A Window into Teacher Agency: What Educators Say about Effective Professional Learning
Last week educators in the nation’s capital pulled back the drapes and gave school leaders insight into a critical aspect of effective professional learning: educator agency.
In a webinar co-hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), educators shared models for success and urged principals and system leaders to improve teachers’ ownership of — and responsibility for — their professional learning.
“We are the heroes we’ve been looking for,” said Dwight Davis, a webinar panelist and an assistant principal at the Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, D.C. Davis, who previously served at his school as a reading teacher and a teaching coach, pointed out that much of the best professional learning comes when teachers interact with one another and visit each other’s classrooms. “The best professional development that I’ve ever had was when I had an opportunity to go see my colleagues do their thing.”
Joining the webinar remotely was the Executive Director of Learning Forward, Stephanie Hirsh. She encouraged school leaders to improve teacher agency by looking internally for solutions to learning problems, turning to teachers as leaders and experts. She advised school and system leaders to bring teachers into all levels of decision making around their professional learning. “Teachers need to become experts in professional learning so that they can become critical consumers,” she said. “More teachers need to speak up when professional learning is presented that is not going to help them … [so] that they can ask for something different.”
Bill Day, a panelist and math teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter in Washington, D.C., shared three disparate professional development experiences he has had over his career. Early on in his first teaching position, Day had few opportunities to meet with colleagues professionally, which he believes allowed him very little growth and seldom changed his teaching—even though he was still a novice. Day’s experience at his second school was better. He described the school’s approach to regular learning experiences as a “watershed” moment, because it gave him insight into the value he could get when provided time and space to work with colleagues and talk about teaching.
The real breakthrough for Day came through the professional learning he currently receives at Two Rivers. At this pre-K through 7th grade school, he engages with teachers in regular data analysis strategy loops, where educators learn innovative teaching strategies that are aligned to the school’s goals. The school leadership team selects the topics by looking at data, observing in classrooms, and talking with educators about what they need. After participating in an all-staff overview of the strategy to be learned, teachers work in smaller interdisciplinary teams and discuss how they will utilize the new strategy in their teaching. They also have a chance to practice, get reactions and advice, and refine their teaching further as they build confidence with the new skill. The professional learning works, said Day, because teachers are encouraged to “take an interpretive, rather than evaluative, stance” when reviewing each other’s work. Teachers have plenty of agency to direct their learning, including deciding how they will apply new strategies, what they bring to the team for review, and how they interact in team meetings. The school leadership team reinforces their agency by listening to them and using their feedback to make decisions about future strategies.
Stephanie Hirsh advised that deep exchanges like those happening in the Two Rivers data strategy loops often happen when school leaders understand how to structure and support professional learning to encourage teacher agency and authentic collaboration. Time for teacher learning must be built into the school day on a regular basis, and the agenda has to be protected so that it doesn’t devolve into a staff meeting instead of a learning session. Teachers can’t be asked to meet after school when they are exhausted. Dwight Davis agreed that finding the time for regular collaboration is critical. “The most powerful person in the building is the person who controls the time,” he said.