3 Questions to Tackle when Growing and Developing Professionally

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

In many educational job interviews, a common question asked is "why be in education?" Many teacher candidates respond with the proverbial creation of "life-long learners." Yes, we want our students to yearn for more education and to take charge of this endeavor themselves. Then, we celebrate and showcase their learning.

In much the same manner, administrators want teachers to grow and develop their instructional skills every day. One of the best ways we can model the idea of agency is to show students, colleagues, parents, and community members that we are continually working on ourselves professionally. We seek out new learning opportunities.

As schools, we can celebrate the work we do with staff and the payoff comes when these teachers work with students. How do teachers stay current? With the flood on new research that flows into the education world, teachers are constantly having to sift through what is going to be more effective and efficient for the students seated in front of them. By making the information public relating to the learning that is going on by the adults in the school, community members and parents know they are striving to get better much like the students. Like students, one key instrument schools can use is the celebration of learning for the adults in the educational setting.

Teachers have a multitude of areas they can grow and develop professionally. The idea of agency is prevalent all throughout this article, as well as all domains within the Charlotte Danielson framework. In fact, the concept is connected to all three questions listed below as you tackle the move from being a proficient teacher to one that is exemplary.

1 - How Can a Teacher Stay Current on Educational Issues, Pedagogy, and Instructional Strategies?

When we talk agency with our students, we are talking about their ability to take charge of their own learning. This is a continual quest for all exemplary teachers. In the article, 10 Tips for Developing Student Agency, Tom Vander Ark argues that agency can best be defined as,

"…the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative-the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others' lives."

This powerful definition can be used with educators. They must have the drive and initiative to respond actively to their circumstances. They must seek first to understand, and then act to change the conditions in which they desire (pertaining to their professional careers). Outstanding administrators model this concept daily, and it is contagious among the staff when cultivated and celebrated. The concept of pointing out more of the positives begets more positives leading to increased success for both teachers and administrators. Agency is all encompassing…when there is weak leadership, a teacher can still have an influence on their students, colleagues, administration, parents, and even the larger community and world. One teacher can make a difference.

The culture of agency can be observed on the walls of school, projects the teachers and school take on, service projects that the learners organize within the community, and in the conversations of students, teachers, and the parents. An exemplary teacher celebrates when this agency is visible through direct praise, social media "shout outs," and other communication avenues. Positive specific praise supports the idea of others wanting to repeat or participate in the continued success. No one goals for failure when they step in school…if it is prevalent, then a major culture change needs to occur, or individualized improvement plans can be developed. Exemplary teachers take this challenge on as they desire for a learning community that thrives on agency.

Another aspect that continues to change (educators must adhere to) is the latest information on brain research. The amount of new information that has come out in the past decade not only charges us with changing some of our practices, but also gives us areas to delve into that were previously unknown and we didn't had any significance on our instructional practices.

In the early 20th century, educators focused on the "3 R's": reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithametic." By the end of this century, educators pushed to focus on critical reading, whole child development movement, and solving complex problems. In the first two decades of the 2000's, educators have focused on knowledge management, project-based learning, socio-emotional (SEL) development, as well as working with trauma and anxiety informed practices. Specifically with SEL and trauma, educators have started a huge push to meet the basic needs of students first before academics can be successful. Many schools have started placing medical facilities and social workers on campus.

Exemplary teachers are continually reading, researching, and finding the latest brain research as this information is useful immediately. In the article, 8 Brain Research Discoveries Every Instructional Designer Should Know About, the following eight brain discoveries have led to changes in how educators teach, as well as what know about ourselves as learners:

  1. The brain is plastic.
  2. The brain responds to reward.
  3. The adult brain can grow new cells.
  4. We use most areas of the brain.
  5. Cells that fire together, wire together.
  6. No one is neither right-brained nor left-brained.
  7. The human brain can't multitask.
  8. Your brain words like the Internet when accessing information and processing.

