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3 Non-traditional Professional Learning Ideas for Teachers

Professional Growth

Tips to Boost Teacher Agency

Sarah_Hayden20 miles east of Portland, Oregon sits Gresham-Barlow School District. With 18 schools, “We’re too small to be big, and too big to be small,” says Sarah Hayden, an instructional coach at the district. Sarah and her colleagues work one-on-one with teachers, but also work at the district level in to provide support where needed.

They wear many hats, and just like many districts, they’re asked to do a lot with limited resources. In response, her team has come up with some creative ways to provide educator-driven, make-an-honest-to-goodness-difference-in-the-classroom professional learning for teachers.

 [Note: this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

Collaboration Walks

FRONTLINE EDUCATION: We’re here today to talk about something you’re doing at Gresham-Barlow called “Collaboration Walks.” Tell me about that — what are they?

SARAH HAYDEN: Collaboration walks are something that we started in our district about three years ago to promote teacher voice, teacher agency and teacher professional growth. On a given day, we get about ten teachers together and explore different classrooms around the elementary schools in our district. Then, teachers sit together to talk and collaborate with each other about what they’ve seen in the classrooms — how they can take what they’ve learned and internalize it.

FRONTLINE: What led to you starting these? 

SARAH: We wanted our rubric (Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching) to be a model for professional growth and not just evaluation. We took all the numbers away from the rubric, and we used it to talk about instruction in a way that was meaningful, safe and promoted growth for teachers. We even rebranded [the walks]. Instead of ‘Learning Walks’, we call them ‘Collaboration Walks.’ We talk about how the collective voice of the teachers in the room is what is needed for everyone to grow — this is not something that’s top-down. It’s a collaborative way to talk about teaching.

Want more details? Listen to our full interview with Sarah Hayden about Collaboration Walks at Gresham-Barlow School District.

FRONTLINE: Describe the process — who’s there? Where do you go? What do you do?

SARAH: There are usually about ten teachers who sign up, usually within a day and a half. We meet at one of the schools in the morning, and we talk about our goals for the day: What do we want to get out of today? How are we going to be reflective? How are we going to move forward collectively?

We focus on two or three of the different standards in our rubric and we ask, “What does best practice look and sound like in the classroom? What does best practice surrounding discussion and question techniques look and sound like in the classroom? What does setting purposeful intentions for students look like and sound like in the classroom?” And in a collaborative way, we come up with, “What does best practice with these indicators, these standards, really mean?”

Then we go into the classrooms with this lens in mind. Teachers bring their cameras, they talk with students, they work alongside teachers. We’re in a classroom for anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, and we observe. Then the most exciting part of what we do, we sit and we talk, and we talk, and we talk about teaching — what I do in my classroom, what you do in your classroom, what we observed in the teacher’s classroom that we saw.

We keep it really safe and non-evaluative. We use sentence stems that just say, “This is what I observed… This is what I saw… This is what I wonder….” Through this process of collaborative discussion come amazing points about how teachers are going to move their practice forward.

FRONTLINE: What is it about the structure of what you’re doing that makes these effective?

SARAH: It is 100% teacher-driven, teacher-centered, and the entire goal is to elevate teacher voice across our system. The caliber of the teachers in our district is amazing, and if you get some like-minded individuals in a room, we can solve the problems of the world. That’s why I think it’s been so successful, because it’s about meeting the teachers where they’re at, and helping them continue on their personal journey.

Whether they’re a first-year teacher or a veteran of 20+ years in our district, every single person in that room can support their colleagues through collaborative conversations.

Reflective Conversations

FRONTLINE: Collaboration walks aren’t the only thing that you’re doing in professional learning, of course. How else are you working to make professional learning more teacher-centered?

SARAH: We’ve taken the idea of collaboration walks and we’re doing what we call “reflective conversations,” where teachers videotape themselves conducting a lesson in their classroom, and then they come to our professional development session with a trusted peer from their school or their grade level, who has also videotaped themselves.


