I began this program curious as to how to motivate adults to take part as active and engaged stakeholders in continuous improvement, and intimidated by the idea of working as a leader of adults, as I have limited experience with this and am younger than most of my colleagues. At the beginning of the EDU 6600: Communication and Collaboration course I reflected
I am curious to see how professional learning can be pursued through a social justice lens in this class this Quarter, as is mentioned in the article “Building Hope, Giving Affirmation” by Stephanie Hirsh and Shirley M. Hord. I do feel like social justice issues have been raised by our administration, and this year, we were encouraged to work in our PLCs to design units of work that would be accessible to low income students and our African American and Latino students. Unfortunately, we were given little time and no guidance/resources for how to do this, and so teachers more focused on designing collaborative units of work more than units designed to support specific populations of students within the school.
Now, at the end of the course my interests and learning have come full circle. I worked on a plan to leverage Teacher Experts at my school in order to close the achievement gap between African American and Hispanic students and their peers (see project link here: collaboration-and-communication-project-proposal).
In EDAD 6589: Engaging Communities, I learned that involvement means doing to as opposed to engagement which means doing with. In this way, most schools involve parents and families through email, parent-teacher nights and/or curriculum nights, sports events, automatic caller systems, and mailing home school-related information. However, this is a one-way system where families and communities are the recipients of school information, but are not active contributors who have the power to shape the school culture or processes. As school leaders, we have a responsibility to not only involve families and communities, but to engage them in meaningful ways, to invite them and encourage them to be a part of the process where their voices are heard and considered and school-related decisions are made with them, not for them. (Ferlazzo, 2011)
I have come to learn that family engagement is critical for improving student achievement and is more than simply involving families. Involvement is making decisions for a group based on perceived needs, whereas engagement is making decisions with a group, based on real needs. As referenced in Washington State Leadership Standard Four, in order to consider needs of all stakeholders in our schools, we must establish a fluid feedback loop between families, students, staff and school leaders. This takes added creativity and effort when considering the needs of diverse groups, but is essential as we must recognize that as a school we are an integral part of a larger community, and by addressing the needs of our diverse student and family populations we are also enriching the school environment for our students and staff and modeling for our students how to function in a democracy made of diverse needs. I was able to put this into practice and design a theoretical Community Engagement Product (CEP).
I believe the first and foremost element in collaborating with parents regarding their student’s achievement is to make sure families feel welcomed and confident in communicating with school staff from the very beginning. This means educating families and designing family outreach and education programs that provide families with the resources to understand the culture of engagement at the school, understand school and district policies, and understand and believe that they are a true part of the process of their student’s achievement. For example, The American Dream Academy (ADA) is a university outreach program sponsored by Arizona State University that focused on building a bridge to higher education for a traditionally marginalized population of elementary and secondary school students in metropolitan Phoenix. (Pstross, et. al, 2014) It has trained parents to take a leadership role in the program as workshop facilitators and mentors and focused on teaching participant families how to be advocates and supporters of their children’s educational journey. A smaller version modeled after this program could be effective in schools to more actively engage families in their students’ education and have a positive impact on student learning. Investment in translation services and translation of important school documents for all languages spoken in our district would be key in order open lines of communication and make families feel welcomed and respected. Focus groups and listening sessions are other powerful strategies for eliciting and working to incorporate community voice. Inviting parents into the classroom to share skills, knowledge or expertise, engaging families from diverse backgrounds in community outreach, and by practicing and educating families on restorative justice disciplinary practices schools can make clear that family partnerships are key to student success.
According to Zepeda’s Adult Learning Theory, “adult learning should be built on ownership, appropriateness, structure, collaboration, internalizaton, reflection, and motivation.” (p.47) Throughout the course I learned various strategies that can be implemented within the school setting to engage staff in professional development that responds to how adults learn including: embedding professional development within the job, giving teachers choice over what professional development (PD) they need and how they would like to learn and thus giving teachers ownership and making sure PD is appropriate for the teacher’s level of knowledge and expertise, making sure PD applies directly to the job, and engaging teachers in leadership opportunities throughout the school, including the opportunity to share their learning with others. (Zepeda, p.59) I agree that all these factors play integral roles in adult learning, however I believe that ownership and motivation, two qualities that are closely intertwined, are some of the most powerful but also the most frequently overlooked and under appreciated by politicians passing educational policy, and even by many district and school administrators. Possible strategies for engaging teachers in this process include:
- Learning Communities (PLCs)
- Job-embedded professional learning
- Professional Coaching
- Book studies, teacher study groups
- Whole faculty study groups
- Action Research
One piece of learning that I found particularly helpful in this EDU 6600 was the Principal Interview (Link here: principal-interview). After reflecting on the importance of leveraging teachers as key participants in their own professional development, I was dismayed and disappointed to realize that my principal and admin team did not employ many strategies to elicit teacher voice or engagement in the professional development process. Through this interview I learned that the process to decide whole staff development focus was often district driven, but that the admin team got together in the summer of each year to decide what the focus would be. Teachers are not consulted, nor a part of this process. The only teacher voice in professional development at our school seems to come from two sources:
- Teacher-initiated professional development: a teacher or whole staff request a particular training that the school funds.