The latest brain research in education is showcased each year at the annual Learning and the Brain Conferences held at conferences across the United States.

Exemplary teachers read. Period! They read for not only furthering themselves and growing professionally, but they read for fun. Even if they hate to read, they find time do so because it is what is best for themselves, as well as modeling for their students, colleagues, parents, and community members. We read to stay current. We read to connect with others. We read to cultivate our love learning, as well as creating a sense of enjoyment.

Donalyn Miller touts her 40 Book Challenge. This is a challenge she puts out each year to her intermediate and middle school students. It promotes reading across all genres. Her challenge includes the following: (5) traditional books, (5) realistic fiction, (3) historical fiction, (3) fantasy, (2) science fiction, (2) mystery, (3) nonfictional or informational, (2) Newberry Winners, (2) poetry anthologies, (3) biography/autobiography/memoir, and (10) chapter books of your choice. This concept should be extended to teachers. If we expect students to do this, we should expect teachers to as well. Exemplary teachers take on such a challenge with fervor. Here is a possible list for 40 books all educators should tackle:

  • (2) Harry Wong
  • (5) Robert Marzano
  • (2) Heidi Hayes Jacobs
  • (2) Rick Wormeli
  • (5) Todd Whittaker
  • (2) Steven Layne
  • (2) Dave Burgess
  • (1) Salman Kahn
  • (1) Carol Dweck
  • (1) Angela Duckworth
  • (1) Pete Hall and Kristin Sauers
  • (5) Your Choice of Educational Stories
  • (10) Your Choice

We must be readers. Steve Layne discusses how we can "Ignite a passion for reading" in our students, and we must do so with teachers, too. Administrators should be talking about books, authors, the latest research, and more to ignite the concept of agency within the teaching staff. Exemplary teachers can help start these conversations and research by reading on their own. They may even start an informal or formal book club with colleagues, parents, students, community members, leadership, or a mixture!

Another powerful change agent is action research (AR). It can move the dial on educational innovations in a classroom, school, or district. The amount of time a project takes many times deters a teacher from starting AR, and thus we do not see AR more widespread across school districts. Implementing a new idea, strategy, or philosophy can be excruciating, especially if you do not see any improvements. By forming a question of study, implementing the idea with fidelity, and determining the effect size (the amount of influence over a certain population), AR can support a teacher's growth professionally. Here are the common components in educational action research, according to a recent ASCD article tilted, Guiding School Improvement with Action Research, by Richard Sagor:

  1. Selecting a focus
  2. Clarifying theories
  3. Identifying research questions
  4. Collecting data
  5. Analyzing data
  6. Reporting results
  7. Taking informed action

Another professional development phenomenon, as of late, is the use of mixed media to support a teacher's professional growth. The use of online, books, face-to-face, and other types of media or information can drive change within a classroom. As we learn more about how a student learns best, professional development providers, as well as our own self-discovery, are finding that a combination of learning opportunities through a mixture of media can provide powerful professional growth. For example, one teacher may be able to use www.teachertube.com, watch someone else teach an instructional strategy, and then be able to replicate it instantly in his or her classroom. Another teacher trying to implement the same strategy may need more rationale and connection to a prior instructional strategy as read about in a book. Both teachers may implement the strategy with success, but both teachers are growing professionally through two different means.

Two such popular tools for mixed media presentations are Google Classroom and Screencastify. Both tools allow for video and links focused on a relevant topic. The power of these tools is that the learner can tailor the time, effort, and outcome. If a teacher needs to review a video demonstrating a strategy, they may do so….a million times! If a teacher is soaking in the new information quickly, they may speed through the professional learning opportunity quickly. The ability to tailor the learning pathways are the future of professional development and growth for teachers. The better administrators can differentiate our learning opportunities, the more effective professional development will become. Likewise, the better we understand the way we learn ourselves, the more efficient we become.

