By COURTNEY BROWN & LAURA RIGOLOSI
When teachers are given space to imagine possibilities for their schools and students, time to refine their ideas, and the support necessary to implement new projects, what can they achieve?
Since 2017, we’ve been tackling this question through our collaboration with the North Plainfield, NJ district. In response to a statewide initiative to develop teacher leaders, the district leaders at North Plainfield tapped us to support this development process alongside the implementation of teacher-led passion projects across the district. These passion projects allowed teachers to identify and respond to district-wide issues, while gaining experience in initiating and executing district-wide improvements.
To meet this complex goal, we designed our professional development as an inquiry cycle for teachers based on their interests and passions, while simultaneously studying adult learning theory. Using this model, participating teachers developed an action plan for implementing a passion project alongside an exploration of what it means to lead other adults through the role of a teacher leader.
When designing projects with these types of goals, it’s important to focus on the foundational elements of adult learning theory, providing purposeful, practical, and empowering experiences that are directly related to teachers’ roles and responsibilities. Through meaningful experiences and discussions, we can provide opportunities to learn facilitation skills, explore action planning, and implement an extended inquiry process. Equally important in the design phase is the alignment with New Jersey State Standards and district-level goals. With this in mind, we can customize our professional development as needs evolve from year to year and project to project. The key is to focus on creating safe spaces for teacher leaders as they explore, practice, and reflect on their experiences.
How do you build teacher leaders?
As we begin working with teacher leaders, we make a commitment to read and share the unique elements of adult learning theory. Through training and experience, teacher leaders are well-equipped to plan and present instruction to children, but working with adults is different, and even the best teachers benefit from deepening their understanding of adult learning theory.
With North Plainfield, we encouraged teachers to explore their own learning and leadership styles, and dedicated time for teachers to reflect on situations when they were nurtured by a leader, and what moves those leaders made to create a positive and productive environment. Alongside articles such as Pillars for Adult Learning, we asked teachers to identify their own learning styles within Ellie Drago Severson’s framework of ways of knowing, using a Four Corners protocol. Giving teachers time to explore who they are as leaders, teachers, and all of the identities they bring to their school allowed them to reimagine themselves as learners. We can (and should!) be both leaders and learners at the same time!
In addition to exposing teacher leaders to adult learning theories, we infused literacy practices into our workshops so teachers could use them in their own classrooms. As we read excerpts from Malcolm Knowles’ articles on adult learning, and utilized a text rendering protocol as a model, we demonstrated how to pull key ideas from a text in a concise and collaborative way.
Most importantly, we want our teacher leaders to understand that unlike teaching children, “Adults...tend to have a perspective of immediacy of application toward most of their learning. They engage in learning largely in response to pressures they feel from their current life situation” (Knowles). Using this concept as a guide, we recommend that teachers reflect on their own perceptions of positive leadership, as well as how they can directly apply these tangible qualities to their own work.
Starting and supporting a passion project
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes how motivation is developed through the combination of autonomy, opportunities for mastery, and a driving purpose. With our North Plainfield team — after establishing that as adult learners we all learn and process our learning in different capacities — it seemed only natural that we create space for teacher leaders to consider the issues they were passionate about and ways they might use their passions to enrich their school community. For their passion projects to be successful, we needed three critical components:
Community of practice
Before starting any training for teacher leaders — especially across a district, with teachers who may not usually work together — it is crucial to develop a safe space where participants feel supported and heard. Participants need to be willing to take risks, and also pilot, revise, and push restart on their plans. To help develop a community of practice, we used reflection and sharing strategies such as our Success and Dilemma protocol and A Picture Tells the Story.
We worked closely with North Plainfield’s administrators, who helped teachers with logistical questions and concerns throughout the year. The district is spread out across several schools, and when a group of teacher leaders was planning on implementing a committee to oversee functions and events that would create school spirit, the administrators were able to suggest teachers from other schools who might also be interested in joining this committee. As a result, district-wide events such as a reinvigorated pep rally and an evening fitness event for parents and students were created.
This concept can be replicated in any school district where the administrators are a part of the professional learning. As outsiders to the school, we do not have the privilege to know all of the teachers in a district; this is where having engaged and supportive administration is crucial for bridging the gap between professional learning and teachers, particularly when the professional learning is designed to highlight teachers’ passions.
Allow teachers time and space to brainstorm their passion projects, and use meeting time to plan them with actionable goals in mind. Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang's Strategic Planning for School Change article guided this idea as we worked to incorporate modified design thinking components for small groups into our time with North Plainfield, and as teachers developed individual and collaborative action plans. Approaching this process by first testing a plan and then piloting, tinkering, and iterating is a cycle that can be replicated by any school district — provided that everyone involved feels safe to take risks and fail forward.
What changes are being made in school communities?
Teacher leaders are implementing so many wonderful passion projects in North Plainfield. Their projects are rooted in their passions, and their passions stemmed from improvements they wanted to make in their school community. In challenging areas, teachers saw new opportunities. Here are just a few examples:
Capitalizing on the passions of educators can spark change within a school community, and can empower teachers to take on new leadership opportunities. Allowing teachers space to dream, and investing in their learning creates a powerful pathway for authentic, teacher-driven change within a school district. When teachers are empowered to take on new roles and address real concerns, the possibilities for positive change are limitless.