Saturday, October 06, 2012

open letter on professional development

To the staff at D.P. Todd:

Thank-you for accepting me in the voluntary position of Professional Development (PD) Representative for the 2012-2013 year. I filled this position previously from 2005-2010, and was part of the school’s PD committee (when we had one) from 2003-2009. I should also point out that I currently serve on the PGDTA PD Committee, which is tasked with oversight of the PD Fund and facilitating PD events in the district on behalf of teachers.

My own understanding and relationship with PD has changed over the years. For about 8 of my first 12 years as a teacher I think I participated, hosted, organized, or facilitated a school-based or district-based workshop or PD event on almost every PD day, much of that related to educational technology. During the last 5 years I have tried to work with different groups of teachers and educationists while backing away from formal school and district based offerings, excepting the Zone Conference. This is, in large part, because many of the technology topics I once championed have become old habit or usurped by excellent online resources. It is also because of the phenomenal growth of informal PD, much of it spurred by social media and the interactive web. Finally, this shift is, in smaller part, because I find many of the PD offerings for school staffs expect some kind of groupthink as a key part of the process, and often seem more like time-fillers than something useful. This is why I was so eager to run PD in the past -- so that I couldn't complain if it was stodgy. Most of the other topics in which I am personally interested (e.g. heritage inquiry, performance-based assessment, or identity-based curriculum ecology) seldom generate a large audience, so I find myself not so much the joiner or leader that I might have been from 2000-2008.

That’s all past and present. The future is yet to be written, so I am keen to see how PD changes in the coming years and how our staff, as individuals or groups, take on meaningful projects or ideas to better their teaching practice and work with students. I would like to describe what I see as my responsibilities for this position, all of which are open to your feedback.
  1. This position is a voluntary PGDTA role, working alongside our Staff Rep (BCTF union representative) to ensure that high quality, contractually sound, teacher-directed professional development is understood by staff and administration and promoted within the school.
  2. The PD rep has a simple yet important task of communicating various PD opportunities that exist in the school, district, province, and online. I will use some conventional means of communication, such as our 57Online ystem, and also social media to promote PD, including the use of twitter hashtags #sd57 and/or #dpts for dialogue on local PD.
  3. I am not a PD planner for the staff, someone who will coordinate PD activities, or bring donuts on NIDs. The fact that PD has been defended so rigorously as an issue of teacher autonomy means that teachers should not be eager for anyone to plan out their PD for them. The PD rep is not the same as a PD committee chair or School PD plan writer, although these roles have sometimes been combined in the past.
  4. I am more interested in the ongoing PD that takes place throughout the year and not fixated on the five PD days for which most teachers already have (or should have) an active plan. I believe most teachers have come to understand that PD is a regular extension of their practice, and not just something for the five precious PD days.
  5. I am excited to work with staff that want help developing their PD plans, want to know more about how PD can shape their practice, or willingly invite participation or accountability in their professional growth. I won’t monitor staff PD activities or try to justify eccentric choices by others, although I will give feedback and offer dialogue from a variety of perspectives, including a BCTF point of view.
  6. I will advocate at every level for the foundations on which dynamic PD is built, the autonomy necessary for teachers to actually step beyond requirements or expectations and pursue PD that engages their passions and needs, and high standards for PD to at least allow excellence and creativity in the door. I will see no irony in modeling both self reliance and mutual accountability.

Further thoughts (from my Professional Growth Plan)

What is my understanding of Professional Development (PD)?

One of the neat things about being a teacher is the chance to be deliberately engaged in life-long learning. This happens during the work day, on my own time, on non-instructional days, and in summer. Personal and professional learning are part of an “ecology,” a connected cycle of theory-making, reflective practice, and action-research. This “pro-d” or PD takes many forms for me:
  • conducting research and reflecting on how, what, and why students learn, and understanding the educational landscape in which this takes place 
  • learning more about my subject area as I plan for lessons, read and write on topics like democracy, citizenship, environment, sustainability, and history, and focus on what students do/can’t do/could do/should do 
  • participating with other educators in collaborative discussions and projects on topics like heritage research, identity & inquiry, analyzing trends in current events, authentic balanced practice, critical thinking, meaningful assessment, and educational technology 
  • independent study, course design, textbook review/writing, advocacy for public education, and follow-up on all the powerful questions raised by colleagues and students. 
My classroom is about student learning and student achievement, as is the planning, instruction, assessment, and humanity I put into my time as a teacher. Reflecting on my professional development is a step back (or a pause, at least), centered on what I am up to, but it is ultimately about the same thing... the social, intellectual, cultural growth of the students I meet. Regardless of the theme or focus, PD is ultimately about what I am learning, and what others are learning around me.

