Recognizing Teachers as Learners is Critical to Education Reform

Learner-centered experiences are critical to education reform, especially when the learners are teachers.

For many decades, policymakers and researchers have debated and even experimented with the best ways to educate schoolchildren. Whether we aim to create a skilled workforce, enterprising entrepreneurs, or compassionate public servants, schools take center stage. Often, the performance of education reform casts the adults in the school buildings as administrators and teachers with ever-expanding roles as enforcers, social workers, and dream makers. Although these adults have undergone character development that rivals the complexity of Shonda Rhimes’ leading ladies, we seem to reserve the role of learner for students only.

While achievement for ALL students remains the primary outcome for schooling, public or private, teachers shape how young people imagine, understand, and navigate their worlds. Therefore, if we wish to establish a culture of achievement and instill a sense of purposeful lifelong learning, we must rewrite our scripts for schooling to nurture teachers as professionals, and more importantly as learners. 

Research on teaching and learning reports overwhelming evidence that student-centered instruction, such as project-based learningscience inquiry or design-thinking activities, can increase college and career readiness by developing 21st century skills, also known as the 4C’s: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. Note this learner-centered genre of classroom instruction likely aligns with many educators’ teaching philosophies. Still, teachers deserve learner-centered experiences of their own with ample opportunities to learn, practice, and revise instructional and assessment strategies that engage students in lessons that extend beyond the mastery of academic standards to build character, spark innovative thinking, and foster a sense of community.

This blog considers how time and collaboration set the scene for teachers to perform as learners.

Time
Learning occurs as ideas change over time. Shaped by spontaneous or designed experiences, understanding does not happen instantly or osmotically, much to Charlemange’s dismay. All learners, including teachers, need time to actively make sense of new information and the expectations for demonstrated proficiency. More specifically, teachers benefit most from effective professional development that takes place over an extended period of time.

When policymakers, researchers, or administrators recommend that teachers implement new, research-based curricula or instructional strategies in their classrooms, they must recognize that the familiar professional development workshops AND the classroom implementation comprise the learning experience. Therefore, school administrators’ evaluations of classroom teaching and student learning should remain formative for the first few efforts and employed as means to determine coaching or mentoring supports and appropriate adaptations to classroom realities. More summative evaluations, those tied to promotion or compensation, should be reserved for a broader review of teachers’ repertoire of instructional strategies that have actually been practiced over a reasonable period of time.

Collaboration
Schools bring together teachers who desire to influence the next generation with students’ youthful energy and imagination. Even so, almost 70% of teachers report feeling isolated or disengaged. Feelings of isolation decrease job satisfaction and reduce motivation to engage in reflective practice. More importantly, it limits exposure to new ideas and feedback that prompt the iterative refinement of instructional practices that lead to sustained student achievement.

[clear]The African adage, “two heads are better than one”, gifts us with wisdom that teachers seldom thrive when working alone. They need opportunities like Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), to collaborate with each other. Far more fruitful than teachers attending one-time professional development workshops during summer breaks and in-service days, administrators set aside time for ongoing sessions that draw upon the expertise of fellow teachers to identify and facilitate learning opportunities. As PLC participants collaboratively plan, implement, and reflect on their classroom instruction, they negotiate teaching philosophies, customize curricular resources to best meet their students’ needs, and most importantly, share and receive constructive feedback to increase teacher effectiveness. In other words, they learn.

When we respect time as a mediator for learning and teachers as community of professional learners, we honor the complexities of classroom instruction and the deft pedagogy required to increase student achievement. As we continue to anticipate the shifting storyline of education reform, we must remain open to evolving roles of teachers and advocate for policies that position teachers as lifelong learners and facilitators of student success.

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