- JAT (Juanita Administration Team) made up of Teacher Leaders (department chairs) in addition to the principal and three assistant principals: This team does give feedback to the Admin Team regarding professional development, but are not party to designing the development experiences.
For some reason unknown to me, the admin team does not seem to prioritize teacher voice in the planning of professional development. More so, according to my Principal, the team relies on their one-on-one conversations with teachers, classroom observations, and district focus to determine the direction of professional development for the year, and yes, the focus is different year to year.
Very importantly, leaders should promote teachers sharing expertise the wide range of experiences that teachers bring with them. This can be done in many ways, such as asking teachers who are exceptional in one area or another to lead break-out sessions on their areas of expertise during LEAP days (professional development days). (See link: cstp-fillingleadershipvac) In addition to this, school administrators and leaders need to frame the evaluation process as an opportunity for the principal or evaluator to ask questions, for the teacher to be reflective on his/her practice, and for administrator and teacher to engage in talk about growth opportunities and how the evaluator can help facilitate this growth (provide necessary resources, for example). If the administrator makes professional development and continued growth a priority in this evaluation disucussion, then possibly the evaluation system can be a vehicle for growth, instead of a high-stakes farce.
“If schoolwide changes about attitudes and expectations are a desired outcome, then settings that convene the entire staff for hard conversations and facilitated dialogue may be necessary first steps.” (Hirsh & Hord) The article “Building Hope, Giving Affirmation” discusses the need to support a schoolwide learning process where teachers work in teams (PLCs) to set professional learning goals, are then supported by receiving training in required/desired areas to help them build knowledge and skills that can change pedagogy or deepen content knowledge, and then bring these new ideas and skills back to their PLCs to being cycles of inquiry and data analysis to further work towards the goal. I agree this is an ideal situation, one that I would very much like to participate in. (See link here: building-hope-giving-affirmation-hirsch-and-hord)
However, in my experience, although there are regular, notable successes in collaboration and team learning, implementation of this process has often been imperfect and frustrating for a variety of reasons. My main concern coming from my professional experiences, is that there rarely, if ever, is time given to having the hard and meaningful conversations that have to happen to cause real change in individual attitudes and philosophies regarding best practice, students’ needs, assessment, and collaboration. As Hirsh & Hord mention, “while we can start with changing behaviors, if we don’t modify beliefs about our children’s needs and what is truly required to provide them social justice, we will make changes at the superficial level and will not initiate nor sustain true and lasting change (Guerra & Nelson, 2009).”
At my school over the last two years, school administrators have been pushing us to think about our practice through a social justice lens. Last year we began talking about race, culture, and our diversifying school. We began to discuss bias and how we can or should address the needs of a multicultural student body. However, this conversation never progressed past the first two whole staff trainings. We never got to a point where strategies or training was offered to help staff develop their abilities to address needs of diverse students, or to teach multicultural education. Thus, although it was an important conversation to have, I question what change it had on actual teacher practice.
I have learned this year that collaborating with staff in a continuous learning loop is the essential foundation for a school culture open to and focused on continuous improvement. This means that principals and administrators need to re-imagine their roles and give up some leadership power to staff. In doing so, principals can empower their staff and motivate them to continue improving and learning for the betterment of students. Zapeda mentions seven Pathways to Instructional Improvement: Increased knowledge of subject matter, increased knowledge of instruction, increased ability to observe students, stronger collegial networks, stronger connections of daily practice to long term goals, stronger motivation and sense of efficacy, and improved quality of available lesson plans. I believe that as a teacher leader, the most significant challenge when working to increase collaboration at my school would be “staff’s lack of goals and lack of understanding the connectivity required between goals and practice.” (p. 229) This is significant because the teachers I work with are mostly highly experienced, effective practitioners who keep students’ well-being at the center of all they do. I strongly believe that if teachers can connect the impact of their efforts to student impact, they will be willing to invest the time and effort, and building of trust and collaboration, that is necessary to accomplish the goal. Unfortunately, most of the collaboration we do now is mandated, top-down. Most teachers I work with do not see the goal and cannot connect the work we are mandated to do with student impact or improvement. There is thus no buy-in. As a teacher leader or administrator, I would work to get creative to give teachers more time to collaborate. I would then set a clear expectation that increased collaboration, in order to benefit student well-being and performance is the goal. I would provide opportunities for teachers to discuss their values and build a common vision and purpose, and to build trust amongst themselves. Then I would give teachers choices in how they collaborated and with whom. I would give them options such as book studies, lesson studies, PD leadership opportunities, coaching opportunities, PCCs, etc. and teachers would have to choose at least 1 way that they would participate in one of the collaborative communities. Hopefully by giving teachers choice, staff would be able to find personal and professional meaning in the work that directly linked back to their daily work with students.
Ferlazzo, L. (2011). Involvment or Engagement? Educational Leadership, 68(8), 10-14.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.
Hirsh, S., & Hord, S. M. (2010). Building Hope, Giving Affirmation. JSD,31(4), 10-17. Retrieved from http://www.nsdc.org.
Pstross, M., Rodriguez, A., Knopf, R. C., & Paris, C. M. (2014). Empowering Latino Parents to Transform the Education of Their Children. Education and Urban Society,48(7), 650-671. doi:10.1177/0013124514541464
Zepeda, S. (2008). Professional Development: What Works. New York: Eye on Education.