If you're not capitalizing on the expertise of members of your school's teaching team, your staff is missing out on the most effective professional development around. It's professional development tailored to your school's culture and needs. Included: Education World's "Principal Files" team of principals shares their experiences with and enthusiasm for teachers-teaching-teachers PD.
It wasn't very many years ago that all of a school's curriculum expertise was housed in the district's offices. Curriculum coordinators and department heads made the curriculum decisions and passed them down to teachers; then they trained the teachers in new curriculum and strategies.
School principals today are a very different breed from principals of a generation ago. They recognize that every classroom teacher can be an expert, and they are working hard to build "professional learning communities" in which teachers take on leadership responsibilities. Those teachers are sharing their expertise with others by leading professional development sessions, sharing new ideas, and challenging their peers to think in new ways.
"Teachers teaching teachers" is an area that the Whitney Point (New York) Central School District has been working on intensely for a few years. "We call it 'building leadership capacity'," Jeffrey Isaacs told Education World. The district's program provides many opportunities for teachers to step up and play active roles in peer training. "We have teachers leading training workshops and in-service professional development, we have had several book talks, and periodically we devote time during faculty meetings to mini-presentations and sharing ideas and strategies," said Isaacs, who is the assistant principal at Whitney Point High School.
"I believe that teachers are the best professional developers," added Tracey Thomas, principal at Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. "Teacher-led professional development fosters accountability, collegiality, professionalism, and pride. Teachers feel appreciated and respected for their contributions and knowledge, and they become confident and more competent in their own teaching practice."
Many school districts see the wisdom of providing a training budget that enables teachers to attend workshops off campus. The value of such investments might have been questioned in the past, but now most teachers who attend outside workshops do so with the knowledge that they will be responsible for sharing what they learn with their peers. In some districts, presenting a workshop as a follow-up to outside training is an option; in others, teachers must present at faculty meetings before a principal can sign off on in-service points.
Principal Charlemeine Zemelko recently sent three language arts teachers to Florida for a three-day reading comprehension workshop. Those teachers returned to school with many reading strategies that they taught all teachers at an in-school workshop. "Now all our teachers use the same methods across the curriculum in every class," said Zemelko, who is principal at Chicago International Charter School.
But that is just one example, added Zemelko. All teachers who attend outside training are responsible for presenting workshops. "Since we have scheduled a half day of professional development each month, that's ten great workshops for curriculum purposes each year."
Principal Roy Sprinkle considers himself fortunate to work in a school district that allows up to 30 hours a year of paid in-service time for each teacher. His staff at Sarasota, Florida's Bay Haven School of Basics Plus elected to return to school a day early this year in order to participate in differentiated-instruction training.
"During the summer we had five teachers from different grade levels volunteer to attend a one-week workshop on differentiated instruction," explained Sprinkle. Those teachers returned from their workshop and began making plans to train the staff.
"When you have well respected peers teaching something they are obviously excited about, it generates excitement throughout the entire staff," said Sprinkle. "They gave a wonderful interactive workshop to kick off our school year. It was the best start to any school year that I have experienced in my 13 years as an administrator."
In Clay County, Florida, professional development is a yearlong focus, but school leaders have set aside six days specifically designed for that purpose. Four of those days are designed as "planning days." Teachers share ideas at district-wide grade-level sessions where they collect information about what is being accomplished at other schools and learn practical strategies that can be used to improve achievement.
The other two days are "in-service days." The district may have particular offerings for which teachers can register, or schools will plan programs for their staffs. For example, at OakLeaf K-8 School the first in-service day of this year will be devoted to training teachers in the use of a new essential-skills software program, principal Larry Davis told Education World.
As principal of an international school, Tracy Berry-Lazo doesn't have access to district- or state-wide resources. "We must rely on in-house expertise," Berry-Lazo told EducationWorld, "and doing so has been invigorating for our faculty. As a result, we have fostered the growth of teacher leaders in many different areas."
Once each month, students at the K-12 American School of Guatemala are released at noon so teachers can attend a variety of workshops offered by colleagues. Berry-Lazo, principal of the school's elementary section (grades 2-5), explained how their professional development days work:
One of the most popular sessions is a "Sharing Session" in which K-12 teachers meet by academic department -- science, math, and so on -- to discuss and demonstrate best practices they have used. "When we first implemented the sharing sessions, teachers raved about them," said Berry-Lazo. "They expressed that it was so helpful to see and hear specific methods and activities being used in our school. Many teachers took good ideas and custom-fit them to their own styles."
