Developing a Whole School Professional Learning Culture vs Accrediting Teachers

I am currently relieving as a Teacher Quality Advisor in Learning and Leadership which is part of Educational Services for the NSW DEC. This is my 2nd term of relieving in this position.  One which is new to the DEC. When I started, no one could tell me exactly what the role would be.  What they could tell me was it was very different to the role of consultant in the past. I would not have a bag of courses or workshops to offer to schools. I would, instead, respond to what schools needed.Teacher Quality Advisor Wordle This has been revised to include providing schools with professional learning and advice about the things they don’t yet know they need.  It’s a good thing I’m comfortable with the unknown and change.

To help me to begin to understand what the role involved, I put the job description into Wordle and this is what it came up with.  The big ticket items are professional, teacher, quality and accreditation.  I liked that.

Initially the nuts and bolts of what I did was organise early literacy and numeracy program professional learning using a whole dictionary of acronyms that were completely foreign to me as a high school science teacher. TOWN, TEN, NFoR, PLAN, L3 EA4S.  I am now the acronym Queen.

Once these programs were in place accreditation took over and suddenly became my main focus. Principals wanted to know about future changes including becoming the Teacher Accreditation Authority and teachers just wanted to know what to do and how to do it in order to become accredited or maintain their accreditation.  I was becoming bogged down in the policies and procedures of accreditation. This bothered me a lot. My job title was Teacher QUALITY Advisor. My gut was telling me that immersion in accreditation processes was doing little in the bigger picture of teacher quality. I think that professional standards are necessary in defining what a quality teacher is but the compliance model of accreditation did not sit well with me as a means for achieving this.

Pasi SahlbergAround this time my Twitter Professional Learning Network threw up the following quote from Pasi Sahlberg (it popped up in my timeline again today).  Whilst I’m hesitant to drop the F-bomb in teacher company, Finland’s approach to helping teachers to be better as opposed to becoming accredited appealed to me.

It was a lightbulb moment for me (sorry to go all Oprah on you). Here I was devoting most of my work time focusing on the standards as they related to accreditation when I should have been focusing on the standards as a means of supporting teachers to develop into quality educators. The whole thing flipped in my head and I chastised myself for not realising it sooner.

So I put my science teacher hat on and using the basics of scientific method set about investigating what was out there. I found schools that were using the standards to support the quality of their teachers rather than just accrediting them. (including the high school I had just come from – hence my frustration at not thinking of it sooner). I set about  making some informal field observations.

I looked at both high schools and primary schools and discovered that schools who were developing a professional learning culture were focused on using the standards to build capacity in their teachers rather than accredit them.  They all had some common key elements:

  • First and foremost, the schools had taken the administrivia out of staff meetings and replaced it with professional learning. They then immersed their staff in the teaching standards.  They took time to do activities and professional learning on what the standards were.  Some schools had structured activities with small groups coming up with examples of what the standards looked at at each level then reporting back to staff and other schools developed understanding through more informal discussions during staff meetings.
  • They developed individual professional learning plans (PLP) for their staff in a supported and consistent way.  After all, we differentiate learning for our students, why not for our teachers. Each school gave their staff time to do this.  They were personal and private and collated by the senior executive.  In an effort to alleviate anxiety around what was expected within this new process, one school released a senior teacher to make time to sit down with every teacher to walk them through the process, emphasising that all plans should only include 2 to 4 items that were not overwhelming and were achievable.
  • Each school had a structure for the review and evaluation of these plans on a regular basis that became part of their school plan.  The review period varied from term, semester and year.
  • The PLPs were used to plan professional learning for teachers either using expertise within the school or bringing in expertise from outside.  Most of the professional learning was similar to the Teach Meet concept – by teachers, for teachers.  One school asked staff to indicate their strengths and if they would be willing to present to staff in these areas. Professional learning was carried out in staff meetings, faculty meetings, during school time and out side of school hours.  One of the most popular in one school were the breakfast sessions.
  • All of these schools thought outside the box developing systems and processes for professional learning.  All threw out previous systems of accessing and disseminating TPL funds in an attempt to reinvigorate professional learning and provide greater access to ALL staff.
  • And finally, at all of these schools accreditation came 2nd.

Being a good science teacher, I had to compare my observations with those in the literature.  So I went to my favourite repository of all things educational, AITSL.  Where I found, The Essential Guide to Professional Learning which confirmed my small sample size observations.

Beyond my surface similarities I liked Senge’s Features of Adaptive and Innovative Learning Culture quoted in the innovation document which included:

  • Interactive decision-making
  • Feedback between monitoring & decisions
  • Change explicitly communicated
  • Risk embraced as way of building understanding
  • Information shared & accessible
  • Learning emphasised & valued
  • Mistakes or failures not punished
  • People expect to learn constantly

When I thought more deeply about what I had seen in this small sample size of schools, it was that these bigger picture things were happening because of the key practical elements that were in place.

When I presented this recently at Lead Meet Sydney many of the emerging school leaders at the event expressed concern that they were not able to make the bigger whole schools decisions necessary for this to happen in their school. However, each of us has some control of small aspects of the school. It is important for those in middle management of schools to seize onto and change the things we have control over and influence what we can.  As things improve, it will get noticed and others will follow. After all, it is important that we support teachers so that all students have access to a quality education.

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