Welcome to the new school year! I hope it’s been a great experience so far, full of the excitement and rush of newness. In the spirit of that classic September assignment “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” I’m going to tell you about one of the adventures I had this summer and the way it’s changing my thinking about the work that I do.
A colleague and I had the good fortune of leading a 3-day summer workshop for Kindergarten teachers hosted by our provincial teacher’s union (If you’re reading this from outside of Ontario, you may be thinking: “Your union provides PD… what’s up with that?!?” We’re a lucky bunch.) This workshop was focused on the new Kindergarten Program Document and the assessment framework laid out in the Growing Success Addendum for Kindergarten. We also wanted to touch on some of the themes (eek! that word!) of our Kindergarten program: the teaching partnership, the classroom environment, outdoor inquiry, and the thoughtful use of materials.
It was a jam-packed agenda for three days together and we approached the planning with some jumpy nerves. How could we plan for three days of learning without knowing who we were going to be working with? When you’re presenting about a student-led, inquiry-based program, it doesn’t make much sense to plan everything out minute-by-minute. We felt that the meta-message of the workshop needed to align with the messages coming out of our mouths. You can’t credibly tell people: “You need to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs.” while simultaneously ignoring the learning needs of the people in front of you.
So we began with enough material for the first two days, with the intention of planning the third day responsively, but after the first morning it became obvious, based on the questions that teachers and educators were sharing and the notes they were sending forward to us, that we would need to re-think our planning sooner than that.
So we did, and we continued to plan in the same responsive way over the next two and a half days. We also talked to each other about our plans, right in front of the workshop participants, because we wanted to model that collaborative teaching partnership that is so important to a successful Kindergarten classroom in Ontario. Sometimes it probably looked like we weren’t organized but, while the type-A part of my brain squirms uncomfortably at that perception, I know that the structured improvisation of inquiry-based planning is often what dictates its success in keeping it closely tied to the learning needs of the students. It’s going to look a bit messy; by nature it’s not a tidy process.
In reflecting on the process of those three days, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the professional development experience in education. We are very accustomed to receiving our professional development in a tidy, packaged format. We’ve been schooled in being good consumers and we often expect to be passive receptacles of information that’s delivered to us in a well-polished box. I know that I’ve been guilty of those preconceptions. What does that do to the process of professional development? When it’s so one-sided, what are we really learning? How does it impact on changing professional practice when the process is so divorced from the needs and interests of the people around the table?
The learning for me, as a person who’s often at the front (side, back – I like to wander) of the room, has been that shifting those perceptions about what professional development “should be”is a challenge. Our expectations are a strong fortress. They protect us, true, but they also confine us. Teaching responsively requires not just an attitude of curiosity but it also requires honesty from both sides of the process. You can’t meet people’s needs when they won’t share them. It really distributes the burden of responsibility when the “leader” isn’t always the one in charge. The success of our professional learning suddenly isn’t someone else’s responsibility; it’s ours.
I was at a meeting last week, led by a teacher who has been seconded to our provincial Ministry of Education. At the beginning of the meeting she announced, with a twinkle in her eye: “I have an agenda for today, but really, it’s nonsense… we’ll be going wherever you want to take us.” And so we did, and it was great. It was a little bit chaotic, and we didn’t always know what would happen next, but we left having learned what was relevant to us. For each of us that was different. And we were okay with that. I wonder what would happen if this started to be our new normal. Would some of our cynicism about teacher PD dissolve if we felt more responsible for our learning, if it were more responsive to us? Would we rise to the challenge?