Overall, the school's in-house professional development structure has been very successful, added Berry-Lazo. "Although many might describe an 'expert' as someone who comes from at least 100 miles away, our teachers have learned so much from their colleagues in these sessions. The main reason seems to be that the skills and strategies are based on our school's context and curriculum. An added benefit is that many of the sessions allow for teachers to come together from all areas and levels of the school, which helps solidify our community and our mission."
At Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) Elementary-Middle School, principal Bruce Hudson's staff serves as another example of the potential of in-house professional development. There the staff has created what they call focus groups. Each group chooses an area in which to build their knowledge base and improve their teaching. The three areas of focus last school year were differentiation, peer coaching, and the use of rubrics.
"After studying the areas for the first semester, each group was required to implement their new knowledge in their classroom during the third quarter," explained Hudson. "In the fourth quarter we shared our experiences, good and bad."
Each group was led by an administrator or the school counselor, but eventually the groups became self-perpetuating; different teachers took the lead in the discussions.
"We found this to be a valuable growth and learning experience," added Hudson. "At the end of the year we all agreed that focus groups were a very good tool for encouraging us to grow in a non-threatening way."
One of the newest curriculum thrusts at Turner Middle School in Lithia Springs, Georgia, is its Vocabulary Infusion Initiative. To lead this initiative, principal Carolyn Jean Williams turned to one of the school's retired teachers.
"Although a retired teacher led the training of this initiative, it is the teachers who have developed many of the strategies and materials that are being implemented," added Williams. "During our Thursday staff meetings, teachers share how they are using the various tools and strategies, and occasionally we have make-it-take-it sessions where we create and model the use of materials."
One of the biggest surprises has been the ideas that have come from unlikely sources. The school's "Connections team" -- which includes teachers of art, music, p.e., drama, study skills, print media, and other areas -- was the group that seemed least enthused about this initiative at the start. "Somewhere in the first few months they became the most participatory of all groups," said Williams. "They led some of the best sessions and shared ideas, projects, and strategies that were the most innovative, differentiated, and multisensorial.
"As I conduct walkthroughs of our school, I see the strategies in action at their best," said Williams, adding, "I believe our gain in reading scores this past year has a lot to do with the efforts our teachers made with this initiative."
There are many other opportunities for teacher-experts to surface at Turner Middle:
Williams points out that her entire county is committed to the "teachers teaching teachers" process in systemic ways. Four teachers at Turner Middle serve as Learning-Focused School (LFS) trainers, and a handful of Turner teachers serve as Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) trainers; they meet with their peers across the system, then as a school team, to help train their Turner colleagues in the performance standards.
Collaboration time for teachers is set aside at South Western High School in Hanover, Pennsylvania, too. The staff meets first thing every morning. As they meet, issues arise, said principal Walter Graves. And as issues arise, committees are formed. And out of those committees come exciting changes.
"Within those committees there is a sense of teamwork," Graves observed, "There is not just one leader in the groups. Everyone has a sense of ownership and willingly contributes to the discussions and planning in order to reach common goals."
Graves explained how one such discussion resulted in a change that has benefited the entire school community
"Since we are on a block schedule, and since our enrollment is growing, we wanted to ensure that every student had the opportunity to develop a positive relationship with at least one adult in our school," Graves explained. The result was that a committee was formed to explore ways to accomplish that goal and an advisory period was established.
"Our advisory period is the last 40 minutes of the school day and is designed to ensure that every student has contact with the same teacher every day, every year during their entire high school experience," Graves told Education World.
The school's advisory period committee comprises at least one representative from each department, and they meet at least once a month to plan ways in which teacher-advisors can develop strong positive relationships with students. The committee decides what the monthly theme is to be -- character building or relationship development, for example -- and they research and provide fun group-activity ideas for teacher-advisors to use.
"Our parents are grateful for the advisory time. It provides parents with a constant point of contact with a professional who actually knows their child," added Graves.
In Whitney Point, New York, an approach called "Teacher Rounds" has been working successfully for several years. Assistant principal Jeffrey Isaacs explains that with this approach, "a lead teacher or co-teachers plan a lesson utilizing an identified instructional strategy and a team of teachers sits in to observe. Immediately after the lesson, everyone sits together to critique, discuss, and reflect on it.
