From Inspiration to Implementation: Team Professional Development

Michelle Andron, Esther Markel and Levi Solomon

How many times has this happened in your school:

An administrator or teacher attends an outstanding professional-development workshop and comes back all fired up and excited about what has been learned and eager to bring about change. But when the new ideas are shared, they are met with skepticism and shot down by those who didn’t attend. The attendee provides a strong rationale as to why changes should be made in the existing system, and yet the resistance continues. Even if the attendee is able to win over a colleague or two to attempt something new or rethink some ideas, the change is rarely long-lasting and is felt only in small pockets of the school. Slowly, the attendee’s enthusiasm wanes, until the next PD when the scenario repeats itself anew.

How, then, can meaningful professional development be optimally implemented so that our schools can continue to grow in an innovative, meaningful and more global manner?

We postulate that while professional development is certainly important and valuable for changing individual practices in the classroom, in order to bring about meaningful schoolwide change, a team of colleagues needs to experience the learning together. An even more critical piece is continued coaching following a workshop. In this manner, more stakeholders experience the vision, wrestle with the challenges, and are able to create an environment that supports transformation. In addition, the extended coaching allows the educators to have support throughout the implementation process.

This past summer, the three of us had the opportunity to attend the LEV (Leadership, an Evolving Vision) program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education through the generosity of AVI CHAI. This extraordinary experience gave us the opportunity to reflect on where we were in terms of school culture, student spirit and staff morale and to create a roadmap together as to where we wanted to be. We heard from top experts in the field and collaborated with educators from all over the world. We worked with Harvard faculty and guest lecturers to explore the most effective strategies for building successful schools. The sessions challenged our thinking, gave us focus and direction, and inspired us to envision productive school change.

The program allowed us to rethink our paradigms and reflect together on how we could continue to grow. They key word here is “together.” Our nightly meetings allowed us to discuss ideas we learned and see how we could make them relevant for our own unique reality. Those meetings recharged us even further so that once we returned, we had a vision and a team ready to implement the necessary change.

While the training we received at Harvard helped us shape our vision and reflect on our direction, it was the coaching we received afterwards from Jonathan Cannon, again with AVI CHAI’s support, that helped us stay on track. He met with us as well as the other members of our cohort to support and guide us in our schools. His feedback was critical to our ability to implement the changes we were working towards. He helped us stay focused on a path of growth throughout the year.

The project we undertook from the LEV program was to change school culture. We wanted to create an aura of positivity in our school that could be felt by all of the stakeholders, staff, students and parents alike. We focused on a three-pronged approach: building more school ruach and pride, revamping our discipline policy, and focusing on staff team-building and better collaboration. As we plunged into the school year, we reached back to our experiences at Harvard to fine-tune our approach and techniques both with our staff and with our students. Despite inevitable bumps along the way, our shared experience has enabled us to support each other and stay true to our vision.

Have we been successful? A comparison of surveys administered to staff members before Harvard and a year later indicate that on all fronts there has been tremendous growth and a much greater element of positivity throughout the school. We feel confident that we would not have been able to realize the same degree of growth had only one of the three of us attended. Participating in this conference as a team allowed us to formulate a plan together, work out the kinks in its implementation together, and support each other through the year by staying aligned to the vision we aspired to, thus allowing us to continue to work towards bettering ourselves, our team and our school.

This is not the first time that we have seen this form of professional development work. In the last few years, we have implemented a variety of new programs and methods of teaching, such as Responsive Classroom, blended learning, Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop, Singapore Math, and the L’havin U’lehaskil Chumash curriculum, using a similar model. We start off by piloting the new program with a small group of teachers, sending them to workshops as a team. Once they come back from the training, we bring an outside coach to help with implementing what they have learned.

We believe that this is the crucial piece for ensuring the success of the program. Teachers feel more supported, have an expert to guide them when they hit roadblocks, and stay accountable for the goals they have set. If we find that the program has been successful, then we continue to send teams to get training, and we either retain the outside coaching or find experienced teachers to serve as in-house coaches for those starting on the path. By tracking student achievement through our normed-testing data, we have evidence that the teachers have been successful with implementing these new programs.

As day school educators, we are constantly pursuing courses and conferences that will help us grow, enrich our toolset, and maximize the impact we make in the lives of our students. As you seek out opportunities for professional development, boost the outcome for your institution. Send a team of like-minded educators who can bring back what they’ve learned in a manner that will inspire others and bring about a comprehensive change to your school. Ensure the success of the PD you are looking to implement by providing support and coaching as your educators make their foray into unfamiliar waters.

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