By Dirk F. Zuschlag
When a diverse band of teachers plunges into a teacher lab, even the more skeptical emerge with an insightful, inspirational, and empowering professional learning experience, its positive impact transcending any specific grade level, content area, or instructional strategy.
“You don’t understand. I teach fourth grade. I need to know how to teach these new math units we just got handed. I don’t see how I’ll get anything out of watching and talking about some first grade teacher’s reading workshop. Besides, I’ve already got too much to do, too much that’s new, this year. I’ll think about it for next time.” My learning coach colleagues and I encountered many variations of this sentiment as we traveled throughout our district last fall, visiting every school (19), meeting every staff (totaling about 600). Enthusiastically, we rolled-out our plans for a first-ever series of teacher labs in our district. We ended each presentation with an appeal for a broad range of voluntary participants. Still we heard skepticism from teachers in every building. We heard it from the newest and most veteran teachers, as well as everyone in between. We heard it from teachers at all grade levels and in all content areas. We even heard it, wondered about it, among ourselves. It was a fair, wholly understandable point.
We had developed a stock of rejoinders, of course. We would explain that this year’s labs were pilots, trial runs of the learning processes which would (eventually) benefit the whole district; that given our present resources and capacities, we were attempting to offer an inclusive, authentic, and useful professional learning experience for as many teachers as possible; that we wanted feedback on the lab model itself from many points of view; that, we hoped the initial labs would whet teachers’ appetites and create a favorable “buzz” around our lab model; that we were aiming to grow a diverse base to sustain, improve and even extend this highly effective mode of professional learning. Finally, we would always conclude, “Anyway, you know, good instruction is good instruction.” These explanations had the virtue of being true. Also, they were almost convincing. Yet we knew that only the actual experience of a lab itself would change minds—and practices. Our Sam-I-Am conviction was that, if our colleagues would only try it, they’d like our green eggs and ham. That’s what we thought; what we needed were a few small successes.
Our first chance came with our first teacher lab toward the end of January. Our host, a first grade teacher, wanted to focus on her use of “stickiness principles.” Near the beginning of the school year, a colleague teaching at another school recommended that our host read Shanna Schwartz’s A Quick Guide to Making Your Teaching Stick K-5 [Workshop Help Desk Series, Lucy Calkins, ed. (Heinemann, 2008)]. After reading this very short book, our host decided to adapt and incorporate several of its strategies—those concerning repetition, gestures, and physical representations—into her daily reading workshop lessons. Now, several months later, she was willing to open her classroom door to twelve other elementary teachers using the lab model to explore her instructional innovation.
The observer-participants, who all varied in teaching experience, came from their own classrooms at nine of the district’s thirteen elementary buildings. Together they taught every elementary grade (only one was a first grade teacher), and several had split or multi-grade assignments. Some were acquaintances, but most had not seriously collaborated with one another. Here were thirteen very different people with very different experiences and points of view. This was clearly going to be a new experience for everyone involved. This was certainly going to be as good a test as any of our lab model.
The lab day flew by, and … it worked! (Whew!) Despite our missteps and shortcomings, all the planning and preparation, the host’s courage and skill, the group’s open-minded trust and active participation in the entire learning process, all paid off in obvious, invigorating, collaborative professional learning. The group members’ range and diversity seemed to stimulate imaginations and to promote connections as it expanded the nature and bounds of each individual’s reflection and the entire group’s discourse. Nor were the energy and synergy limited to the specific strategies the host’s focus involved; rather they encompassed affective components about kids and teaching in general. (I teach high school social studies, and the lab prompted me to get the book and modify some of my own practices to increase their “stickiness.”)
In addition to our personal impressions of the lab day, we sought feedback in several forms. Group members wrote a final individual reflection on the day, as well as a personal thank you note to the host. Participants used sticky notes to indicate “Gots and Wants” from the lab experience. This on-the-spot feedback included a number of good suggestions and requests—a few for, yes, grade level specific labs in the future. Regarding this first in our series of ground-breaking labs, however, reactions were overwhelmingly positive. We later sent out an on-line survey, to which all the participants responded. Here, too, the feedback was up-beat and encouraging across the board. All participants agreed (2-3) or strongly agreed (10-11) with such statements as, “My participation in the learning lab …” “… was worth my time out of the classroom,” “… should have a positive impact on the achievement of students in my classroom,” and “… has motivated me to reflect on my own practice.” All would “recommend the learning lab experience to [their] professional colleagues.” When it came to describing their experience in their own words, all participants were still more effusive. We could legitimately celebrate an initial success.
Over the remaining seven teacher labs this year, our hosts taught at four different elementary schools, both middle schools, and one of the two comprehensive high schools, as well as the alternative high school. Their classes and lessons ranged across grades and content areas at all school levels—in the elementary schools, from second grade writing workshop to fifth grade math to three/four multi-age science; in the middle schools, from to eighth grade algebra to seventh grade general science; in the high schools, from tenth grade biology to eleventh grade ELA. These labs included special and general education teachers, who collectively taught all K-12 grade levels, at virtually all the district’s schools, across all core and the principle special classes (art, music, physical education).
These labs, moreover, were not only as diverse as the first, but were equally well-received and appreciated as truly useful, professional and effective job-embedded professional learning. The feedback received, in all its forms, was comparable in all facets to that following the first lab. For example, 85% of the teachers in all the labs strongly agreed that they were worthwhile, positive and impactful professional learning opportunities. (The other 15% agreed as well.) One colleague’s daughter created the following word cloud from the three words lab participants themselves offered to describe his/her lab experience:
In short, thanks to our openly curious, engaged, and brave hosts and participants, each and every lab vindicated the lab model and its processes as awesome job-embedded professional learning. Further, while differing in so many respects, our pilots uniformly confirmed the beneficial educational effects of widely diverse lab participation.
K-12 education has no dearth of conventional wisdom we teachers say we believe guides our profession. But it takes participation in job-embedded professional learning like teacher labs to demonstrate, actively and concretely, the underlying reality of a more than few accepted truisms about professional learning: Good instruction really is good instruction; all teachers really can learn with and from each and every other; high quality professional learning really will impact teachers’ day-to-day practices, thus enhancing student achievement. We coaches, facilitators, and staff developers all face the same task as any effective educator: To provide the best professional learning opportunities, to motivate our colleagues to seize upon them as means to professional growth, and then to broaden, deepen, and sharpen them in an ongoing cycle of improvement.