Prioritized Meaning Making and Professional Learning

It’s far too easy these days to get distracted when thinking about any communication related to teachers, student learning, and schools. With the many optimistic tweeters sharing links to ideas and events that support their views, news reports of what’s wrong with schools and teachers, and entrepreneurs vying for my endorsement and selling their “one-of-a-kind” product and services, I am feeling overwhelmed by the task of prioritized meaning making. I can only imagine what my colleagues in P-12 schools are experiencing. In full disclosure, in wrestling with sorting all of the information and messages, I now believe it’s the process of engaging in prioritized meaning making that leads to relevant and powerful professional learning.

And just be clear about where I stand: I don’t yet tweet about my new found epiphanies but apparently a blog is a safe first step; I still believe in the power and difference well-supported educators can make in a place called school; and what I sell is most akin to what Hoy, Tarter & Hoy (2009) call “academic optimism” about the collective power of optimism to guide and enhance educators’ expectations for student learning and achievement. As I’ve said far too many times lately, it’s that simple and that complicated.

I recently participated in one of the Michigan Department of Education’s focus groups spending a morning with some incredibly thoughtful and engaged teacher educators and leaders to consider the current certification requirements, field experiences, mentoring, and induction programs for those learning to teach. The morning experiences triggered some ideas for me to further ponder related to how prioritized meaning making impacts professional learning:

Idea #1: There are many educators in the State of Michigan who care deeply about and are committed to the preparation of and ongoing support and mentoring for beginning teachers, but we have not often worked collaboratively to prioritize our efforts. As a 20-year veteran teacher educator directly involved in teacher preparation, novice teacher induction, and mentoring and often distracted by the daily challenges of that work, it’s been easy to lose my perspective of this larger community of practice to which I belong and share many interests and commitments. I was struck by how many in the room both acted from an experiential and academically informed position, and yet there were so few who had intentionally collaborated across institutions to both share and glean expertise in regards to preparing teachers. Sure, there were lots of people who knew one another, but not many in higher education whose routine work was integrated towards a shared common goal.

One teacher educator in particular stood out as exceptionally inspired. She spoke passionately of her own practice as deeply intertwined and intentionally connected to the work of the K-12 schools, “If there’s a district task force that relates to preparing teachers in literacy, I’m on it! I’m there walking the walk and talking the talk as I’m creating deep relationships that allow me to provide the kinds of collaborative professional learning and mentoring so that my student interns get the best possible learning experiences they can have!”  I knew I needed to know more about her motivation and inspiration, so I asked, “Why do you go the extra mile?”

To which she replied, “Parents and teachers still send their children to us in order to teach them how to become the best possible teachers they can be. This learning has to happen in schools with students and teachers along with my coaching and mentoring. I believe in the process and therefore I will do whatever I can to be the teacher educator that prepares teachers who know how to teach reading with actual students!”

Her words struck a chord in me. She was singing my commitments as well. I was not alone. Soon many others chimed in about the ways in which they too were engaged in working with teachers, schools, and districts to support and mentor student teachers, practicing teachers, and school administrators. As I listened and applauded the many individuals who were exceptional in enacting relationships focused on job-embedded, data-driven professional learning in communities of practice, it occurred to me that there weren’t examples yet shared about institutions cultivating a community of practice. I have been reflecting for several weeks now about what it would take for teacher preparation programs to systematically coordinate efforts that reflected high quality professional learning standards with a vision of a collaborative community of practice that could be flexible and adaptive to one’s context? Would this approach lead to reducing the high levels of distraction, information overload, and lack of coherence in approaches to both preparing and supporting practicing educators?

Idea #2: Learning to teach effectively is a complex and complicated endeavor for all educators from early child development programs through graduate school. Another lesson reinforced in the stakeholders meeting emerged as the 40 educators, administrators, and higher education faculty discussed the scope and sequence of programs that prepare teachers who engage all learners.  As the facilitators of the focus groups guided the groups to consider such questions about the professional learning demands of teachers of middle school versus elementary or high school and the role of schools within early and student teaching field experiences, certainty and clarity were present only when discussing what seems to be working in one’s context. While a few felt comfortable prescribing standardized approaches for all institutions and educators, some were concerned that such suggestions would lead to overly rigid mandates about the requirements for certification. Further, some believed that such requirements had lead to a tradition that has created tricky challenges when wrestling with the ebb and flow of the supply and demand of teachers and the glacial-paced change efforts in many institutions of higher education teacher preparation programs. “It’s the lack of flexibility in current certification rules that allowed alternative routes to certification and quick and dirty ongoing professional learning to occur,” pointed out one school leader from an urban school district.  Clearly change that requires holding sacred principles of learning to teach while allowing for flexibility and adaptability within the system is a scary but also attractive thought for many in this group of stakeholders.

Idea #3: Professional learning standards underscore and are mentioned as the gold standards of mentoring and induction programs, but they are not always understood as non-negotiables when structures, budgets, and personnel challenges emerge.  As I listened to passionate educators share their challenges with providing high quality professional learning directly connected to actual instructional practice using a well-scaffolded approach, I heard the pain and agony of making difficult choices. Educators were actively prioritizing how time, resources, personnel, and social capital were allocated on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis. Some were at high levels of collaboratively enacting a theory of change that positioned a clearly defined view of instructional practice and the necessary professional learning as the vehicle for enacting that change. Others were isolated in their efforts to both prioritize and champion high standards of professional learning. No one believed there were quick or easy fixes when wrestling with conflicting demands on time, resources, or personnel.

Those in my smaller group and then during the larger share outs who were most outspoken about how to best mentor and support beginning teachers held clear visions of deep, collaborative relationships between teachers, schools, and teacher preparation programs. They shared well-articulated agreements, design principles, and co-constructed plans that valued educators’ voice and agency in their professional learning. Further, they were committed to a long term vision whereby all educators could continue to both receive and provide mentoring and support to one another to remain focused on instructional improvement and professional growth.

My take away from the entire experience was a renewed commitment to engaging in the larger community of practice that supports the professional learning of those learning to teach and deepening all of our practice. I recognize and am grateful for the collective academic optimism about those things over which we can change through exerting our influence. I’m convinced that the best way to do this is to be more selective when listening to the noise, messages, and ideas so that what I choose to attend to is intentionally aligned with my commitments in preparing, mentoring, and supporting educators in collaborative communities of practice. This is my professional learning standard.

– by Wendy Burke, Eastern Michigan University