Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cooperating schools?

Met today with the Man Who Knows, and the subject of professional development for independent school teachers came up.

The man is Patrick Bassett, executive director of the National Association of Independent Schools, and we got to talking about the roles that regional associations can play in providing a higher level than present (in many areas) of ongoing professional training for teachers. Although many associations sponsor pre-service or early-stage in-service training for new teachers and a good menu of special programs on specific topics, often aimed at administrators and specialists, there is, arguably, something of a gap in most regions when it comes to offerings for classroom teachers and teacher-leaders.

Back when I was just coming up, as they say, there was something called the New England Teachers Conference, a one-day extravaganza that occurred each spring (as I recall) in some more or less central place. The various state associations of New England cooperated in the planning and execution, which admittedly was a very big deal.

The NETC was a good event, sometimes very good, but in its time it was perhaps too much of a good thing. Many of my more senior colleagues in the 70s and 80s were pretty cynical about such conferences. They made no bones about having little use for "professional development," having no doubt sat through more than their fair share of random workshops--some administrator's enthusiasm of the moment--on topics that felt unrelated to their daily toil in isolated classrooms. For us newbies, there seemed to be so much to learn, and even if no one was discouraging us from trying new things in our classrooms and advisories, no one was much encouraging us to innovate, either. Still a bit hung over from "revolution" of the lates 60s and early 70s, schools weren't quite sure where to go, and it was all many teachers could do to keep students moving forward from day to day; great new ideas just weren't all that welcome.

We've come a long way from that era, and, thanks in no small part to the leadership of NAIS under Pat Bassett, independent schools in the aggregate have something resembling a cohesive agenda for their work. The publications and conferences of NAIS have identified and articulated the great themes our the last decade or so--multiculturalism and social justice, sustainability, technology, globalization--that direct much of our thought and work. Constructivist curriculum innovations that have grown out of the work of Theodore Sizer, Howard Gardner, Grant Wiggins, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Robert Sternberg, and others have shown us better ways of teaching. (I write about this work, which I have called The New Progressivism, in another blog.)

Above all, the culture of isolation that, in retrospect, tended to be more dispiriting than empowering, has gone. In its place many schools are working to build truly collaborative professional cultures in which teachers talk about teaching--the craft, not just the effort--and learn from one another. Even where this goal is imperfectly realized, the idea has taken root that teachers coming together for professional conversations about their teaching and their students is not a waste of time.

Which brings me back to the idea of ongoing, intentional programs of professional training for teachers. With so many initiatives in common, independent schools ought to be able to develop ways to capitalize on the economies of scale that could be gained from pooling resources toward the professional growth of faculties.

The old NETC model might be an idea whose time has come again; regional associations might consider ways of ramping up their programming for classroom teachers, drawing on the expertise of teachers in member schools where they can and on "outside experts" where needed. The associations have the leadership, the cachet, and the resources to coordinate this work on a fairly large scale, perhaps even in regional "in-service" days when whole faculties from many schools come together for a menu of programs, workshops, and a keynote or two.

On a smaller scale, it seems almost crazy that more schools don't get together with neighbors to do manage at least a few common tasks. The Fairchester Fellows program in New York and Connecticut is a great example of this, providing an ongoing series of programs for new teachers each year. Any school with a few congenial neighbors could fairly easily organize a similar program: a few sessions on subjects of general interest (child or adolescent development or partnering with parents, say) at "orientation time" and then a curriculum of common-interest topics and some convivial dinners throughtout the year.

Another model might be a kind of "weekend university" for independent school teachers, where teachers might come together on occasion as part of a course on a particular theme or topic, and where other parts or even the bulk of the work was done on line. I've toyed with the idea of offering an on-line course or two just on my own; provided under the auspices of a regional association or a group of like-minded schools who could stamp their imprimatur on a "certificate of completion," such courses could be a valuable professional development resource tightly focused on the needs and interests of independent schools.

Much of it comes down to will. We independent schools like to be independent, and in competitive areas, we even tend to shy away from the idea that there might be anything to be learned from our rivals. But teachers have common needs and common issues in their professional and personal lives, and it seems a shame that schools seem to spend so many of their resources on reinventing wheels whose form and elements aren't so different from school to school or region to region. Instead of one expert presenting to 20 teachers twice, why not to 150 teachers once?

So, whether it's to be regional associations or other consortium or delivery models, I'd encourage schools to look hard for ways to come together in the service of offering their faculties opportunities for professional growth. Along the way there might even develop a stronger sense of fraternity among teachers that would be a welcome development in itself.

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