Getting to Great Teaching: What Teachers Need to Succeed

Experience has taught us a great deal about how teachers learn to get better and even become great.  There are elements of professional development that we know now to be particularly effective, and we should share that knowledge when we construct learning opportunities for teachers.

Teams of teachers in Los Angeles Unified School District worked collaboratively to offer interdisciplinary, thematic and writing-based instruction called Humanitas to students in dozens of high schools in Los Angeles Unified for more than 20 years.  With the help of a nonprofit organization called the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP), the teachers trained in interdisciplinary teaching, planning of controversial and engaging thematic curriculum, and assessment of students using complex essay responses. Most of their students started as average performers who learned to write well, graduated from school, and developed the skill of argumentation drawing evidence from several disciplines simultaneously.  In other words, these teenagers gained skills valued highly for college and university work.  The teachers sustained their coordinated program despite road blocks frequently presented by school scheduling and district regulations.

How did they learn to teach in ways that capture the imagination of their students and motivate them to demonstrate higher levels of performance year after year when other efforts to improve teaching had faltered?  Part of the answer lies in how they worked together to share knowledge across subject areas.  Part comes from their training by other teachers successfully using the approach they chose to master.  Part comes from their collective focus on the same students who they came to know well and began to see succeed from efforts to teach these young people in new and more interesting ways.

LAEP also provided professional training over years for groups of teachers in elementary, middle and high schools seeking to deepen their knowledge of specific subjects like science, math, reading and writing.  These groups, called Teacher Networks, met regularly with teachers teaching teachers about the content and the appropriate pedagogy that challenged students and successfully helped them master the knowledge and skills.  Why did they continue on their own time with no pay attending the network meetings and using what they learned to improve their instruction?  Learning practical information that can be applied immediately in classrooms from successful colleagues is a powerful teaching tool and motivator for adults.

The successes of Humanitas teams and Teacher Networks to help educators grow in their profession, plus the effectiveness of more recent coaching LAEP offers teacher-to-teacher, make me wonder.  What is it that works about these kinds of professional development and is different from the usual training offered in teachers’ schools or by their districts?  What can we learn from teachers engaged in these efforts to discover what all teachers need to succeed at learning to be an even more accomplished teacher?

I think there are elements of these powerful professional development approaches that can be replicated by others and used to raise teaching to higher levels.  All of these initiatives have in common the following strategies:

  1. Teachers Teach Teachers – Learning from one’s peers who struggle day-to-day with the dilemmas of being an educator is a powerful and convincing way to find out what actually works in classrooms to reach students.
  2. Teachers Build a Professional Community for Learning – Teams working together in the interest of the same group of students and networks of faculty studying together form professional learning communities.  These groups elevate the dialogue about teaching while introducing new and practical knowledge through teachers sharing what they know works with colleagues.
  3. Teachers Choose How to Grow – Nothing is more motivating than learning something new when you need it.  When teachers choose to have a coach, to be part of a teaching team who plan together, to participate in a learning network, or go to a specific training in an area of their interests, they are looking for solutions and new strategies.  If the professional development or training they choose fits their interests and meets their needs, teachers are ready to take and use the information and skills offered in these settings.

Providing truly effective professional development to K-12 teachers requires that we change how we treat the people involved, the way we construct their learning opportunities, and the resources we devote to their growth.  We should be thinking of teachers as self-directed professionals capable of choosing both what and how they need to learn to refine their skills and as leaders able to guide colleagues in their quests to develop themselves.  We need to construct learning opportunities that take place both in the classroom where the action with students happens and in groups of teachers engaged in common study.  We need to devote the resources necessary for the development of the teaching profession throughout people’s careers.  This includes making time in the school day for teachers to coach and to meet with each other regularly, subsidizing the costs of training they choose to attend, as well as getting the professional books and materials teachers need to practice promising approaches in classrooms.

We have seen professional development that works for teachers and their students.  Why aren’t we using those same approaches as the primary mode of learning for the adults in our public schools?

What do you think?

By: Judith Johnson, Retired Executive Director of Cotsen Foundation for the ART of Teaching