We had one teacher comment, “In all of my 20 years of teaching, I’ve never had professional development as meaningful as what I experienced with my colleague at this professional learning.” — Sarah Hayden


Then we spend some time talking about what a reflective conversation is, and how to support your colleague in a way that promotes their professional growth. The teachers watch the videos alongside each other and use these reflective conversation skills to discuss their practice. We had one teacher comment, “In all of my 20 years of teaching, I’ve never had professional development as meaningful as what I experienced with my colleague at this professional learning.” 

FRONTLINE: What is it about the use of video for these reflective conversations that makes it important?

SARAH: Videotaping yourself as a teacher is absolutely terrifying, which is why we bring that trusted peer in. When you watch yourself teach, you are your own worst critic. And everything that you see, you don’t realize that you do on a day to day basis. Once you get past, “Oh my gosh, I really sound like that?” you see exactly what you’re doing and how your students respond to you. Things that aren’t usually visible in the classroom are very visible when you watch yourself on video.

It’s a chance to go deep into what you’re doing every day, and see how the things you do affect student outcomes. It’s completely and totally career-altering. And the teachers communicated that to us, even after one video.

FRONTLINE: Can you talk more about the training you provide for these reflective conversations?

SARAH: The reflective conversations training is a day long. In the morning, we don’t watch any videos — the trusted peer and the teacher sit with us, and we talk about what a reflective conversation is. “What are ways that you can pose an open question that invites inquiry from your partner?” Because as a teacher, it’s very easy to watch a video alongside a colleague and say, “Well, in my classroom, I…” or “Have you ever tried…?” — which can stifle what that teacher needs to understand about their own practice. So we ask questions in an invitational way, where the trusted peer is asking questions so that the teacher can develop their own understanding.

The trusted peer is never telling, never answering. The trusted peer is facilitating and prompting their peer to think about their teaching in a deeper, different way. The trusted peer is the one who can help you draw out what you need to investigate about your own practice. So it’s way more meaningful when you have someone to support you in that and to ask those questions that you didn’t even know to ask yourself.

FRONTLINE: I would imagine receiving that kind of feedback is both helpful and scary.

SARAH: Exactly. As we’re setting up the day, we talk about what a reflective conversation is, and we say, “It’s rigorous. It’s not mere support group talk.” It’s talking about teaching and giving meaningful feedback. We’ve heard from our teachers that so often in our profession, this is missed. Deep, rich, meaningful feedback is missed by teachers, and they crave it. That’s why they feel so good at the end of the day —they’re finally getting something that’s going to help them, that’s going to take them to the next level.

You’re the trusted peer for your colleague, and then they are the trusted peer for you. So not only are you getting, you’re also giving. Additionally, the teachers have found that being the trusted peer and watching their colleague’s video and asking questions allows them to be reflective of their practice as well.

Inquiry Teams

SARAH: I think one of my favorite things that we’re doing in our district is what we call “inquiry teams.” Inquiry teams are a way for us to allow teachers to experience professional learning completely and totally on their own terms.

In teams, teachers put together a proposal about something that they want to learn about. It could be anything from mindfulness in the classroom to new math strategies for STEM to exploring questions of equity within our school. Then, we put them together with a facilitator and give them time and space to inquire about what they want to learn about in a meaningful way, and then share what they’ve learned with their colleagues across our district.

FRONTLINE: How did they do that? How did they share out those practices?

SARAH: At the end of the inquiry team process, the teams and the facilitators put together a ten-minute presentation about what they learned, and then we have an inquiry celebration where teachers can go and learn from their colleagues in a forum. There’s cake involved, which always is exciting, and then they share out their project and what they’ve learned.

This is our second year of inquiry teams, and last year, some of the presenters said, “You know what? We learned a lot about what doesn’t work through inquiry. We hit some roadblocks, which was completely meaningful for our way of learning. Investigating those things and finding out what doesn’t work was the most beneficial type of learning that we could have done.”

It’s just…it’s amazing. Going over just the inquiry proposals this year was inspiring. What teachers are grappling with, what they want to learn, how they feel that they can move their practice forward, and then seeing how they bring their knowledge through their inquiry team back to their buildings, back to the school district as a whole, is so exciting.

Ryan Estes

Ryan is part of the global award-winning content team at Frontline Education as recognized by Content Marketing World 2017. He spends his time writing, podcasting and creating content in the area of K-12 professional growth.