Adult learning is a dynamic and underappreciated process that often leads to difficulties in negotiating continued education and professional development in the workplace. That is particularly true for educators. The need to remain knowledgeable about current trends in classroom strategy, management, and research is integral to remaining viable in a challenging, and often overwhelming, environment.
This article will examine the process of encouraging continued education through the development of a learning community. The steps presented below are based on the premise that by creating an environment that appreciates the importance of continued education, and embraces a value system based on mutuality and collaborative growth, we can create within staff what we strive to create within students -- a feeling of pride and commitment to their identity as lifelong learners.
The process of creating a learning community in your school system involves a step-wise, top-down process that recognizes that professional development programs need to combine an element of self-directedness, as well as connect to the collective (i.e., school) environment.
Based on our experiences in program development, we have developed a practical 3-step guide. Those steps are:
The creation of a learning community should be a top-down initiative, meaning it should begin with the administration and filter down through the school. That is an integral step, because if school leadership does not believe wholeheartedly in creating a learning and professional development program, it is unlikely the program will be accepted by the people most affected by its creation.
By supporting the creation of a community-based learning program, school leadership must be prepared to transmit a series of new messages to the staff. The first message implicit in this sort of initiative must be that learning is a lifelong process that does not end with the completion of ones training as a teacher. For most, completing a college or graduate degree is seen as an endpoint, when, in fact, it is another milestone to be built upon.
The second message implicit in the creation of a community-based learning program is that of trust and responsibility. By creating a program of this nature, school leadership is charging each person in the school community with the responsibility of helping to educate one another. By doing so, leadership is empowering staff to find their own voice and to disseminate information to one another.
The third message implicit in the creation of a community-based learning initiative is that of ownership. By trusting the staff, school leadership is providing them with the emotional and physical space necessary to develop their own theories and strategies. That is a crucial element in the growth and development of a professional teacher. Ownership of ideas and practices provides a sense of accomplishment, achievement, and contribution to the larger group.
Although an active leadership is considered the first step toward encouraging a learning community for school staff, implementation of any change in culture is a difficult task. These messages are largely intangible motivators -- ones we cannot see or touch. More tangible motivation is a necessary consideration in relation to continued adult education.
All organizational change and development relies heavily on how easily the new idea is accepted by all involved. This is commonly referred to as buy-in. For educators, many factors impede their ability and desire to focus on personal and professional growth opportunities, because those opportunities require time. The simple fact is that time is a commodity in the classroom; there is never enough. Therefore, as time becomes more scarce, the motivation to engage in educational workshops, trainings, and discussions decreases rapidly.
Establishing an initiative to transform the way in which schools encourage professional growth by moving from isolated training to training that reflects directly and positively on classroom practice can be (in and of itself) a compelling incentive for faculty. In other words, the creation of a learning community directly implies that the school organization is invested in its staff. Hopefully, that will act as a catalyst, or a boost for educators ability to motivate themselves to engage in -- and contribute to -- the learning community.
The major complaint when educators attend professional development programs is often, that was great, but how am I ever going to apply it to my classroom? That question reflects the issue of applicability and the answer is quite simple: The true value of developing a learning community comes from its ability to provide a structured opportunity to evolve and grow skill sets. Through establishing a learning community -- a safe space for staff to experiment and challenge their assumptions -- leadership can provide room for hands-on learning to take place.
A model of how to establish an ongoing professional development program within your school is provided in Part 2 of this article.
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