An obvious pathway to better one's self is more education. Taking courses or garnering an advanced degree is time consuming, but can be a powerful change agent in a teacher's professional growth. Not only can it increase the knowledge base of a teacher, it can open other opportunities in and out of education. Choosing the correct courses and degree can be difficult, but a wise investment. Some people find a strength, and chose courses in that area, while others fill a need or gap in their own learning.

Writing is another tool that teachers can use to hone their craft. Writing about what a teacher experiences in the school helps solidify their beliefs. Whether the teacher chooses to keep the writing private or anonymous, or if they chose to take their writing public, words can be a powerful change agent. There is an ever-growing online presence of educators sharing their thoughts, ideas, and philosophy through blogs, articles, social media posts, and more. Writing can change, solidify, and transform teaching. Be cautious when you write and know what your administrator or school district allows when sharing your experiences. There are many privacy issues when sharing student behavior, work with colleagues, or parent interactions. In addition, bashing your students, colleagues, school, or district can be counterproductive to the professional growth of a teacher. Good advice to ask yourself whenever you write is the following, "How does this contribute to or change education?" The author's advice to educators is poignant, "We as educators have enough critics in society. We do not need a negative teacher contributing to the tearing down, battering, or defamation of education further." To find positive people, all it takes is typing in the topic you want to learn about, then add the words "and blog." A plethora of bloggers will be produced from the search for your review. This can give you an idea on where you want to start if you choose writing to support your growth and development.

Similar to writing, social media can be a powerful tool in a teacher's professional growth. The most popular social media, or widely used platform, as of 2018 is Twitter. It seems everyone who is anyone in education has a Twitter handle and can be easily found. Communication between classroom teachers in the middle of Montana can now connect with an author in downtown New York City in mere seconds. Social media has opened avenues of learning that have never been thought about before. In fact, many states are now accepting Twitter Chats as a means of getting continuing education units required by all states to remain certified. Finding a social media platform, as well as people to "follow" can be a task…but, a task worth the undertaking. Whether a teacher is taking in new information for professional development, or pushing it out, social media can provide and produce an infinite number of ways to grow yourself professionally.

District leaders are finding new ways to get professional development out to the masses in their school district. They are constantly researching, observing, and finding the best programs, ideas, and philosophies out there. As we learn more about the brain and ourselves, new approaches and programs are created and made available to educators. Leaders are put in a powerful conundrum of doing what is best for the students, as well as what is most efficient, effective, and unfortunately…economical. As allotted money dries up, leaders must also look within their school district to drive a district's growth.

The innovative school districts are doing this by growing their teachers to become leaders. Grassroots movements from teachers seem to be some of the most powerful learning opportunities for teachers. The symbiosis between top down reform and grassroots movements is integral to a district's health and overall growth. Without one or the other, resentment can build leaving a toxic environment where teachers do not want one more top-down initiative. Vice versa, district leaders feel fractured with so many individual movements if not monitored and philosophy discussed. Does this sound like the balance of powers in our government structure?

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2 - What Role Do Colleagues Play in a Teacher's Professional Growth and Development?

Colleagues play a vital role in the development of a teacher's growth. When an atmosphere of caring and sharing is created, teachers can thrive.

Informal and formal mentors are a powerful tool that districts, and even individuals, can use to further their growth. Formal mentors are those that are assigned to a new teacher, or teacher in need of further support. Mentors can be assigned to new employees as they start in the district…veteran or new to the profession. Having someone to share ideas, model instruction, and support with educational tasks within a school district support the success of the teacher, as well as increasing the chances of retention. Formal mentors can be in the same building, or the same school district. They can be at the same grade level, or different, and they have a lot of experience to offer a new teacher. Formal mentors can support with the creation and solidification of philosophy, instructional strategies, assessment ideas, building classroom culture, working with curriculum development, and more.

