Leading from the Classroom

Debbie Hickerson is a 5th Grade Teacher at Cason Lane Academy in Murfreesboro and a Tennessee Hope Street Group Fellow.

Every professional journal we see these days contains an article which examines professional development for teachers. It is thrilling to see the educational community focus on ways we can better our practice, hone in on our talents, and strategize ways to find more tools for our classroom teachers. The highly regarded educational trainer and author, Harry Wong, has told us for years, “It is the teacher – what the teacher knows and can do – that is the most significant factor in student achievement.” (The First Days of School, 2001). This tells me that we must find the time, money, and support that will allow us to invest in our teachers. I have an idea on how we can do just that.


School districts are making requests for more substantial budgets today than they ever have. Even small school systems are seeking millions of dollars for operating costs. With so many school districts looking for ways to make the most of their allocations, it’s time to get creative with professional learning. It just makes sense to capitalize on the assets by having teachers instruct, not just mentor, one another and share their talents, skills, techniques, materials, resources, and strategies. Tennessee State Teacher Fellows working with the non-profit organization, Hope Street Group, produced a report in January 2016 containing data from teacher surveys and focus groups held throughout the state in the Fall of 2015. The press release states, The Hope Street Group report focuses on professional learning and teacher leadership, with results indicating that over half of the survey respondents aspire to a teacher leader role while remaining in the classroom.” Tennessee teachers didn’t want to leave the kids, they just wanted to help maximize their colleagues’ effectiveness.


These findings should cause principals to take a look at their faculty. The school is filled with scholars! These are highly educated people, with various degrees, skills, and talent. Why not tap into all that expertise?


What would leading from the classroom look like? “Teachers teaching teachers” is not a new concept, but it is one that is underused. This type of professional learning provides many opportunities for teachers to step up to take active roles in peer training. Districts who implement this style of teacher leadership have teachers who are leading in-service professional development. They may have book talks or hold lunch-and-learn sessions, lead professional book clubs, and occasionally spend time during faculty meetings giving presentations, sharing ideas, pedagogy, and/or strategies. Why not allow teachers to sign up once a month to conduct after school professional learning workshops?


Costs. Teacher-led professional development fosters accountability, collegiality, and teamwork. Schools receive funds earmarked for professional learning, so why not have teachers leave campus to travel to other schools and use these funds to cover the expense of substitutes? That afternoon, the same substitutes would be moved to different classrooms for another set of teachers to leave campus to observe lessons. The cost to the schools, and disruption to the students is minimal. The cost would be even less if paraprofessionals were used in place of substitutes.


True Collaboration. Language Arts teachers could spend one planning session a week with Drama, Social Studies, History, and Science teachers teaching them how to do a close reading of their content area materials. The following week, the content area teachers could provide valuable background knowledge for the Language Arts teacher before he/she begins a new topic as well as providing ideas for projects, differentiating lessons, and multisensory activities. This type of planning would be critical for arts-integrated lessons, particularly as many districts are embracing STEAM activities and strategies now.


Using built in PLC days. School districts that build in half days to the yearly calendar, could maximize those afternoons by offering break-out sessions for which teacher leaders offer a variety of professional learning workshops allowing teachers from any school to attend based on their own need and interest. Teachers would then have the option to receive specific methods, activities, hands-on materials, make-and-take manipulatives, as well as new strategies to take back and share with their teams. This would also provide an opportunity for teachers to discuss current trends in education, legislative bills that are coming up, or learning how to use Twitter, Linkedin, or other social media to their professional advantage.


It takes a village to raise a teacher. There are so many online webinars for teachers to earn PD credit, wouldn’t it be great to have a team who previews those and only shares the best, most valuable information? Many districts have parent conference days, classroom work days, and half days in which the special area teachers (also known as related arts) have nothing required of them. (Special area teachers include Drama, Music, Chorus, Band, P.E., Art, Library, STEM, Guidance Counselor, and the like). Having them work on a committee to preview PD webinars could potentially be a great school improvement project that would benefit everyone on the faculty.


Teacher buy-in is essential. Teacher leadership is going to require whole-hearted teacher and administrator buy-in, but the facts are undisputable. No intervention can make the difference that a skilled, knowledgeable teacher can, it is cost effective, makes the best use of our time, and is collaborative in nature. Since our schools receive school-wide scores and grades, quite frankly, the truth is when our colleagues look good, we all look good.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Edcamps and PD

Samantha Bates is the organizer of EdcampMidTenn
Every educator has been there: Mandatory school-wide professional development on a topic she doesn’t need at a time she doesn’t need it, like the last day of school before summer break. It’s times like these that I pity the PE teacher, forced to sit through an hour-long PowerPoint presentation on Differentiating Writing Assessments in the Content Area for English Language Learners.
The good news is that professional learning doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way that teachers can choose the professional development they need, experience it on their terms, share their personal knowledge, have conversations instead of suffering through lectures, and – my favorite part – get up and leave if it just isn’t working out. Oh, and it’s completely free.
I’m talking about edcamps.
An edcamp is an informal gathering of educators – teachers, administrators, specialists, consultants, superintendents, technology coordinators – who discuss the educational topics that are relevant to them. In fact, the entire beginning of an edcamp is just the educators deciding what they want to talk about that day.
Edcamp sessions are not about the presenter but about the learning needs of the attendees. I’ve presented edcamp sessions on student blogging and using Twitter, but I’ve never gone to an edcamp knowing that I was going to present. Instead attendees ask questions, and there’s generally someone in attendance with experience in that area – mine just happened to be student blogging and Twitter. There are edcamp sessions that begin with the statement, “I want to know more about ____,” and then the participants just have a conversation on that topic.
Then there’s the beauty of The Rule of Two Feet. This rule states that if you are in a session that isn’t meeting your needs, you get up onto your two feet, and you use them to walk somewhere else that will benefit you. This could be another session, or it could be to hang out beside the coffee and network with other educators. It could be to a general area to implement or practice something you learned in another session. You are not expected or encouraged to stay in a session that isn’t helping you.
Did I mention that edcamps are free? I can’t stress this enough. Actually, most edcamps have door prizes, so you’re likely to walk away with a free subscription to an educational product or even technology. At Edcamp Midtenn, the sponsors are Flocabulary, IPEVO, GoNoodle, Kahoot, Doug Robertson (a teacher and author), WriteAbout, HSTRY, TinyBop, and Edutopia. Next Saturday, over one thousand dollars in educational products will be given away to educators who are committed to their professional learning.


