Jan Ott and Garden Crew, ChinquapinA major shift in the force of education has emerged as teachers have become self-directed, independent designers of their own learning.  Embracing social media, blogging, and learning from one another in digital spaces, they have forged a new era of professional development that is changing classrooms from the ground up. Simultaneously, and perhaps because of their online interactions, teachers also have begun to re-energize the professional learning in their brick-and-mortar professional spaces.

When We Were Young

In my novice years as a teacher, I learned some tricks of the trade from a few good mentors. But mostly I learned from my own trial and error and from my colleagues, fellow adjuncts or non-tenure track full-timers at the U.S. Naval Academy, the American University, and George Mason University. Often crammed into a communal office space, we listened in on one another’s conversations with students, shared ideas for assignments, and debated the best way to teach writing to students who thought they were ready for college.  Learning from my peers, who were struggling with the same issues I faced every day in the classroom, proved an excellent foundation for my career in education.

As I began teaching high school, I found my colleagues hard to track down. Either they were too loaded up with grading, coaching, or extra-curricular duties, or they were isolated, planning lessons, in their own classrooms, or they were racing down the hall to their next class. I found a few colleagues with whom I could talk about the stuff that mattered – how our students learned – but most were too busy or too burnt out to want to do anything but go home and crash. Often, we were encouraged to visit one another’s classes, but usually this initiative was rejected as a top-down directive, or we simply let it sink to the bottom of a long “to do” list. Thus, ironically, I grew lonelier professionally even as I gained mastery of my field.

Making Professional Learning Personal

Things are different now. I can crowd-source and share resources with others in my profession via Twitter. I follow other teachers’ blogs to learn from their reflections on their mistakes and their successes. I can Skype or use Google Hang-Out to build on our shared knowledge of our profession in collaborative presentations we can present online or at a conference. My professional development occurs every day, and it doesn’t come in the form of useless “sit and git” seminars, as Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach calls them, arranged by well-meaning administrators enraptured with the trend of the month.

So now I regularly seek out inspiration from those teachers who stretch my thinking and keep me jazzed about the profession I love. I get off campus and visit former colleagues at new schools to see how learning can be transformed by a new space and a new vision.  I check in with teachers I’ve connected with over the years who are voracious, thirsty learners on their own, and I learn vicariously through them. I connect with like-minded rabble-rousers through the group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution, produced by the professional development program Powerful Learning Practice (which is built on the idea of teachers exploring in a self-directed way and learning together).  And I do visit the teachers down the hall whenever I can, but in a revived spirit of real give-and-take about the important work we do together.

Teachers Who Inspire Teaching

Dr. Janet Ott (The Post Oak High School, Houston): I recently visited my former colleague, Dr. Janet Ott, at her new school.  I had learned tremendously from Jan, as she coached me in difficult professional situations even as I guided her in her transition to teaching high school. A veteran teacher from Evergreen State College and its emphasis on collaborative learning, Jan followed her heart and eagerly joined the team of educators opening a new high school in Houston as part of the 50-year-old Post Oak School (The Post Oak High School). She found herself engaged with other veteran educators over the summer to build a collaborative, project-based curriculum. She helped set up the beautiful new open space – more of a learning commons — with a focus on how learning really happens.  I was more than a little jealous.

Yet I felt the infectious giddiness of Jan’s excitement about her professional growth and work in this new space.  She showed me how her school’s weather station worked in a network of stations on Weatherlink.  She demonstrated a LabQuest gizmo that allows students to record data about wind velocity, for example, and upload graphs to iPads for further analysis. She described her urban gardening project (drawing on her experience leading a team of student gardeners at Chinquapin Preparatory School), an app-building project, and her plan to test student-designed wind turbines with the wind generated by nearby highway traffic.  She enthused about her school’s implementation of “TED Talk Tuesdays” and her curriculum themes of “Heat, Water, and Energy” and “Food, Structure, and Function.” Jan’s projects are powerful inspirations about the importance of authentic learning in space and time designed for independent learning.

