by Joel Thomas, Rubicon International


A few years ago I made the transition from working with students as a classroom teacher to becoming an assistant principal and taking on the responsibility of “Staff Development.”

I learned quickly that my three years of teaching high school English had not fully prepared me for the role.  In an attempt to rapidly come up to speed I began reading constantly, sitting in on webinars and attending local trainings.  And I can say with confidence that these actions, while helpful for me, were not driving factors in my teachers’ growth.

The most significant action I took in developing my staff was this: recognizing my ignorance. I quickly learned that I couldn’t always have the answer; in many cases there was no “the answer.”

I remember having coaching sessions with our school’s calculus teacher around essential questions.  I had to be very upfront about my mathematical limitations (having not taken math beyond pre-calculus).  During these meetings I couldn’t be the one who holds the answer; instead, I partnered with her to find new approaches.  All of the ASCD articles and Doug Lemov books were not going to improve my calculus skills.  And I became a great litmus test for her to see if she could reach kids who weren’t great in math.

This same coaching experience happened when I worked with science teachers, Spanish teachers, and basically every other teacher!

So I scaled up and began implementing a more collaborative approach to our weekly staff development.  My goal for each PD session was to talk for no more than 10 minutes, and I mostly met that goal.  I would lay out the topic of study, explain the protocol for working together, and then release teachers to work with each other.

Interesting changes began to take place throughout the school as teachers worked in different groups in PD: the teacher lunch time conversations changed, staff members began talking with different people after school, and our attrition rate decreased mostly because staff members were invested in each other.

Teachers began observing peers that were struggling and working with them to improve instruction and culture.

The lesson-learned for me is probably obvious to every teacher who has gone through the “Sit and Get” PD experience: teachers can learn more from each other than they ever could from one administrator (no matter how well-read that administrator is)!

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