If you want to attend an edcamp, there are several in Tennessee in the coming months. Edcamp Midtenn will be in Tullahoma at West Middle School on March 5th; you can register at edcampmidtenn.eventbrite.com. Edcamp GigCity will be in Chattanooga at STEM School on May 14th, and there’s even an edcamp for leaders being planned for this summer in Nashville. You can receive updates about EdcampLeadTN by following @edcampleadtn on Twitter. If there’s not an edcamp near you, you can always organize one yourself. The Edcamp Foundation has a variety of resources on attending and organizing edcamps.

Professional learning is too important to leave in the hands of anyone but yourself. Take control of your professional learning needs by attending an edcamp.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


A Note on PD

Mark Banasiak is a 2015-16 Hope Street Group Fellow in Tennessee. He has taught at Sango Elementary for 15 years and is the Lead K-5 Physical Educator for his district. He loves attending and presenting at local, state, and regional workshops/conferences. Mark was a co-recipient of the 2011 Share the Wealth Puckett-Merriman Physical Education Professional Award. He has published several items and most recently an e-book “I Teach More Than Gym: A Collection of Elementary Physical Education Activities.” Mark is a graduate of Tennessee Technological University (BS ‘98), Austin Peay State University (MS ‘00), and is a National Board Certified Teacher (2013). Mark is an Elder and the Senior High Youth Director at his church. He spent seven years as a volunteer firefighter and eight as a Montgomery County Commissioner.

Thoughts on Making the Most of Professional Development

Recently, I was looking through some old VHS tapes and discovered a video of myself teaching a lesson from when I was student teaching back in the 1990’s. Intrigued by this find, my son and I proceeded to sit down and watch the tape. He found it amusing to see daddy on the TV, whereas I found it to be an interesting snapshot allowing me to glimpse back to where my teaching began. In the tape, I had all of the main parts memorized and was able to regurgitate them, yet my instruction lacked a certain level of comfort and smoothness. That is, my teaching methods were rough. Watching the video caused me to ponder how my methods of instruction had matured since the video was recorded.


Over the years, I have had the benefit of teaching in environments that thrived on collaboration, and I have experienced personal growth through regular participation in professional development activities. I regularly seek out and enjoy participating in these activities within my school, district, state, and nation.


One of my favorite professional development experiences is to visit another classroom. I eagerly arrive and find myself looking at their furniture arrangement, wall hangings, and other items in the room. I inquire about their routines, particular pieces of equipment, and organization. Each visit provides more insight on how to organize a classroom.


What type of professional development activities do you enjoy the most?


Participating in professional development activities improves my instruction in four ways:


First, it gives me the ability to collaborate with other educators while having focused conversations on relevant topics. I try to be like a sponge and “soak-up” as much new information as possible. From these experiences, I have learned a wealth of information and strategies over the years that have influenced my methods of instruction. Conferences in particular give me the unique opportunity to gather ideas from and talk one-on-one with various state, regional, and national teachers of the year.


Which professional development experiences have helped to shape your methods of instruction?


Second, they provide handouts that are added to my files. I keep those handwritten notes and all of the handouts categorized by themes. I find myself perusing these files every so often looking for relevant information and ideas that can help me improve my methods of instruction. In recent years, I have found various education conferences that post their handouts online.


Third, they energize me! They place me in an environment surrounded by others who are passionate about education. I then return to my classroom full of energy and excitement to pass on to my students. In 1999, I met a fellow educator and told myself, “When I grow up, I want to be just like him!” Since then, we have crossed paths numerous times at various conferences, and each meeting is a rejuvenating experience.


Have you met anyone through these activities who has been a positive influence on you as an educator?


Finally, I make connections with fellow educators. Those connections provide me with a cadre of people to bounce ideas off of or simply to ask for advice. When I have an idea or question, those educators are only an email, text, or phone call away.


Each district varies in respect to professional development requirements. In my district, each teacher is required to partake in eighteen hours of in-service outside of the school day at some point during the school year.


Do you see your district’s professional development requirement as a maximum number or a minimum requirement?


I recently read an article that mentioned one sign of a quality educator is one who is humbled by the notion that they can always learn something new. Participating in professional development activities allows me to be the student while collaborating and learning best practices from other professionals.


I encourage you to be the type of educator who is always willing to learn new teaching strategies. I hope you set aside time to review an article, read a book, visit a website, listen to a podcast, participate in a webinar, gather some colleagues for a discussion, sign up for a class, or attend a conference. I urge you to never stop learning and always be willing to expand your instructional methods through professional development activities.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. www.iteachmorethangym.wordpress.com

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport