The Benefits of Collaborative, Continuous Professional Development

  • Allison Ashley by Allison Ashley, 2017 Texas Teacher of the Year

    This column, published in the winter 2016 issue of INSIGHT, is the first in a series called "Teacher Perspective."
    No shortage of opinions exist on what constitutes “professional development” or, simply put, what makes it good. While this term is often associated with full-day teacher trainings, I think of it broadly as the process of learning that improves student outcomes through meaningful changes in one’s practice.

    When recently interviewed for Texas Teacher of the Year, I found myself reflecting upon some of the most effective professional learning experiences in my career. A common theme emerged: Professional development has the greatest impact on my teaching and student learning when it is both collaborative and continuous in nature.

    I am fortunate to work in a district that offers a National Board Certification candidate cohort and invests in teacher leadership pathways. These professional development experiences have contributed greatly to my effectiveness as a teacher, both within and beyond the walls of my classroom.

    My understanding of excellent teaching and meaningful student learning has evolved over time, as a result of being in the classroom, coaching novice teachers and attending graduate school. However, pursuing National Board Certification through Austin ISD’s cohort program helped me clarify my vision of excellent teaching in a way no other professional learning experience had. During our periodic meetings, colleagues and I would discuss the extent to which the national board’s teaching standards were present in our classes. Internalizing the organization’s vision for accomplished teaching and working toward a full and documented implementation of these standards alongside my colleagues revolutionized my teaching in an unparalleled way.

    The National Board Certification process pushed me to translate theory into practice and increased my focus on evaluating its influence on students. For example, in my cohort of fellow teacher candidates, I reflected upon the extent to which students were really the center of my instruction, how much authentic and student-driven conversation happened throughout the day, students’ abilities to take the perspectives of others and the effectiveness on my parent engagement efforts. Identifying these areas for growth, in collaboration with other teachers, helped push my practice forward.

    Austin ISD’s cohort model for supporting National Board Certification provided opportunities for ongoing and meaningful collaboration with others. Meetings led by a board-certified teacher kept me on track. Working with candidates across the city exposed me to best practices in our community. I was matched with a mentor, who, through insightful questioning, pushed me to reflect on strengths and areas for growth in my teaching.
    After receiving National Board Certification, I continued to work with our district candidacy program as a mentor and, later, as a cohort facilitator. Collaborating with a diverse group of high-performing teachers and gaining insights into their practice have been a source of continued learning and inspiration.

    In addition to National Board Certification, I have benefited greatly from the work my district has done around promoting teacher leadership. As teachers, we must work collaboratively to strengthen our collective impact on student achievement. Learning to lead our colleagues is a much-needed focus of teacher development efforts.

    Continuous Learning

    Recently, through Austin ISD, I participated in year-long series of professional development experiences that helped team leaders deepen their understanding of what effective teamwork looks like. Through these efforts, teacher leaders came together a number of times throughout the year to discuss the realities of our leadership efforts and identify areas for improvement. Much of our work was grounded in the concept of professional learning communities.

    At my campus, we built upon the district-led initiative and outlined key goals for our work as team leaders. As a vertical leadership team, we then benchmarked our progress through faculty surveys throughout the year. This allowed us to analyze our collective impact, highlight team successes and share best practices, and address common dilemmas across grade levels. Over time, we increased our effectiveness in leading teams, which set the foundation for improving our teaching practice and increasing student achievement.

    Austin ISD provided our group of team leaders ongoing learning experiences
    around professional learning communities and offered release time for our vertical teacher leadership to meet each semester.

    Our school administrators worked with us to identify strengths and areas of need in our leadership efforts and then provided time and space for us to meet monthly. Their efforts demonstrate a commitment to our leadership work.

    District- and campus-level administration play a key role in cultivating teacher leadership through these types of collaborative and continuous professional development activities. When done well, this can translate into meaningful changes in teacher practice and have a significant impact on student outcomes.