Teachers As Learners...
by Hal Portner

Now is a Good Time

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, Inc.

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 areas?

Also reflect on the way things are happening professionally for you now in comparison with the way you would like. For example, ask yourself:

bulletWhat is the most stressful part of my day? What makes it so?
bulletWhat is the least stressful? What makes it so?
bulletWith what aspect of the content I teach am I least comfortable?
bulletIf I had to describe in one sentence how I know whether my students are learning, what would I say?
bulletWhat 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.

Set Priorities

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 schoolwork,

(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.

bulletparent involvement (A): 1 vote
bulletassessing student's work (B): 0 votes
bulletchallenging 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 successful ones.

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.

  1. Select an area of focus for yourself describing a problem to be addressed.
  2. Briefly describe the data that led to your decision.
  3. Indicate a specific strategy, model, or approach you have selected to investigate as a way to address and improve the problem you identified.
  4. Then email your responses to me at hportner@comcast.net 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 an objective.

Here are Five Principles for Stating an Objective:

  1. Make it measurable and observable.
  2. Check your motivation. An objective should express what you really want and are willing to work for.
  3. Establish a deadline. Otherwise, your objective is likely to be deferred.
  4. Be sure your objective is realistic. If not, you may become frustrated and give up.
  5. 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 objective.

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