Christa Forster (The Kinkaid School, Houston): My husband, Larry Kahn (Chief Technology Officer at the Kinkaid School), has raved about CForster copyChrista Forster for years – as have other educators in our mutual acquaintance.  However, I got to know Christa first-hand through our shared work with Powerful Learning Practice last year, and I learned that Christa is a veritable whirling dervish of learning.  A writer of plays, stories, and poems, she brings a writer’s thirst for knowledge to her teaching.  Even as she has produced plays and written stories, taught her classes, and raised a family, she has taken more MOOCs than any single person I know.  As Christa’s font of learning runneth over, I like to hang out nearby to catch the run-off.

Recently, I spent some time meandering around Christa’s online spaces. From one of Christa’s blogs, teXta, I derived creative inspiration by reading about her struggles to balance teaching, motherhood, and writing; I also read a smart review of a story by Ann Bogle, which inspired me to read more contemporary work, something I pretty much gave up after graduate school. From the blog Christa shares with her students, We B Steady Bloggin’, I scooped up the idea of doing a ten-minute research project to put together a collaborative Google presentation.  I love the way this crowd-sourcing assignment makes the learning in her class both authentic and immediate. From her blog about teaching, Antilogical Pedagogical, I responded to her impassioned plea to give over “20 Well-Spent Minutes that Could Alter Your Perspective.” This led me to one of the best arguments for building capacities for self-directed learning in our students that I’ve run across: Professors Erica McWilliams and Peter Taylor on “Personally Significant Learning.” Christa’s Twitter feed (@xtaforster) led me to discover @openculture, which led me to the Academy of Achievement’s “master class” on Creative Writing. Having come full circle to my own growth as a writer, I now have enough inspiration to stay charged until I have a moment to step into Christa’s learning stream again.

Christa Forster TweetOpen Culture on CW Master Class

Voices from the Learning Revolution: It has been my privilege to be associated for the past year and a half with the many great teachers who write for Voices for the Learning Revolution. Although I don’t write for Voices frequently enough, I learn from my fellow writers on a regular basis.  Now I have a new book, The Connected Educator: Powering Up, to point me toward the blog’s best conversations about this new era of learning and teaching. I am deeply inspired by Sister Geralyn Schmit, who touches a chord in me when she says, “The thirst for what is good unites all of humanity into a community that is joined at the heart” (“Igniting the Heart of Learning in a Collaborative Age”). I find inspiration directly connected to my current initiatives to introduce effective student learning teams from Marsha Ratzel’s observations on “Teaching by Getting Out of the Way.” Renee Hawkins inspired this blog post, as she has inspired me throughout our two decades of working together, by writing, “I am a believer in the power of professional sharing. I’ve experienced it first-hand. It is both empowering and satisfying to teach a skill, share a best practice, and learn something from someone with whom you thought you had nothing in common…. If it works so well for us, and makes us feel so good, imagine what it means for our students” (“Making the Shift: Teachers Learning from Teachers”).  Learning together, whether digitally or in person, inspires exponentially.

Inspiration Matters

As I have often said, the teaching profession requires its practitioners to harness enormous reserves of physical and emotional energy. Looking to one another for inspiration is one way to refill those energy reserves.  More than that, we grow together as professionals and as human beings even as we design our professional learning in a way that is meaningful and personal. As a result, we pay it forward, creating more learning and inspiration for others. Isn’t that what teaching is all about?

5 COMMENTS

  1. Case in point:

    I’m work as part of a team organizing the second collaborative professional development day on Feb 8 for 23 schools of the Independent Schools Association of British Columbia. Last year we had about 400 participants. This year, however, we’ve almost tripled that with nearly 1200 participants attending over 100 workshops all put on by teachers who have soemthing to share with their colleagues.

    This is an extraordinary statement about the commitment and capability of our teachers.

    You can follow the event on Twitter at #isabcpd13

  2. Susan,
    First I am honored that you would think of my humble musings as quotable.

    Second, when I read your blog, I nodded and proclaimed, “YES! She gets it! Then you said, ” .. we grow together as professionals and as human beings even as we design our professional learning in a way that is meaningful and personal. As a result, we pay it forward, creating more learning and inspiration for others. Isn’t that what teaching is all about?”

    I believe that every teacher is indeed connected not only by the profession in which we have chosen but also – and most importantly – the passion that we pour into our daily work. So much of teaching can be related to mud wrestling — messy but lots of fun! It is only when we can share the “messy” elements and the times of “great exuberance” with others that we lay claim to our legacy to our profession.

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