Numerous studies of effective teacher professional development ask teachers to identify the most rewarding aspects of P.D. The top answer is always something like: "Being able to talk with other educators." Talk? Do we need specific strategies to get people working together to engage in the most basic acts of human communication? Apparently so.
For decades creative teachers have insulated themselves from the barrage of illogical mandates, curricular fads and punitive bureaucracies by keeping to themselves. Teachers from coast to coast, silently repeat the mantra: "Close the door and teach." The short-term pleasure of this strategy comes at the expense of longterm pain. Negative trends like burnout, teacher isolation, kids falling through the cracks, miseducative teaching practices and a diminished sense of professionalism can result from this time-honored classroom cone of silence. There are also missed opportunities, including learning from colleagues, sharing resources, peer review, enhanced professionalism, playing a role in curriculum decisions and teachers uniting to fight for better working conditions.
Most of all, "closing the door" deprives the community of compelling learning models. The public can't shoulder all the blame for the trend of higher standards, back-to-basics movements and standardized test-mania if they have not been treated to examples of great teaching and deep child-centered learning experiences. Without such examples, the system will continue as it has in the past. Societal pressures, the changing economy and new intellectual opportunities make the status quo unsustainable.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
Weak leadership, poor preservice teacher education and inadequate classroom supervision may explain shortcomings, but opportunities for teachers to talk with one another and their administrators might be the most powerful remedy of all. Dubious classroom practices may be looked at in a new light when questioned by peers. More effective strategies might emerge during ongoing collaboration and dialogue.
Administrators need to talk with one another and their teachers. Hiding in your office under a stack of paper works against your interests and those of the students you are employed to serve. Organizing with peers may lead to ways of distributing your noninstructional responsibilities. You may even rebel. No matter how irksome the tasks required of you, your first obligation is to create rich learning environments in which communities of practice serve the children and nurture the soul of a school.
A recent radio program in Los Angeles featured high school seniors asking questions of Roy Romer, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. One student asked about a "learning walk" that consisted of 15 or so administrators who descended on her class, sked
invasive questions for the length of the class and deprived her of an opportunity to learn during that period.
Romer went on to explain he believed that "learning walks" were an effective tool for getting principals into classrooms to see what happens in them. How the heck did we get to the point where we need central office-arranged field trips for principals to spend time in classrooms? This is indefensible. Rather than address the problem-too much paperwork, too many meetings, etc.-the district has turned classrooms into petting zoos for school administrators.
Schools around the world often have morning tea, recess and other times during the school day during which teachers can get to know one another informally and collaborate professionally. Friday happy hours are weekly affairs. Professional development is often multiday and away from the campus so teachers can go for a walk or stay up all night chatting. Class cocktail parties are regularly hosted by parents and attended by classroom teachers. These ingenious intervention strategies do not require an act of Congress but a desire to engage others in the learning process through dialogue.
Knowledge is socially constructed. Effective learning environments need to support communities of practice and these communities need to talk to one another. Teachers need to open their doors and administrators need to open channels of communication.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.