What is the role of a teacher?

This is the third article in a series of five that reflects on the journey ALA’s Two Year Diploma Program over the last strategic planning period, ALA 2023. Find the first two articles linked here.

During the past five years we have worked as teachers and leaders to improve what happens in classrooms to advance student learning. We have engaged with ideas about our professional work and leveraged various tools and activities to make these ideas visible and assessable as measures of our growth as teachers. In reflecting on this history, we want to know how various ideas and related practices have contributed to our professional learning and its effects on student outcomes.

The question that we explore here is this: How do we understand what has fallen short of expectations so we can make progress towards our goals?

The basic framework driving professional development has been consistent across annual cycles. Though the framework has been articulated somewhat differently over time, the framework for leveraging teacher learning is defined by the dynamic and reciprocal relationship between the three vertices of a “learning triangle”:  1. teacher work, 2. student work, and 3. assessments that provide the basis for analysis, reflection, and adaptation or improvement of 1 and 2.

Teacher work is visible in the processes of planning for learning and the interactions with students that we will call pedagogy. In every cycle, there have been inputs to the planning processes, which include the design and use of assessments to provide feedback that advances these planning processes.  Similarly, there have been inputs to pedagogy, which include the facilitation of classroom learning and teacher interactions with students and their work outside of class time, as well as the use of assessments to improve pedagogy. In both cases, the inputs have framed forms of deliberate practice directed at continuous professional development. Deliberate practice is understood as an intentional iterative process that produces change over time.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, for example, three key inputs shaped the work of teacher growth:

  1. a set of teaching and learning principles offered guidance and set expectations for planning and pedagogy,
  2. an observation protocol defined a process for assessing pedagogy and, by reflection, planning,
  3. the 7 traits and course criteria formed the basis for articulating and assessing student outcomes.

During the next two years these inputs were developed further to render teacher learning increasingly explicit, coherent, and intentional. These include:

  1. a more fully articulated model of unit planning,
  2. a definition of the 7 traits in terms of observable behaviors,
  3. a revision of course criteria across departments that redefined domain specific learning outcomes, and aligned them to the 7 traits,
  4. a revised observation protocol that promoted the use of descriptive data to foster teacher reflection in a more autodidactic model of professional growth,
  5. a focus on the use of student and teacher data as assessment AS and FOR learning.

In the last two years, all the prior inputs have continued to develop to meet professional development expectations, but one new structure emerged to increase teacher agency, shift the supervisory roles of HODs towards more effective forms of coaching and assessment, and ensure that the triangle of teacher work, student work, and assessments became a dynamic driver of professional development. The professional development portfolio, or PDP, engages teachers in an inquiry or teacher research process that connects and activates the three vertices of the professional learning triangle.

A holistic look at the relevant data reveals that there is a lack of consistency in leveraging these inputs for teacher professional development. There are many examples of teachers and HODs who have leveraged some or all of these inputs to good effect. That is, we have clear evidence of improvements in teaching and learning over time.

However, this is not broadly evident. In many cases, only some inputs are actively in use and more importantly, the inputs are not fully leveraged for purposes of reflection, which requires a purposeful integration and alignment of these key elements.  For example:

1) Unit or lesson plans do not reflect the intentions of the PDP. A PDP by a teacher in the social sciences describes a goal for student learning as the capacity to develop “new knowledge” through a skillful process of research, yet the task defined as the learning outcome for the unit of learning does not require the development of this capacity and classroom lessons do not engage students in deliberate guided practice of these research skills.

2) Observation data are not linked back to unit and lesson plan intentions. The data collected in classroom observations are not adequately leveraged to analyze and assess the ways in which classroom interactions foster the development of intended outcomes. This is often a problem of how the data are collected but more often a challenge of drawing inferences that allow teachers to see how teaching might change to better elicit desired learning. If an observation of the social science class describes interactions that lean more toward teacher explanation than guided elicitation and exploration of student thinking, this needs to be noticed in a post-observation reflection process and addressed by changes in practice.

  3) The data of student work and/or unit plan aims, are not framed by tasks that reflect course criteria and forms of conceptual or transferable understanding. If a student essay falls short of expectations but the assignment did not clearly articulate those expectations, then the shortfall is in the definition of task rather than the student’s effort. If the unit plan does not define summative tasks in terms of observable outcomes that are explicit and clear, there is no reason to be confident of student learning outcomes since planning works backwards from the summative tasks to create a reliable learning trajectory for students.

Decades of research have established that effective teaching emerges from the ways we as teachers plan and interact with students in the context of the subjects we teach. The PDP holds each of us as teachers accountable for the quality of this work by asking us to engage as reflective practitioners. Reflective practice requires us to collect data that allows us to reflect and make sense of what is working and what needs to change. The professional development research validates this idea and points to the importance of community in supporting this work. The PDP introduces a critical dimension of teacher agency and self-direction, with the belief that empowering teachers in this way is not only effective but scuttles an idea that PD is something teachers do because leadership requires it.

How do we move to a culture of self-directed learning for all members of our learning community, in which we use proven tools and practices because it is our calling and our pride as professionals to do so?

Written by Ric Campbell, former Educator-in-Residence at ALA.

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