Lifelong learning is essential for effective educators and should be modeled for our students. With so many changes occurring in the fields of educational technology, curriculum, pedagogy, and law, it is imperative that educators receive opportunities for growth in their school and beyond. One powerful way to grow is through developing a personal learning network (PLN). PLNs enable educators to learn in accordance with their diverse interests and passions.
Schools and districts often assume educators will develop and use PLNs and participate in online communities of practice outside of the school day. However, teacher participation in afterschool professional development opportunities is often uneven, and lack of time is a common explanation. This is completely understandable, as many teachers are involved with students after school through athletics, extracurricular activities, and providing extra help, not to mention grading and getting materials ready for the next day. During a conversation with teacher leaders last year about improving how meaningful professional development is offered, a model from the business world was suggested: Training and other professional growth activities would be embedded within the school day.
After I thought about it and had some discussion with colleagues in New Jersey, the light bulb went on for me. I quickly realized that the current school schedule presented the perfect solution to offering meaningful professional development during the day in the form of noninstructional duties, which are otherwise often a waste of time. The plan that my administrative team and I have developed drastically reduces the amount of noninstructional duties the teachers have, such as lunch, hall, or in-school suspension duty. It also reduces the periods during the week that staff members are tied up with those duties. This change has freed up virtually every teacher at New Milford High School for 48 minutes, two or three times per week depending on the semester.
During this professional growth period, staff members will create innovative learning activities, develop interdisciplinary projects, attend webinars, view research-based videos, and engage in online communities of practice as a means to further their professional growth. At the heart of the professional development piece is PD 360 and the Teacher Learning Community, both of which have robust online communities of practice embedded into their platforms. We are ecstatic about this more effective use of time.
As part of a yearlong action plan goal, teachers will document their learning journey by keeping a journal on the activities that they engage in during this allotted time. Within each entry, they must explain how the specific activity is being implemented into practice to improve teaching and learning. The journals will be incorporated into portfolios that teachers will present at their end-of-year evaluation conferences. Other portfolio pieces might include examples of projects and innovative learning activities that were developed over the course of the year using knowledge and ideas gained from webinars, videos, and participation in online communities of practice.
I believe that New Milford High School’s new professional development program will bear fruit because it offers educators dedicated professional learning time during the school day, flexibility to invest that time as it fits their goals, and a means to document and be recognized for excellence in putting that learning into practice in the classroom. In order for schools and districts to support educators’ lifelong learning in the service of improved student learning, such systems must move from being the exception to being the rule.
Eric Scheninger is Principal of New Milford High School in Bergan County, NJ.
Learn more about his work at ericscheninger.com.