Last year, one of my third graders was the biggest dinosaur expert you ever want to meet. He knew names of dinosaurs I could not even pronounce. (He corrected my pronunciation a few times) His birthday cake was dinosaur themed. He read about dinosaurs whenever there was a spare moment. Everyone in the class knew of his passion for dinosaurs.
So, if I were to teach a lesson on dinosaurs, you can bet your bonnet (ha!)I would include this student wherever I could. Allowing him to share his passion and knowledge would be good for several reasons. He would have the chance to share his learning, which is always powerful. He would possibly reach some students who are more interested in what a peer says than the teacher. Our classroom culture would affirm and celebrate his knowledge and passion. I would be modeling that we can always learn from each other and the teacher does not own the knowledge.
But what if I taught a lesson on dinosaurs and acted as if I were the one who knew the most and had all the knowledge? What if I didn't recognize that he had both passion and expertise in this area? What if I made him sit quietly and take notes from me, a person who really only knows about dinosaurs from what I've read in a textbook?
One of the reasons I love to write is it helps me know what I think. Sometimes I can't fully access my thoughts until I write them and explore them in this manner. For several reasons, I've been asking myself what are my views on professional development for teachers and other educators.
When I think about my dinosaur-loving student, I know that it is right to know your students' interests, passions and areas of knowledge and then allow them to share what they know. Why isn't this always the case with professional development?
I believe that professional development starts with relationships. Knowing the teachers and their interests, passions, and expertise helps the facilitator to work with the knowledge that already is there. Not assuming everyone needs to start at square one and recognizing that there could be a teacher in the group whose knowledge on the topic surpasses the facilitator's expertise in a specific area. If that were the case, the facilitator could certainly allow that teacher to share his/her experiences and wisdom on the topic. The whole group would benefit from sharing the presentation, much like the whole class benefitted when the dino-loving student contributed.
As a teacher of 17 years experience, it hurts when you feel your knowledge, expertise and passion aren't acknowledged. It might not be professional to say that, but the truth is, it does. It makes you feel less inclined to want to share or contribute when you feel you aren't seen or recognized for what you passionately learn and practice. I think a professional development experience should not leave a teacher feeling this way. You should feel energized, excited, maybe a little nervous about implementing your new knowledge. There might be some cognitive dissonance. But you should always feel your contributions and who you are was valued and honored in the experience.
My work with the Long Island Writing Project taught me that teachers learn best from teachers. And we are all teachers.
We are all learners. The LIWP always believed in setting up comfortable, welcoming spaces for teachers. Providing room for them to share their thinking and questions. Learning about each other, often through our writing. You can learn and grow so much more when you feel seen. You can't be seen unless someone takes the time to really look at you, really listen, really learn your story.
Putting this all together, I think professional development starts with relationships. Then it allows for collective meaning-making and understanding. Teachers contribute what they know and believe and their expertise is recognized. When they feel seen and appreciated, they will be more willing and likely to take the next steps in their journey of learning and growth. They will be more inclined to trust the facilitator because they know that their voice matters and their contributions have been recognized.
What are your thoughts on professional development from either the teacher's perspective or the facilitator's perspective?
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski