Learning isn't Optional for Teachers

This post was headed to my Five for Friday links, but it rose above just a link. It is an incredible call to action that reminds us that we have to learn everyday to continue to be the best in our position.



Raise your hand if you spent time exploring, challenging, refining, and enhancing your professional practice today? Now, raise your other hand if that professional learning took place in a collaborative context with other professionals?

Is your hand raised high or "tied" behind your back?

I’m not a reform expert, but if all educators are not raising their hands almost each and every day when asked, the talk about school change and 21st Century learning environments is lost to the reality that the professionals that make up educations are not professional learners and practitioners. They are simply rooted managers and defenders of their out dated environments.
In other words, these educators are on the verge of committing malpractice.

As we continue to discuss the importance of reforming school for the 21st Century, we must examine the need to reform the educational profession. There simply isn’t a more important time than now to recreate our profession into a teaching AND learning profession.

I’m talking about a collaborative learning culture where professionals are working towards continuous growth by engaging in daily learning: discussing and evaluating practices, challenging assumptions, engaging in new learning opportunities, embracing stretch moments, observing peers, etc. The research on the need for schools to embrace a collaborative learning culture is immense both in breadth and depth, yet these environments represent the exception not the norm or worse are happening in terminology only (i.e. we are a PLC).

This article isn’t another push for organizations to embrace a collaborative learning culture. It is a push for teachers to stop waiting for the organization and become a collaborative professional learner by changing fundamental behaviors inhibiting this and embracing action items that will allow it to happen.

As Michael Fullan states in The New Meaning of Educational Change, “the starting point for working towards a solution is the sobering realization that it cannot be done unless each and every teacher is learning every day” and Alan November adds, “The best thing to invest in right now is collegiality. The number one skill that teachers will need is to be team-based, collegial, sharing their knowledge and wisdom.”

Behavior to Break: Talking Time

Everyone can point to the myriad of daily “Must Dos” that prevent us from having the time to learn. However, using that as a crutch for not learning is inexcusable. If it really matters and has value, a person will make time as working and learning become interwoven.

How would we react to students if they told us they didn’t have time to learn? they didn’t have time to improve upon their skill set? they didn’t need to know that? they didn’t need to try anything new, challenge their current ideas, or push beyond the norm? Would terms like prioritize, organize, time management, etc. be part of our discussion? Many students have so many demands outside of the school day that if we as educators are demanding their learning be 24/7, shouldn’t we be practicing what we preach?

Behavior to Break: Acting Alone

Educators sharing best practices, knowledge and resources should be a no-brainer, but there are many educators still holding onto these things with their lives. Why? Is there a longing to horde these practices so you are look upon as the best teacher? Do we see collegiality as not showing teachers what should be happening in the classroom? It pains me to know end to have teachers refusing to share their knowledge, practices, and resources.

As Marc Prensky articulated in If We Share, We’re Halfway There, “In our ongoing struggle to engage our kids in learning, I believe we are neglecting (or, even worse, deliberately preventing) one of our easiest and best opportunities. If our goal is to bring our schools and classrooms into the 21st century before that century ends, we need to take advantage of the large amount of innovation that is already going on in many of our classrooms by allowing our teachers to share it. And not just with others in their own schools and districts, but with teachers around the world!” When teachers fail to share the great things happening in their classrooms, they are failing their profession and they are failing students”.

There has “to be deep engagement with other colleagues and with mentors in exploring, refining, and improving their practice”, stated Fullan. When teachers are not sharing their practices, knowledge, and resources as professional learners in a collaborative learning culture, it doesn’t matter how much learning is happening in the classroom or how great students see these teachers. To me, they are not professionals and are just as guilty of malpractice as the teacher down the hall refusing to change their outdated practices.

Behavior to Break: Closing the Door

Rick Dufour told a story in a presentation years ago about his sister going through a painful and dangerous eye surgery that would take nearly a year to fix. A few years later, he went to have the same surgery but the surgery had changed drastically. Through Lasik Surgery, he has 20/20 vision within a few days. If that doctor hadn’t changed his practice, Dufour continued, he probably could have sued for malpractice since eye surgery best practices had evolved along with the technology and skills. Dufour compared this to the current reality of the classroom where teachers are metaphorically closing the door to learning and physically closing the door in order to do whatever they want in the classroom. These teachers are in essence committing malpractice when they choose not to be professional learners and choose not to use research-based best practices.

Professional base everything on the latest best practices and constantly are evolving their practices. When a behavior is to the contrary, it is an intolerable behavior and one that needs to be remediated immediately. When a collaborative learning culture is in place, the behavior of closing the door and doing as one pleased is exposed. This exposure shows one of two things: 1. the teacher’s practices are truly best practices and the teacher needs to open the door as a professional learner so that others can learn and grow 2. the teacher’s practices are not at a high level and the teacher needs to open the door as a professional learner so that s/he can learn and grow from others.

Action Items

1. Dedicate a portion of your day to honing your professional practice both locally and digitally

2. Establish a professional learning network

3. Establish and maintain a virtual professional learning space that fosters shared knowledge and resources

4. Make professional reflection, scholarly work, and learning a priority and make it public.

5. Model professional learning for colleagues, students, and parents

6. Take a risk, rethink your norm, challenge your assumptions, and embrace the idea of being disturbed.

Be proud of your explorations. Let it be known what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how others could join in with you. Talk about what you are learning! Being open doesn’t mean being vulnerable! Share your blog and wiki with pride! Focus on collaboration and networking with all you do and bring your colleagues along kicking and screaming if need be. Thus, your action item is to share your blog, wiki, social bookmarks, and learning experiences with as many people as possible in order to promote local collaboration and networking.

These behaviors and action items are points to move on right now. What will you do with this? Will you close the Knowing-Doing Gap that dominates many schools today. As Schmoker says “we can close the gap – right now – between what we know and what we do with learning communities. The benefits for students and for education professionals will be incalculable. So let’s get on with it”. In the end, we need to stop talking about why we can’t and start talking about how we can, so I leave you with three quotes that I hope you’ll ponder in a collaborative learning culture as a professional learner:

“We effect change by engaging in robust conversations with ourselves, our colleagues, our customers, our family, the world…. Your time of holding back, of guarding your private thoughts, is over. Your function in life is to make a declarative statement” – Susan Scott

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children” – Sitting Bull

“I would like to suggest that a most fundamental best practice in a professional learning community is to promote the qualities and dispositions of insatiable, lifelong learning in ever member of the school community – young people and adults alike – so that when the school experience concludes, learning will not” – Roland Barth

Ryan Bretag
Blog: Metanoia
Twitter: ryanbretag
Coordinator of Instructional Technology
Glenbrook North High School