Meaningful Professional Learning: One School’s Story
Post written by Linda Ashida and Kim Miklusak
The most important aspect of professional learning is its relevance to the classroom: authentic topics and immediate usefulness to every teacher. The clearest way to make sure this is accomplished is to hand over some of the structure to the teachers themselves who can then learn from each other. At Elk Grove High School in Illinois, professional learning that started in small, interdisciplinary Peer Observation Groups (POGs) inspired schoolwide institute days that are completely staff-led—with support from the administration—and that have transformed the culture of learning to empower and energize each and every educator.
The Evolution of Peer Observation Groups
The initial inspiration for POGs came in part from District 214's New Teacher program. Year 2 teachers and their mentors have the option of participating in a walk-through project, a day of observation and reflection at a host school. Feedback from this activity was positive: teachers appreciated both the time to observe their peers at work and the experience of sharing with teachers from across levels and disciplines. Elk Grove's instructional coach was inspired in part by her own participation in this micro-experience and began to think: what if teachers were able to participate in walk throughs and reflections at their own school throughout the year? Thus began the original idea for POGs.
In the first year she suggested the idea to a small group of colleagues, and this led to the formation of two groups of six teachers from various disciplines. The groups met on an overlapping two-week cycle: the first week was a pre-observation conference in which the host teacher would highlight a focus area for observation feedback. The observation was held the following week. A week later the group met to reflect, share their learning, and set up the next observation. What the groups grew into, however, was more than they expected. Teachers made connections across subjects, realizing that the skills they taught crossed boundaries. For example history, English, and science teachers collaborated on ways to best teach writing, vocabulary, and other skills, which provided students with a common experience and expectation across classes.
For the following two years the groups grew exponentially from the original 12 participants to 42 people in five groups. Teachers, counselors, speech pathologist, school psychologists, and even a substitute teacher joined. Once again the focus of the group exceeded expectations: non-classroom staff were able to make connections on how to help classroom teachers best serve all of their students and provide insight from a Student Services' perspective, and classroom teachers, in turn, were able to provide insight into various instructional techniques—thus increasing the capacity of the broader learning community.
Over time—and based on the needs of the group—each POG naturally transformed to meet a specific focus. For example, a 6th period POG began to focus on elements of 1:1 iPad instruction; this group serves not only to learn from each other but also to provide job-embedded professional learning to their peers outside their group. Furthermore, the POG structure inspired additional teacher leadership opportunities. In addition to the instructional coach, two teacher-leaders who were in the original POG now run the 2nd period group.
Transformative Professional Learning Beyond POGs
Another way the POGs exceeded expectations was the energization of teachers to share their learning beyond the groups. After just one semester, the participants were inspired to share their learning to the broader school community. They proposed to the administration the school's first teacher-led Institute Day. Teachers suggested topics for sessions and experts in the building to present. The first year there were 18 workshops with 25 presenters; the second year that grew to 28 workshops with nearly 40 presenters! On these days teachers were free to choose the presentations arranged around different elements of the Danielson rubric in order to provide teachers with formative feedback which helped them better understand expectations, see examples of model work, and reflect upon their own teaching.
To continue fostering the collaborative relationships they had started, teachers wanted their own learning space. While the POGs had met in teachers' classrooms, there is now have a dedicated hub called The Collab Lab. The room is covered with notes and examples of teachers' work, all examples of the multi-leveled collaboration throughout the school. As the groups grew, the Collab Lab grew as well: no longer just a physical space but now a virtual space. The Collab Lab began using the website and the Twitter handle @EGCollabLab to organize a common area of resources including the POG schedule, Institute Day information, a blog, and Resource Hub for materials including lesson studies and video clips of teachers' classes.
What started as a small group of teachers learning together has broadened into a true Professional Learning Network—organized from the ground up by teachers and for teachers in the school and beyond. Two other districts have partnered with Elk Grove to start their own POGs and teacher-led professional development, and now every school in District 214 is in some stage of beginning their own POGs, inspired by this model. The Collab Lab's next goal is to begin incorporating students into the POGs to provide additional feedback to teachers during the lesson studies and to provide preservice learning to students who hope to become teachers. The work done by these staff members has been inspiring, benefiting the entire learning community.
Linda Ashida is a world language teacher and instructional coach at Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. Her interest in facilitating meaningful, job-embedded professional learning led to the formation of Peer Observation Groups which she has facilitated for three years. Next year she will take on a new full time coaching role as the school's innovative technology facilitator. Connect with Ashida on Twitter @Ashida_Linda.
Kim Miklusak is an English teacher at Elk Grove High School. She has participated in Peer Observation Groups for three years and now co-facilitates one group. Next year she will be serving in an additional role as a department technology coach. Connect with Miklusak on Twitter @MrsMiklusak.