Informal mentors are those not necessarily assigned by an administrator to a teacher, but take on the role of mentoring someone new to the school. These mentors are in the school building and are easily accessible. They are used for deep discussions, as well as small issues that arise in day-to-day teaching. It may be as simple as demonstrating how to use the copy machine, or they may take on more roles as mentioned above in the formal mentor section.

As mentioned in question one above, social media can take on the role of professional development. Finding colleagues online that can give advice, share ideas, and collaborate can be daunting. The fortunate piece of advice is that no matter what our interests or needs, if we take the time we can find someone that can support us! Even when you are teaching in a remote village in Chevak, Alaska, a colleague with an idea is only a click away. We create circles of influence when using social media. We may have colleagues that we talk to every day on education, or we may find a person we contact only once about a specific idea. These circles may coincide or change over time, but if we understand how they are created and work, we can better align ourselves professionally.

How well does your school "team?" The leadership within the school first drives the ability to team in a school. Hopefully, your school district makes teaming a priority. Some of the best ideas come from a group of individuals that team. Obviously, multiple brainpower is more effective and efficient that one individual brain. Teams look different in every school across America, but there are some things that are common in the most successful teams. Read the article, The Best Teaming Rubric Out There: How Would You Score Your Team?, and score your team on the rubric. Then set a goal and track its progress.

Goal setting has one of the highest effect sizes with students according to John Hattie's research in the book, Visible Learning. With an effect size of 0.40, it is ranked as one of the most effective interventions teachers can implement. Likewise, administrators that have teachers goal set can use this same powerful intervention to grow teachers professionally. Teachers can do this on their own as well, but many of us like the added pressure by having someone else check our goals routinely to see if we are making specific benchmarks along the way.

A teacher's relationship with their administrator or team of administrators can cause a teacher to grow or fail. A teacher can thrive or leave the profession because of this understated and underutilized relationship. A true teacher leader steps up, asks for more, and creates a powerful relationship with their administrator in hopes of success for not only the students in their classroom, but hopefully the school district as a whole. The more success of students and teachers, the more success for the school district as well. Living out the district's mission and vision should be evident in the work of all teachers and administrators daily. With that being stated, exemplary teachers know the mission and vision of their school district.

Building a trusting relationship is the responsibility of both the teacher and the administrator. An administrator can support the teacher by finding opportunities for learning for specific students, as well as for an entire school. Likewise, a teacher can support the leadership by doing the same thing. Creating teacher leaders reduces the load of the administrator, creates a philosophy of "we," and not just "me." Teachers can also step up when someone else may not be able to. Advice the author gives to all staff members states, "everyone is responsible for creating a place where you want to work and learn together." If you are not contributing in some fashion, someone else has to step up covering for you. Exemplary teachers know that by supporting the administration and colleagues, a successful school environment is created based on strong positive relationships where learning is nurtured and celebrated.

Exemplary teachers search out those who can give feedback that is critical to their development. They do not shy away from feedback that may be contradictory to what they believe. They take in numerous responses, both qualitative and quantitative data, in order to grow and enhance their teaching practices. Exemplary teachers use several different professionals, administrators, and colleagues to elicit feedback. Teachers can ask for generalized feedback, or more specific. The use of Dr. Robert Marzano's, Instructional Rounds, is one structure that teachers can use to provide meaningful feedback. Here are the three basic components of this observation structure:

  • Lesson segments that involve routine events that might be observed in every lesson.
  • Lesson segments that address content.
  • Lesson segments that are enacted on the spot.

A positive environment centered on professional development and growth is both the responsibility of the teacher and the leadership within in the school. Fortunately, if the school is not providing a nurturing environment, a teacher can create their own professional development pathway. Agency, or the ability to take ownership of one's own learning, is a characteristic most found in exemplary teachers. They challenge themselves and search out professional development opportunities without someone telling them. When teachers are willing to learn from one another, and do so together as a team, a community of learners can change a school.

3 - How Does Service or Giving Back to the Education Profession Grow and Develop a Teacher?

