Category Archives: Professional Development

Like teacher, like student: partner portraits.

I had originally envisioned this post as a first-day-activity suggestion, but now the first days of school have pretty much passed. Then I realized there’s another purpose to sharing it.

At the beginning of last school year, we did a fun little activity during one of our PD days. You sit across from a partner, paper on the table and markers in hand. You then have one minute to draw a portrait of your partner.

The catch? You can’t look down.

One tense minute later, you have a lot of hilarity on the page. People pass the papers around; several of ours ended up on a piece of string and were displayed all year in the main office. We talked about what we focused on (hair style! earrings!) and what we left out or messed up (ears, noses, eyes, mouths…)

I totally forget who on staff presented this activity; kudos to them. Ostensibly it was shared as a “you can do this with your kids” sample. But the key thing was that we enjoyed doing it ourselves. As teachers, I would argue that we have an even lower tolerance for crap than our students — if it’s insincere, or pointless, or boring, our alarms go off right away. Talking to teachers around Philadelphia, I heard plenty of stories about new initiatives, slogans, or activities that were being handed down to teachers at the beginning of the year — stuff that has been developed and tested and standardized for maximum effectiveness… and that you know in your bones kids aren’t going to buy into. If it doesn’t have legs in the teacher’s meeting, it is destined to fail in the classroom.

I kept the partner portrait activity in the back of my mind for a while, and then we busted it our with our new freshmen advisees on the first day of school. An awkward first hour melted away to instant laughter.

“We did this last year,” I told them. “You should see ours!”

Staff planning, or: how we build it ourselves.

SLA is still in the midst of its planning week, so I thought I would describe the structure that informs our faculty work groups.

With a tiny administration (principal, secretary, and a few killer assistants), planning and organizing has always been an all-hands-on-deck affair. Since we became a full-sized school, these tasks were formalized as committees, although sometimes we avoid that term for the less bureaucratic “working groups.” Each group has a couple of rotating leaders and a short list of members. Everybody is in at least one working group, and at least half of staff are committee chairs.

I know that many schools spend their professional development days “handing down” content — whether it’s curriculum, discipline plans, trust falls, or something else. I also know that this makes a lot of people want to poke their eyes out. In contrast, virtually all of our our PD is teacher-led — and these groups have already been meeting and planning in advance of presenting to the larger group.

A couple of examples from this week:

– The Attendance group shared their reflections on last year’s attendance issues, and presented a revised proposal for dealing with student lateness.

– The Diversity committee led a workshop on working styles.

– Our Technology Coordinator (who is also our art teacher) gave us a tour of some new interfaces we will be trying out this year, in addition to Moodle and our old favorites.

– The new Curriculum committee will be guiding some unit plan improvement workshops.

– The Advisory committee will be rolling out a new program designed to help beautify and care for school spaces.

I am not going to pretend that PD is always a joy for us — but there is a sense of investment that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. We pull from all kinds of plans and structures that exist elsewhere, but ultimately what we are creating is uniquely SLA. We’re not buying wholesale into a pre-packaged plan; if there’s something that’s not working so well, we can tinker and reorganize instead of looking for a complete replacement. And we have two hours a week of staff time all year long, so people have a chance keep talking.

I know that many schools are not built for this kind of collaboration — and as a result, teachers are never asked to own anything beyond their own classrooms. The policies are rigid, and if students are hitting their heads against them, tough.

Can this change? In Philadelphia, there’s recently been a move towards more autonomy at the high school level. A part of this is the financial reality of the district; other changes, like the move away from zero tolerance and rampant suspensions, is a conscious decision on the part of the board. Response from schools was positive. Hopefully people are willing to shoulder the extra responsibility in exchange for the results.

What’s your Teacher Temperament?

Like schools across Philadelphia and the country, SLA is in the midst of preparing for our first day of school. My twitter feed is full of anxiety about meeting new students, pictures of spiffy classrooms, and conversations about the first day.

One more thing to consider: are you ready to have a productive year with your fellow teachers?

I know that schools can be highly dysfunctional working environments — and that I’m lucky to work in a building that avoids most of the typical pitfalls. But we’re still a staff with very different working styles, and with so much energy going into our classrooms, we don’t always have the time or energy to understand each other. And with dozens of committees and two hours of staff planning time each week, working together well is even more vital than in a more typical top-down school.

To help us start this year on the right foot, the Diversity committee — which looks at all varieties of issues relating to both teachers and students — presented a one-hour activity today.

Teachers took a quick assessment survey (adapted from this page) and then identified themselves as belonging to one of the four temperaments. We then all had time to read through the following charts, and see what language applied to them:

The emphasis was not on feeling bound to one particular category, but getting some language to talk about your work style. Groups had plenty to chat about, including which qualities they clashed with.

This culminated in everybody answering the following questions on a public forum:

1. Your dominant categorie(s):

2. How do you work best? (probable strengths)

3. Where/when do you need to check yourself? (possible weaknesses)

4. What challenges you? What do you struggle or clash with? How do you deal?

5. What tips do you have for others to work well with you?

I obviously won’t be posting those replies here, but some great things happened as people had a chance to respond to each others’ posts and appreciate each other:

  • People identified shared goals or work styles that they hadn’t seen before.
  • People commented on how some perceived weaknesses can also be strengths, depending on the situation.
  • The value of having a diversity of interesting and working styles became clearer — people complimented others for excelling at what they themselves ignore or don’t do well at, even when that difference might lead to clashes.

When I was designing this activity, I was a little bit nervous that it could turn into a gripe fest, with people focusing more on the weaknesses of others than their own. Plus I have zero training in personality assessment. But everybody turned a decent critical eye towards themselves, with the goal of self-improvement. Hopefully the awareness now will help prevent frustration later. I like to think that we were modeling a good process for our students.