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Professional Opinion

Tying PD for K12 teachers to content and pedagogy

Lessons for the U.S. from a collaborative PD system in Canada
Leanne E. Oliver is a mathematics teacher and curriculum chair at Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic Secondary School in Oshawa, Ontario.
Leanne E. Oliver is a mathematics teacher and curriculum chair at Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic Secondary School in Oshawa, Ontario.

High-quality, collaborative, professional development for teachers is a difference-maker for students. I have witnessed firsthand its power as a teacher and mathematics curriculum chair at Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic Secondary School in Oshawa, Ontario.

Our school is in an urban area with significant socio-economic challenges not unlike those found in many U.S. cities. The inner-city neighborhood we serve has some of the lowest income levels in the region, and a disproportionately high rate of chronic health problems.

In 2009, our grade 9 applied math accountability test results were at an all-time low—just 17 percent of our students had achieved the provincial standard. We recognized that students were at risk of suffering lifelong disadvantages as a result of not realizing their potential, and this compelled us to explore our data more deeply.

Our analysis provided proof of what we intuitively knew—students were entering our classrooms with significant numeracy gaps. Our students’ poor self-perception was a major contributor to their lack of achievement.

This led us to apply for Ontario’s Teacher Learning and Leadership Program, an annual, project-based professional learning opportunity that funds proposals from experienced classroom teachers seeking peer leadership roles.

Teachers submit a detailed project for developing and leading collaborative learning opportunities for themselves and their peers, and how they will evaluate the impact on student achievement.

Cross-border differences

In contrast with what I gather from the U.S., these professional development offerings are deeply tied to the content that teachers teach and to the pedagogical approach in Ontario’s schools.

Compared to the disjointed workshop model experienced by many U.A. teachers, our learnings are informed by the specific challenges we face and by the objectives we strive for in our schools. They develop our abilities as professional researchers and engage us with our colleagues in improving student outcomes.

Math teachers at my school were given the tools and time to collaborate with colleagues, to pool research ideas and to explore new teaching practices. The Pereyma math team began its first Leadership Program to address our mathematics literacy challenges. We worked together to design lessons that allowed students to engage in the content, regardless of their current abilities.

Surveys showed our efforts were building students’ confidence in their math abilities. I saw my students and school changing.

Building on success

Eager to continue our progress, we applied for another Leadership grant. Recognizing that the mathematics struggles of our ninth-grade students had their roots in earlier grades, we invited elementary colleagues to join us in exploring how technology can be used to transform learning.

This collaboration has helped to ensure that student barriers to success are minimized, that math-related anxiety is reduced and that students’ perceptions of the subject are transformed. The results? A stunning 71 percent of grade 9 applied math students achieved the provincial standard (scoring 70 percent or higher) in 2012-13.

We now use cohort-specific data to drive professional learning and to measure student growth.

The Leadership Program is based on the notion that the most powerful learning comes from inquiry that’s rooted within a school. It has not only provided me with support to research best practices from international researchers, but it also recognizes that in sharing our learning, we gain wisdom that makes us better equipped to serve student needs.

Perhaps most importantly, the program has taught me to recognize the power and beauty of collaboration, something every teacher from every country should experience.


Leanne E. Oliver is a mathematics teacher and curriculum chair at Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic Secondary School in Oshawa, Ontario.