There is a special role in my reflection (and thus this document) for interrogating the structures that accompany public education, for celebrating the emergence (in any form or context) of cultural attributes that signal a new attitude towards community development, environmental sustainability, total cost economies, and perhaps some other “cultural” values that reckon with my own. The BC public education system is rife with dysfunctional structures, shallow thinking, and misunderstood paradigms, but it is also filled with creative ideas, caring educators, curious students, and committed parents who are making moves towards new cultures of being that are good for people and the planet. When we see formal learning as a relationship between real people in community, more like a guild and less like a factory, the bizarre eduspeak and various social and political agendas attending our system can be broken down and allowed to find their appropriate place. A central irony in my practice is that I seek some form of disruption, not unlike the calls for education reform from our own government, and yet the approach reformers take is almost always at odds with both my way of thinking and what I believe to be sound politics, discourse, and progress. I suppose I am fated to dwell midst the irony, and do so as a polemic loner.

I have also come to realize that in order to remain caring, hopeful, and optimistic as an educator, I have to own my trajectory and work towards my dreams with or without the support or understanding of structures and people around me, while at the same time working to improve the structures and listen to others. This hit home for me while listening to Stephen Lewis’ eulogy for Jack Layton. The basic idea that caring public service starts with a desire for fairness and mutual aid is a deep conviction and compelling goal.

What are some of my primary PD goals and interests as an educator?

My work with students and educators focuses on the emergent identity of learners, the social, geographical, metaphoric, and curricular lenses by which this can be examined, and an assessment of the transformative experiential and technological tools by which this emergence can be realized. In short, I’m interested in contexts.

While modern Canadian History and is compelling and occupies most of the curriculum within my teaching assignment, I have a particular interest in regional British Columbia history and geography, and Canadian immigration stories from the 18th to early 20th century. My approach to all subjects is to engage student and educator identity (a product of both heritage and culture) in the exploration of significant and useful learning. This is supported with a reliance on authentic inquiry and assessment. One example of the boundary between my interests and the work I ask of students is the use of project-based learning in the area of heritage research, a combination of critical thinking and personal reconstruction of history through interviews and analysis of personal sources and modalities.

Underpinning my beliefs and values is a notion that a new culture is needed in our society, one that can be (should be) influenced by what happens in my classroom -- a culture of active citizens pursuing creative, intelligent, and connected pathways towards a sustainable future; grounded individuals who challenge the dominant culture on issues of relevance and who seek out new ways for values of community, heritage, and ecologically resilient adaptations to emerge.

What are some of the educational values that inform my teaching practice and my personal and professional growth?
  • fair and reasonable assessment, a key part of a just practice 
  • balance of skills, knowledge, habits, means (process/path), and ends (outcome/goal) 
  • strong orientation towards development of student identity and narrative self-inquiry 
  • building self-governance, self-reliance, and responsibility in students 
  • building community without coercion, seeking interdependence not dependence 
  • rigorous learning related to relevant and meaningful learning outcomes 
  • respect for simple and direct student inquiry and constructivist learning 
  • strategic, thoughtful, narrational, and transformative use of digital technology 
  • creativity and diversity (multiple modes of seeing, knowing, expressing) 
  • learning that is embodied, holistic, and well-rounded 
  • curriculum design that looks for connections to citizenship and environmental sustainability 
  • work-life balance, importance of student and teacher personal time 
What are some criteria I use to determine whether to join in a PD offering?
  • event appeals to at least some of the values expressed above 
  • event is the result of an open, intelligent, and inclusive process of planning 
  • planning addresses a thoughtful question, relevant issue, or obvious need in the wider context(s) of my teaching practice
  • the topics are fresh, applicable, and somewhat original (I don’t want to repeat the same idea over and over unless I have some new role to play as a participant) 
  • I won’t feel dumbed down, talked down to, or subjected to rudimentary skills, ideas, or practices 
  • pro-d allows for a stress-free and learning-focused application of teacher contract considerations (peaceful, practical, related to what I teach)

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