When it comes to professional development, teachers are the experts on what works and what doesn’t. But teachers often face insufficient time and inadequate resources, making their desire for meaningful professional learning experiences fall short of reality.
Our teachers—and our students—deserve better. As one of 14 districts and charter management organizations participating in the Innovative Professional Development (iPD) Challenge, California’s Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) has taken major steps to increase time for teacher collaboration and, ultimately, deeper teacher-student connections. Teachers in Fresno are excited about new opportunities to work together, learn from each other, and personalize learning for their students.
Almost two years ago, we shared the story of Rithy Som, an English language arts teacher at Tioga Middle School in Fresno. Som talked about the benefits and challenges of her school’s new professional development design, and she expressed excitement about the future of innovative professional learning in FUSD. “This is about all our kids and the district as a whole,” Som explained. “So what if one school is the most successful? What does that do for the rest of the district? We need to learn from each other. We want learning to spread.”
Two years later, that learning continues to spread. Teachers at FUSD are playing a bigger role in designing their own professional development, while benefiting from additional time to collaborate, give peer-to-peer feedback, and look at student work.
“Ever since I became a teacher, the number one thing that teachers wanted was more time,” explains Megan Parrish, a math teacher at Sequoia Middle School in Fresno. “Meeting once a week for an hour wasn’t cutting it to really dig deep and analyze data, collaborate and plan.” But now, teachers at Parrish’s school are given seven hours every other week to collaborate, look at data, and meet with other educators in the district. And with valuable opportunities to talk with and observe teachers in other FUSD schools, Parrish says she and her colleagues are gaining a better understanding of the areas in which students are excelling and struggling. “The idea behind professional growth and development is to have it be meaningful and help you in your practice. You will not develop as a teacher if you don’t have professional development that is connected to what you are teaching and learning.”
Stephen Ruiz, a seventh-grade world history teacher at FUSD’s Ahwahnee Middle School, agrees. “Being an educator and having ownership over my professional growth empowers me to improve, and I feel like I have every opportunity to do just that,” he says. Supported by district and school leadership, Ruiz recently designed a lesson called “Claim Wars,” in which students read complex text and construct claims based on the excerpt. Working together, students present their claims to the class and analyze their peers’ answers. Ruiz was so excited about the lesson that he shared it with his academic coordinator and other educators outside of Ahwahnee. A year later, teachers from various disciplines were using Claim Wars in their own classrooms. Ruiz says the experience of designing a lesson, from a professional growth perspective, was “truly amazing.”
What‘s amazing is that teachers like Stephen and Megan don’t need to be pushed to take ownership of their professional learning—they are eager for the opportunity. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to support teachers as they work to grow and improve their practice—because when more teachers have the tools and supports they need to succeed, more students have the opportunity to thrive.