When designing professional development projects, we’re constantly examining how our promising practices can be solidified as we support educators. Through this examination, we’ve come to identify five principles of practice: Communities of practice, Contextualized practice, Critical reflection, Cultivating strengths, and Cycles of inquiry. As part of our series investigating each of these principles, let’s dig deeper into communities of practice. (You can see previous entries in this series here.)
Identifying members of your community with an interest in professional development can be a first step in building an internal coaching structure within your school, and if you’re already humming along with a teacher coaching practice, looping back to some basics can help you identify additional teachers to invite into a growing community of practice.
“Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”
We often become so familiar with our own school and colleagues that we miss a new or forming interest — especially when it’s late in the school year and we’re sure we know everyone well enough to ascertain who is interested in receiving or leading PD and who isn’t. However, if we step back, we may see something new. At the next grade level team meeting, take a breath and look around as if it were the beginning of the school year. During your next staff meeting, imagine the people around you have changed over the school year (they probably have) and look and listen for new evidence of the desire to grow professionally.
Take a look over a list of your staff and identify which teachers have tried something new in their classroom. What might happen if you invite them to share with one other teacher, in their department, or with the larger community? Where do you see teachers gathering in pairs or small groups? Do they share a common interest that could translate into professional learning? For instance, back when the first Harry Potter book came out, teachers reading the book decided to gather together to form a book club that spent the first half hour talking about their own experience of the book and the second half talking about how they could spark their own student’s imagination through creative writing prompts. Look around. Where might professional learning groups be a logical next step to what is already happening?
Perhaps it’s more likely in your situation that teachers aren’t forming their own learning groups naturally. Take a moment instead to listen for the needs you hear being voiced. Do you hear struggles in the form of complaints? There’s not enough time. / How am I supposed to fit [this] in? / I’ve tried everything with [this kid]!
What teacher do you know who has struggled through this same problem in the past? Consider asking the teacher who overcame the struggle to invite the teacher in the midst of the struggle to problem-solve together. Listen to the whole staff: do you have results from any recent survey you can dip back into for a sense of the needs across your team? Identify several needs and offer a problem of practice protocol in your next email to staff or invite teachers to form small groups that engage with a protocol to address their concerns.
Maybe it’s time for a new survey focused on asking questions directly about PD needs and especially about the interest of teachers to collaborate and learn from one another. It’s a great time to listen for needs that you want to meet over the summer and going into 2019-20.
The reality is that communities of practice are everywhere. Sometimes we can see them clearly and other times we need to step back, look, and listen to see where they may be forming or where we can invite them to form between folks who don’t realize that just across the hall is someone else with the same interest or struggle. Wagner describes it like this:
[Communities of practice] are a familiar experience, so familiar perhaps that it often escapes our attention. Yet when it is given a name and brought into focus, it becomes a perspective that can help us understand our world better. In particular, it allows us to see past more obvious formal structures such as organizations, classrooms, or nations, and perceive the structures defined by engagement in practice and the informal learning that comes with it.
When designing professional development projects, we’re constantly examining how our promising practices can be solidified as we support educators. Through this examination, we’ve come to identify five principles of practice: Communities of practice, Contextualized practice, Critical reflection, Cultivating strengths, and Cycles of inquiry. As part of our series investigating each of these principles, let’s dig deeper into contextualized practice. (You can see previous entries in this series here.)
Contextualized practice — what does it mean?
Contextualized practice means that our processes, activities, and strategies are situational, and will change based on the environment or circumstances. The idea that “one size fits all” is a myth in clothing and a myth in professional development. Our work responds to the needs of the community as we build relationships and engage community members as collaborators and co-architects of our PD plans and processes.
What does it look like in real life?
It looks messy. Though contextualized, it doesn’t mean we’re working without a plan, goal, or strategy. It does mean, however, that we show flexibility in how we implement our plans based on the experiences we have and the people we’re working with. We may find that a project needs adjustment after realizing initial goals were overly ambitious, or that necessary skills are not yet in place.
In real life, we take into account what we know and understand about the project and the people in order to plan our approach, and we continue to mold and shape our processes to meet the needs that emerge throughout the project. This can sometimes lead to changes in goals, responsibilities, or ways of working — and we know that it takes time to realize these nuances within a project. We are committed to this approach because without it, we don’t believe that impactful learning occurs.
What needs does it address?
First, it’s responsive to the needs of our partners and their goals. Because our processes aren’t prescriptive, we seek to match the values and priorities of each project rather than prioritize our own set agenda. Second, it positions us as a true partner at the start of each project, co-constructing with educators, schools, and learning communities. Rather than informing what people should do, we serve as thought partners, imagining what we could do.
What are key practices or strategies?
Can coaching be effective without this principle?
The answer is simply, no. If we are not customizing our practices and approaches to work with each individual project, we aren’t meeting the needs of their unique community.
At CPET, we work hard to meet the needs of teachers and school leaders within their own context. As they’re striving to meet ever-changing standards, we’re striving to bridge gaps between theory, research, policy, and practice. When designing professional development projects (including job-embedded coaching, workshop series, institutes, and retreats), we’re constantly examining how our promising practices can be solidified even as we support schools to manage evolving mandates. Through this examination, we’ve come to identify five principles of practice: Cycles of Inquiry, Communities of Practice, Contextualized Practice, Cultivating Strengths, and Critical Reflection.
Professional development that is anchored within a strengths-based framework results in greater teacher satisfaction and greater rates of goal completion. Supervisors that are trained to cultivate strengths with an incremental implicit theory mindset are more likely to better discern growth in an employee (Heslin & VandeWalle, 2008). Incremental implicit theory is also known as a growth mindset, which is the belief that personal attributes like ability and intelligence are improvable over time. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset work demonstrates how this understanding translates to developing ability in more than just students. This provides the space to assess, plan, and coach toward improvements. Strength-based coaching, or Positive Psychology Coaching, works with the inherent strengths that we all have and uses both general and targeted development strategies to make an impact in one’s practice.
Great! Yes! From personal coaching language to professional coaching language, in yoga class, podcasts, and article after article across the internet, we see the theory repeated. I did one quick Google search with these top returns:
While most of us would probably agree that positive language is . . . well . . . positive, is that really what we mean when we’re talking about cultivating strengths? When responding to student work, for instance, how does a positive comment like, “Good job!” cultivate the student’s problem-solving skills in math class or invite them to the next level of their writing craft?
“Teachers can’t ’make’ students focus on or learn something. Teacher feedback is input that, together with students’ own internal input, will help the students decide where they are in regard to the learning goals they need or want to meet and what they will tackle next.”
Cultivating strengths in real life requires deep thinking and sustained practice to become authentic. To be useful in our classrooms, the language we use cannot merely be positive for the sake of creating a positive environment, but it must also provide students with a map so they can move from the place they are to the place we are confident they can be.
When you want to say, “Good job!” what is it that you mean? Why is it a “good job”, and what can you point out as a strength? What are the next steps for the student to cultivate this strength you’re pointing out? And how do you provide this feedback when you have 30 – 150 students to respond to in any given week?
The good news is that since we often see similar issues in our discipline – common errors in a math problem or science experiment, typical word choice at a given writing level, similar mistakes at each stage of learning during physical education challenges, or consistent misunderstanding of historical events – once we think through the language we want to use in our feedback, we can apply it to more than one student. Additionally, there are some common phrases teachers use that can be transformed by using a sentence stem to support your feedback across all students.
What about me? I use MINUS, CHECK, PLUS
You’re the expert on your classroom. What ideas does this give you? What does cultivating strengths look like for you with your students? Comment below!