Teachers As Learners...
by Hal Portner
Now is a Good
Material for this article adapted, with permission from Corwin
Press, from Portner, H. (2001). Training Mentors is Not Enough.
Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin Press, Inc. and Portner, H. (2002) Being
Mentored: A Protégé's Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin Press,
It's February. This is a good time to identify a personal,
high-priority, area for professional growth. It's a good time because
you have at least a half-year's supply of memories, reflections and
data still fresh in your mind and at your fingertips. It's also a good
time because you have a half-year ahead of you to work on addressing
that professional growth area.
Yes, I'm suggesting you invest some additional time -- and energy
-- into what I'm sure is an already busy life. I'm also suggesting, in
fact, encouraging, you to construct and carry out your own
individualized professional development activities. The good news is
that the investment can pay large dividends, not only in terms of
improved student learning, but also in such intangible benefits for
yourself as lowered stress and raised self-esteem. The other good news
is that using the process I describe below, you can decide for
yourself what you will work on, how you will work on it,
and when you will work on it. You will not be accountable to
anyone but yourself and you can set your own schedule, select your own
resources, and determine your own activities. If you are a first-year
teacher and have established a good professional relationship with a
mentor, he or she can provide help and advice. If you are an
experienced teacher, you can still seek out and accept help and advice
from your peers. Chapter 5 of my book, Being Mentored: A Guide for
Protégés (Corwin Press, 2002), will show you how.
If your school district already requires that you develop and carry
out an individualized professional development plan, you probably need
to use its standard form, keep records, and follow certain procedures.
If you have already written a individualized professional development
plan and are following it diligently, you can still benefit from the
process we will be following because it focuses on deciding for
yourself how to address a specific need that you will have identified
as being of high priority.
How do you decide what that high priority need will be? Every
really good teacher to whom I've posed that question, answers
something like this: "I ask myself, 'what do I need to know and be
able to do, that I don't know or can't do now, in order to better help
my students achieve what they need to know and be able to do?'"
Use data and reflection to identify an area of focus
Start by taking a hard look at your student's test results, quality
of work, ability to work as part of a group as well as alone, and
ability to apply what they have learned to various situations. Do you
have the skills, knowledge, understanding and instructional strategies
needed to identify and help students having difficulties in these
Also reflect on the way things are happening professionally for you
now in comparison with the way you would like. For example, ask
|What is the most stressful part of my day? What makes it so?
|What is the least stressful? What makes it so? |
|With what aspect of the content I teach am I least comfortable?
|If I had to describe in one sentence how I know whether my
students are learning, what would I say? |
|What do I know about my students as individuals and as a group
that helps me teach them effectively? |
If there is a difference between the way things are and the way you
would like them to be, and that difference bothers you professionally,
you probably have identified a significant focus.
I recommend that you focus on only one area. But what if you come
up with several compelling areas of focus? Trying to tackle everything
you need to know at the same time you are dealing with all the other
things you have to do is pretty unrealistic.
If you do identify several potential areas of focus, set
priorities. Trying to prioritize even three or four items can be
difficult. I sometimes use a process called "paired-comparison" to
prioritize a list of items -- even as many as 10. The gist of the
process is to list the items being considered and then weigh each item
against each of the others, one pair at a time; the idea being
that you only need to decide the relative importance between two items
at a time rather than all at once. Here is an example of how
paired-comparison works. Suppose I want to decide among the following:
(A) get parents to take more interest in their children's
(B) acquire alternative ways to assess student's work, and
(C) find a way to challenge my lowest performing students while not
boring the successful ones.
First I weigh the need for getting parents involved (A) against
assessing student's work (B). If I could only concentrate on one of
these two areas, which would it be? Let's suppose I choose (A).
Then, using the same process, I compare (A) getting parent
involved, with (C) challenging students. Let's say I choose (C).
That's 1 for (A), and 1 for (C) -- so far. Now I compare (B) with.
(C). Let's say I consider (C) more important.
Here are my final scores.
|parent involvement (A): 1 vote |
|assessing student's work (B): 0 votes |
|challenging students (C): 2 votes |
I will concentrate on (C) and focus on finding and implementing
ways to challenge my lowest performing students while not boring the
Notice that my area of focus is in the form of a problem
to be solved rather than a model or strategy to study. Usually,
when teachers are asked to check off items on a professional
development needs assessment, they have choices among a variety of
information, models, and methodologies. But first, they need to be
clear as to what the problem is that they want to address. Then they
can identify a particular strategy, model, or approach -- cooperative
learning, for example -- as a way to challenge low performing students
while engaging successful ones.
What is your area of focus?
To help you internalize this process, here is an assignment . . .
due on or before March 1, 2003.
- Select an area of focus for yourself describing a
problem to be addressed.
- Briefly describe the data that led to your
- Indicate a specific strategy, model, or approach
you have selected to investigate as a way to address and improve the
problem you identified.
- Then email your responses to me at
firstname.lastname@example.org by March 1st. I
will include a summary of responses in my April Teachers.net Gazette
article. Completing this assignment will allow you to a) share your
concerns and insights with colleagues, and b) provide you with a
bank of ideas from which to draw.
Set an objective
In order to give some structure and direction to your efforts, set
Here are Five Principles for Stating an Objective:
- Make it measurable and observable.
- Check your motivation. An objective should express what you
really want and are willing to work for.
- Establish a deadline. Otherwise, your objective is likely to be
- Be sure your objective is realistic. If not, you may become
frustrated and give up.
- Make your objective challenging. It should stretch your mind and
energies, otherwise you may lose interest.
Here is an example of an objective.
By the end of the school year, I will have a) identified and
studied at least three approaches to cooperative learning, b) tried
out at least one of the approaches in the classroom, and c) assessed
its ability to challenge and engage all of my students.
Identify resources and consider activities to achieve your
There is a lot of help out there. Your colleagues and the Internet
are major resources. Also consider community, students, other
districts, universities, publications, local business, government,
professional organizations, regional and state education agencies,
family, and friends as potential resources. You can start by searching
the Internet. Use a search engine (my favorite is
Google.com). Enter a key word or
two -- "cooperative learning," for example -- and follow the promising
links it will offer. Another good source is an "ERIC Search" for
articles having to do with your topic (check with your local library
for details). Read the articles. Talk with or observe your colleagues
and find out what they know and do. What does your school, district or
regional educational collaborative plan to offer in the way of
professional development activities that relate to your area of focus?
Search out information about upcoming conferences and special events.
Look at course and continuing education offerings by colleges and
universities. And of course, post your questions and concerns here on
Teachers.Net chatboards hyperlink<http://teachers.net/mentors>.
Occasionally you may find it necessary to modify, add to, or omit
some activities. By all means do so, but be careful not to compromise
the basic intent and integrity of your area of focus and its objective
in the process.
March will be a good time for looking at more ways to continue
meeting objectives. See you then, and don't forget your assignment