"I believe this is very effective because it is hands-on professional development; because everyone is focused on student learning and lesson presentation; and, most of all, because the learning is facilitated by one of our own credible staff members."
The "teachers observing teachers" approach is used in other ways too. For example, the school's Literacy Team identified areas of student weaknesses based on data obtained from their state assessments and put together strategies to improve teaching and learning in those areas.
"The approaches are shared at faculty meetings and then demonstrated in classrooms of teachers who request the extra experience or assistance," Isaacs told EducationWorld.
All in all, he added, teachers-observing-teachers professional development has been a win-win for the district.
Some flexible scheduling and release time might be necessary for this professional development to be employed, said Isaacs, adding that his district totally supports and embraces initiatives such as these.
When it comes to being able to cover teachers' classes while they observe others in action, most principals agree that if there is a will there is a way. Often this kind of observation means taking a teacher from his or her class for just an hour or two. Principals are often willing to cover a class for that time. Assigning paraprofessionals to cover classes is another alternative. At OakLeaf K-8 in Middleburg, Florida, "our ISS (In-School Support) facilitator, our reading coach, or one of our guidance counselors will often cover a class so teachers can observe other teachers utilizing best teaching practices," said principal Larry Davis.
At Turner Middle School, every day is professional development day, but there is a special emphasis on Thursdays. Each team has an 80-minute planning meeting scheduled that day. "Grade level teams meet during the planning period to learn new strategies and knowledge, discuss a book they may be reading together, share ideas that they have taken back to their classroom to try, or examine student work they have brought back to the group," said principal Jean Williams.
In addition, Turner's teachers lead team- or school-wide training sessions, do focused walks through the school, or participate in school visits to other schools to observe best practices.
Principal Walter Graves says his district -- Hanover, Pennsylvania -- is very proactive when it comes to providing time for professional development. They are always willing to try new ideas, said Graves, who is principal at the district's South Western High School.
Graves reports that one of the newest initiatives has worked out very well: "Our teachers now have 'collaboration time' set aside each morning before students arrive. Implementing this valuable time took the cooperation of everyone in our community since the beginning and ending time of our elementary and secondary schools had to switch. That change was initiated by our elementary-level teachers, who wanted more time with students. After many planning meetings and discussions with various groups throughout our district, it was decided to start the elementary day before the secondary day. As we enter our second year with the new schedule, the feedback from our students (who get to sleep in a little), the staff, and the parents has been positive."
At Weatherly Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, creative scheduling enables each grade to have a 2-1/2 hour block of collaborative planning and staff development time twice each month. "Our system has no built in time for this, and frequently teams have not had any time except after school, but we felt desperately the need for collaboration time so we are doing some things differently this year with our reading block," principal Teri Stokes told Education World.
"During the collaboration meetings, the reading coach does a brief mini workshop on a specific reading strategy," explained Stokes. "The strategy she addresses is based on each team's request. The team shares with each other things they have done to address that strategy. They share things that have gone well or need improvement, and they get feedback from their team."
When a community comes together in such a way that teachers respect and trust each other enough to see themselves as teachers of teachers and as learners at the hands of other teachers, they are able to create an atmosphere where anything is possible.
"I believe the 'teachers teaching teachers' strategy to be most effective when we have people on campus who are strong in an area and who are respected by others for what they do," said principal Jean Williams. The result is a model that helps all teachers grow in many ways.
"We are a work in progress," added Williams. "We are learning and changing our plan as we grow. The entire staff is learning how to analyze and use data, create and share data walls, and monitor student engagement and achievement."
And they are learning the truth behind their school motto: Together Everyone Achieves More.
Walter Graves has that same sense of excitement about his school. He says the teamwork he senses at South Western High is a reflection of a system-wide commitment to developing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).
"As our principals have let teachers assume leadership roles within each building, those teachers have become comfortable interacting and instructing with their colleagues," Graves told Education World. "There have been tremendous discussions that have improved teaching and student learning. It has been exciting to see our teachers 'step up' and enthusiastically present information to their committees and departments or our entire faculty.
"I am very proud of our staff because of their willingness to do whatever is necessary to benefit all 1,300 individual students. We have developed the motto No Student Is Anonymous, and we frequently remind ourselves that it takes just one caring adult to make the difference in a child's life.
"Our staff is professional and student-centered in all they do. They are truly making a difference."