I don’t think it’s a secret that school boards generally fall short in terms of inspiring and engaging their teachers in meaningful, practical professional development sessions. In reality, a ‘one size fits all’ PD session is as infeasible as teaching a classroom of students of different abilities, ages and subject experience. Nevertheless, this is the path school boards across North America take – burning money and boring teachers in the process.
About 5 years ago, I returned from maternity leave feeling completely disengaged with my profession, and looking for something more. It was then that I decided to take my professional development into my own hands and I’ve never looked back. Throughout my journey, my pedagogy has been turned on its head, my students have become more engaged (and successful) and best of all, I’ve learned to love my job.
This is my story.
It Starts with a Spark
I remember being exhausted the morning of the Reading Rocks the North Conference in June 2013. I just returned from maternity leave, had three young children at home and was gearing up to stand in my best friend’s wedding in two weeks. To say that I was done with teaching that year was an understatement, but I had been registered by my board literacy consultant in a conference at our local university and I was intrigued by the keynote speaker: an American teacher making waves in the English Language Teaching community called Penny Kittle.
Penny had travelled from her home in New Hampshire to share her pedagogy of teaching students to love reading and embrace meaningful, personal writing. I immediately personally connected with her, due to the fact that she was speaking to us as a small group of English teachers in an informal setting. The next two hours flew by in a flurry of excitement and inspiration as Penny discussed what led her to changing her English teaching pedagogy from ‘traditional’ to ‘experimental’. She shared her books with us: Book Love and Write Beside Them, as well as a variety of student exemplars and videos.
I was hooked, as were most others in the room. That afternoon, I went home and re-worked my entire course outlines for the following school year. I scraped class novel studies in lieu of ‘independent, guided reading’, added articles of the week and short, engaging mentor texts as daily routines and reviewed all writing assignments to ensure they allowed for student voice, choice and engagement. I also implemented ‘writers notebooks’ for students for the sake of formative learning only. It was a big change, but I was excited for the first time in a long time about starting school in September.
Inspired by what I had learned from Penny Kittle, I started seeking out more professional development on my own terms. Through conversations with my board literacy consultant as well as a quick Google search, I found other cutting edge ELA teachers to follow, and connected strongly with the work of another American teacher, Kelly Gallagher. Luckily, I had the support of my board literacy consultant and principal to fund my personal professional development reading and study; I will forever be grateful for that.
With two role models to follow, I began experimenting with their resources and methods. In the fall of 2014, I began building my own classroom library (with the generous support of my principal and board literacy consultant) and shocked my students by informing them that in lieu of class novels we would spend time learning about reading, figuring out our own personal reading interests and goals and conferencing about reading progress. I was met with blank stares, and was unsure of how this would play out, but like Penny and Kelly before me I found that allowing students choice and engagement in reading, opened up doors to learning I’d never witnessed before. That year was the first time in my professional career I had the privilege of watching my students love books, and become thoroughly and personally engaged in their reading lives.
Similarly, I began writer’s notebooks with students, started allowing more choice and author ownership in writing tasks and began a regular practice of writing responses to articles of the week instead of hammering out 5 paragraph essays like they were going out of style. Again, I saw my student’s engagement, attention to detail and amount of writing grow exponentially. Most importantly, I noticed that I had few to no students with incomplete writing assignments.
Next, A Flame
Although I was having success in my own classroom with a change in pedagogy, I had a very hard time convincing colleagues in my department of my new teaching methods. Nevertheless, I knew that other literacy leaders in my school board had been at that same conference in June 2013 with me and had also begun to make changes at their own schools, so I sought out inter-school collaboration.
With the continued support of our board literacy consultant, a couple other literacy program leaders in my school board and I began sharing ideas about our changing English classrooms. Through this experience, I gathered new resources, found colleagues to bounce ideas off of and a shared passion for teaching English. When we met, we brought examples of student work, stories of successes and failures and generated plans for next steps. These professional relationships helped me continue to grow my teaching practice in a direction that I was excited and engaged with.
Watch it Burn
The 2015 school year saw me armed with a new lease on teaching; I realized the benefits of collaboration and personal PD reading. I was also suddenly open to continually growing my teaching pedagogy and started consuming texts and following mentor teachers on my personal social media pages. In the fall of 2015, I realized that teaching trends were leaning towards innovation and specifically inquiry based learning, and this time was jumping at the chance to again grow my teaching pedagogy and try something new in my classroom to engage my students.
Through reading the works of a couple Canadian teachers writing about this concept, including Trevor Mackenzie and George Couros, I started applying the principles of inquiry based learning in my English classroom in the form of open research activities focused on inquiry questions, as well as time for ‘genius hour’.
Again, other teachers in my board were also dipping their toes into these teaching practices, and I sought out those connections, which supported and deepened my understanding and application of inquiry based teaching practice.
Let it Spread
By the fall of 2016 I was fully re-engaged in my profession, had formed a practice of self directed pedagogical reading, established board and online professional collaboration, and turned my English classroom teaching practice on its head. It was around this time that I began to be approached by my principal, other principals and my board to share my ideas and practices, which I readily did at board PD sessions and in-school meetings.
In my classroom, my students continued to thrive and I never bored of seeing the admiration in one of their personal writing pieces or pride in reading 5 books in one semester when they had never finished one in their lives. I also had the privilege of witnessing disengaged students thrive through personal genius projects – many continuing to work on them long after my course had ended.
It was at this time that I decided to start writing a teaching blog to document my teaching reflections and practices. Fully aware of my evolution in the past couple years, I figured an apt title would be: teacherevolution. I also gained the confidence to share many of the resources I had authored in my own teaching online storefront, on Teachers pay Teachers and began building a professional Twitter account, Facebook page, and Pinterest account. Furthermore, I joined and followed a variety of online teaching groups via these social media platforms. I was officially gathering a daily dose of teacher PD via online sources, and found infinite resources, ideas and inspiration I had never encountered at a traditional board PD session.
In the past two years, I have expanded my thirst for personal growth as a teacher and applied to attend a variety of teaching conferences through board funding, or Ontario Ministry of Education applications. This past May, I had the privilege of being part of a group of 20 Ontario teachers who attended the OCEDiscovery conference in Toronto – the premier innovation conference in the province. I took away so many exciting ideas in this experience, such as the need to teach students to communicate with artificial intelligence, the importance of seeing education as a whole, not in parts (interdisciplinary learning) and the impact of globalization. This school year, my course outlines have changed once again to incorporate some of these concepts into my classroom pedagogy.
Five Years Later
Over the past five years of taking professional development into my own hands, I have grown exponentially as a teacher and found a new passion for the profession. Did it take time? Yes. Did I invest financially in my own PD? Sometimes – but I was surprised at how much my principal or board would cover if I simply asked.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.