you have a professional responsibility to read and keep up with the leading research in your field. This is all part of what I call 'the Reprofessionalization of Teaching." it very heartening.
Submitted by Kathleen Melville (not verified) on October 25, 2012 6:11 pm
Thanks Julio! My best professional learning experiences were all facilitated by fellow teachers. Recently, I visited the classrooms of some of my colleagues and was not surprised to find ideas I can apply in my classroom immediately as well as inspirations to improve my practice over the long term. I blogged about it on the Teachers Lead Philly website (http://teachersleadphilly.org/blog.html) and am encouraging my colleagues to do the same. Another reason to network and collaborate is that it keeps us engaged and connected as professionals. So many teachers leave the profession before their 5th year, but I'm learning that the 5th year is when things really start getting good! My confidence in my practice, my deepening knowledge of my students and context, my connections with colleagues and community organizations are all interacting to make my work incredibly rich and rewarding.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 26, 2012 4:24 pm

Well argued, Julio.   

Submitted by Larissa Pahomov (not verified) on October 29, 2012 5:13 pm
For educators looking for quality professional development outside of their home buildings, a great resource in Philadelphia is Teacher Action Group's Inquiry to Action Groups, aka ItAGs: http://www.tagphilly.org/projects/itags/ ItAGs bring together educators from around the city to discuss and study topics related to social justice in education, and then create an action connected to what they learned. They are an opportunity for educators to come together in a meaningful professional development setting, and to build community with others who are also concerned with how education and social justice intersect. ItAGs will take place this year over a six to eight week period in February and March. The format is totally open to what interested educators wish to propose. Topics last year included Gender in the Classroom, Bilingual Education, and Restorative Justice. To get on board with Teacher Action Group, contact us at TAGPhilly@gmail.com. As for PD in schools, I know it depends a great deal on the wishes and whims of the administration of that building. I am fortunate to work in a setting where teachers have a great deal of autonomy in planning our PD, and I described some of that in a recent blog post: http://lpahomov.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/staff-planning-or-how-we-build-...
Submitted by Marc brasof (not verified) on November 2, 2012 3:05 pm
It's interesting to read this because I have the opportunity to both teach and now reflect on that work through research. I truly have strengthened my pedagogy as a result at looking at research on policy, pedagogy, ethics, organizational leadership etc... In no way is the current professional development practiced in the district the route to professional and school growth. Until teachers and administrators are given the adequate time to reflect, research, discuss, implement new ideas and monitor them, very little growth that can address the systemic issues educators do have control will happen. I have read hundreds of studies regarding professional and organizational growth and they all point back to these issues. Furthermore, without objective scholarship and observation s truly reporting on what is happening in classrooms then how can we ever see our practices. What we think is happening versus what may be actually happening may be two different things. I am working on scholarship that illustrates the efficacy of student voice to help overcome these issues.
Submitted by Marc brasof (not verified) on November 2, 2012 3:24 pm
It's interesting to read this because I have the opportunity to both teach and now reflect on that work through research. I truly have strengthened my pedagogy as a result at looking at research on policy, pedagogy, ethics, organizational leadership etc... In no way is the current professional development practiced in the district the route to professional and school growth. Until teachers and administrators are given the adequate time to reflect, research, discuss, implement new ideas and monitor them, very little growth that can address the systemic issues educators do have control will happen. I have read hundreds of studies regarding professional and organizational growth and they all point back to these issues. Furthermore, without objective scholarship and observation s truly reporting on what is happening in classrooms then how can we ever see our practices. What we think is happening versus what may be actually happening may be two different things. I am working on scholarship that illustrates the efficacy of student voice to help overcome these issues.
Submitted by Marc brasof (not verified) on November 2, 2012 3:09 pm
It's interesting to read this because I have the opportunity to both teach and now reflect on that work through research. I truly have strengthened my pedagogy as a result at looking at research on policy, pedagogy, ethics, organizational leadership etc... In no way is the current professional development practiced in the district the route to professional and school growth. Until teachers and administrators are given the adequate time to reflect, research, discuss, implement new ideas and monitor them, very little growth that can address the systemic issues educators do have control will happen. I have read hundreds of studies regarding professional and organizational growth and they all point back to these issues. Furthermore, without objective scholarship and observation s truly reporting on what is happening in classrooms then how can we ever see our practices. What we think is happening versus what may be actually happening may be two different things. I am working on scholarship that illustrates the efficacy of student voice to help overcome some of these issues.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on November 2, 2012 4:38 pm
What do you mean by "objective scholarship and observation?" Why do you assume teachers can't look at our own practice "objectively?" An outside researcher / professor has no idea of the inner workings of a class that they "visit" - even if over an extended period of time. Far too many "researchers" spend too little time in the classroom to be objective or even helpful. Just like principals should have to put in at least 10 - 15 years of continuous teaching (not "leadership" and teaching on the side) before they evaluate teachers, researchers should do the same.
Submitted by Marc Brasof (not verified) on November 2, 2012 5:55 pm
By objective, I mean another set of well trained eyes. Being objective takes a lot of training and systematic reflection. A good portion of doctoral training focuses on that. I've learned quite a bit about my own assumptions and others due to such training. There are many operating assumptions happening in the classroom that one can have a hard time seeing without someone else/theory to help reflect with. Unfortunately, that is supposed to be the role of a principal and/or colleagues but that is not always helpful due to the same trappings. Sometimes it does work. I don't assume teachers can't do this, it is that much research shows that professionals operating in their own contexts have a hard time recognizing their own contexts. Research can help illuminate these factors and thus aide in reflection. This article dismisses research and I think that is a bit problematic (although I do agree with argument that district PD is not real PD). And, there is high and not-so quality research. Research in which someone spends a long period of time in a classroom tends to be useful as does research that looks at multi-site trends. This is work that teachers do not have the time to do but can benefit from by reading/participating in it. Part of the good research I have read should include, and usually does, teacher voice. And, researchers can get at the inner workings of a class, it just takes time. Sometimes, researchers can help expose issues that students are not willing or have discussed with their teachers.
Submitted by Marc brasof (not verified) on November 2, 2012 5:06 pm
But, I hear you, I think one would be hard pressed to find objective research. I'm not sure if objectivity in its purest form even exists. But, we can try and certainly one struggles to do this on ones own.
Submitted by ArtSeesDiner (not verified) on November 28, 2012 2:50 pm
I completely agree with you Julio. I have been a huge proponent of this for years. Having been on the front line, a professional on many levels and now I have the desire to begin sharing what my experience has taught me along with 2 Masters Degrees and 15+ grad hours. The last thing I can afford right now is to go back into the classroom. I have been a learner since 1995 and I am ready to be the teacher of teachers. I am hearing constantly that I need a Phd., in order to do that. Most of the programs that I have looked into are requiring extensive training in areas that I already have advance training in. I already wrote a Senior Thesis and a Masters thesis. I want to do the solid research now to justify what I believe is transformational. I was looking into grants, hoping that maybe I could pull together my team of experts, adopt a hard hit school and go to work on my research, but, every grant that I looked into requires the person applying to have a Phd., and affiliation with a University! It is more of the same. There are many like me that want to make a change, but, they keep on relegating us to the back of the line, while the Phd's keep on publishing on our backs so it seems.

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