By Jennifer Allen
Fostering Heart in Professional Development
When I was in high school I had a soccer coach, Mr. Thurston. Mr. Thurston was a screamer. He screamed it all, the good and the bad. What I remember most about being a part of this team are not the wins or losses, but rather his words, “play with heart.” His belief was that if we worked together and played with heart as a team we would always be winners, both on and off the field. He believed playing with heart was greater than any individual win. The more heart we had as a team the stronger the team we became.
I believe that the concept of playing with heart holds true in professional learning communities as it does in sports. It’s been a personal quest of mine over the years to design professional development experiences for teachers that foster this feeling of playing with heart.
This year I facilitated a professional development opportunity for veteran teachers.
My hope was to provide veteran teachers with a study group like experience that would rekindle their flame for the classroom. The group was designed to promote collaboration as well as a self-reflection. The monthly day long meetings were designed to feel more like a retreat than an inservice. Ultimately the goal was for teachers in the group to rediscover what it feels like to play with heart both as a collaborative learner in a professional development group, as well as their classroom.
Elements that Matter in Nourishing the Heart
Giving teachers a monthly release day for this work during the school day and providing an environment away from classrooms were ways to acknowledge the teachers in the group as professionals. Teachers also had chunks of time during the day to design their own learning in which they could work individually or with their colleagues. The design of the day fostered relationships among the group. Teachers interpreted the content as meaningful since they had opportunities to self-select and dig into the resources that were most relevant to their learning interests. Environment, shared leadership, and individualized learning were strategies used to foster a sense of belonging and professionalism within this group, all which got at the heart of our learning
We met during the school day once a month off school grounds. I wanted participants to feel like they were at a retreat rather than a traditional pd school inserivce. Leaving the school and providing coffee and a few treats helped make the day feel a bit more special. Teachers commented that they felt treated like professionals.
We rotated facilitators as we made meaning together of new content. This was another way to acknowledge the professionalism of each teacher. Typically we were together about 3 hours out of the day exploring new content. We had a common text to ground us in this experience. We started the day together for the first 2 ½ hours and ended the day together by reconvening for the last ½ hour of the day.
There were 3 hours in the middle of the day in which teachers set their own agenda. This was time to work alone or collaborate.
The February issue of Educational Leadership explored the theme of Measuring What Matters. I thought about the veteran teacher group. The evaluations and rating scales documented concrete changes to practice that teachers would make as a result of their participation. But, what wasn’t captured through the rating scales was the heart of this group which was the key to their success. Sometimes our data can’t always be conveyed through numbers on a paper. After reading through the evaluations I went back to the group and simply asked each teacher to share one word that best describes this learning experience. I will leave you with the words from the participants. Words that I believe reflect the heart of the group, words that get at the core of what it means to learn with heart.
Refreshed. Recharged. Nourished. Inspired. Renewed. Journey. Rejuvenated. Motivated. Again!
Jennifer Allen is a literacy specialist in Waterville, Maine. She has worked in education for the last twenty-five years. Jennifer started as a classroom teacher in the primary grades and has been working in this position as a literacy/specialist coach for the last sixteen years. She is the author of Becoming a Literacy Leader and A Sense of Belonging, both published by Stenhouse.