Another powerful strategy that can grow a teacher is the idea of service or giving back to the education profession. There are an infinite amount of ways to give back to education. Exemplary teachers automatically give back in some fashion whether it is teaching courses in their district, mentoring other teachers, supporting leadership with ideas, volunteering time by supporting colleagues, and more. Though you may never become a millionaire in the education profession, exemplary teachers understand by giving back they not only help others, but they are modeling the true meaning of education. This selfless act of servitude makes these exemplary teachers stand out. Other colleagues want to work with them, they search them out for projects, they include them in making decisions, encourage them to participate in committees, and so much more.

Exemplary teacher search out leadership roles within the grade level, school, and district. Their vast experience and enthusiastic attitude is celebrated and they are recommended for these roles. The positive energy that these teachers bring to the proverbial table, helps make sure all decisions are made with students best interests in mind. These leadership roles also support the growth and development of the teacher. They learn how to listen, compromise, and make tough decisions as a team. Their growth mindset is obvious in the words and actions they chose to use.

Not very often do you find a group of teachers so hungry they are willing to voluntarily meet to discuss a book, yet they are out there. Exemplary teachers are not afraid to start a book study or book club and include their colleagues just for fun and the betterment of themselves. These teachers seek others who want to get better together. They then put the reading into action in the classroom. Their discussions are powerful when they take ideas from the book, implement them, and reflect and share back the success or failure with their group. They lead or start these groups and give back to their students and colleagues. Exemplary teachers seek out these professional development opportunities, as well as conducive atmospheres where they feel they can thrive…be it a grade level, school, or school district.

Social media can be an area where teachers can give back to the profession. You will find many educators writing blogs, articles, conducting research and more by posting it online for the education community to read. Exemplary teachers may even start a social media group centered on a common theme. This may be in the form of Twitter Chat, Facebook Page, or even Instant Messaging group. The ideas are limitless. Exemplary teachers make sure the postings are solution-orientated and influence others with a growth mindset. These teachers also understand that forming a group with the intent of bashing others only tears down your district, school, colleagues, as well as discrediting yourself.

Many exemplary teachers find a way to not only give back to education, but to also make some extra cash on the side. Their expertise is wanted and they become mentors to others entering the profession, as well as those that are veterans. They may find themselves teaching college courses, teaching workshops and seminars, as well as leading professional development during professional learning community offerings. Partnering with the nearest community college or university can support the growth of an exemplary teacher.

RELATED - How to Become a Teacher and Should I Become a Teacher?

As mentioned above, mentoring teachers that are new to the profession or that are need of more support is another characteristic of exemplary teachers. They offer up materials, resources, and time to meet with these teachers. They model, have conversations, give feedback, and use questioning to challenge and drive change with teachers. They may even using a coaching model as stated in Jim Knight's book, Instructional Coaching: A Partnership in Approach to Improving Instruction. They use the questioning model when they have conversations with these teachers. In addition, they use learning structures such as walk-throughs, instructional rounds, and observation to get better.

Exemplary teachers have an influence on their grade level, school, and district. This influence is much like the influence they have over the students and parents connected to their classrooms. They are revered and sought after to take part in several functions at all different levels within the school district. People want to be around these exemplary teachers. In fact, they may even have a connection to business partners, non-profit organizations, and more…all because the leadership of these entities want to be connected to these exemplary teachers. Then there is the top 1% of the top 1%. These exemplary teachers have an influence on a far greater population outside of the school district, state, or country. They may have created videos of their content that students and families can use, much like the Montana Teacher of the Year in 2012, Paul Anderson. He helped lead the flipped classroom concept over a decade ago. His videos have been viewed across the world thousands of times. Another example are two sisters from the small rural town of Colton, Washington. They started a reading structure that has five components, called Daily 5. This multi-million dollar company has led a reading revolution across not only the country, but the world. As you can see, an exemplary teacher's influence is evident and observable!

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Jon Konen