As I was reading through the feedback forms after the Iowa Student Learning Institute last month (if you’re not familiar with it, check out the webpage here), a comment by one of the teacher chaperones struck me. It said “I now see students as ready collaborators.”
That got me thinking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen teachers rolled their eyes and complain about in-service days. One told me they get frustrated by “spray and pray” PD when a consultant or expert comes in for a few hours to expound on his great ideas only to immediately move on to give a presentation somewhere else, leaving teachers to figure out how to make it work in their classroom. Or on the other end of the spectrum, a never-ending stream of paperwork that also does not actually have reasonable application to the classroom. But when we created an environment at ISLI where teachers listened to students talk about education, teachers got just as excited as most of the students. They took away practical ideas and were reinvigorated by the passion that their students showed.
Now admittedly, ISLI was what might be called “informal learning”. But what if we harnessed that same passion and applied it to real professional development? Think of all the things students can tell you:
- Students can tell you about little nuances like where you write the homework assignment or how you adjust the curtains. While certainly not transformative, little things like that can make the class flow much smoother for some students.
- Students can tell you a lot about technology- their knowledge of the latest devices and apps can expand the collection of technological resources teachers have to include the tools that real students are using right now. They can also share how to use mainstream technology, and (unlike that rockstar tech integration specialist) will always be there if a teacher needs assistance, free of charge. A simple example: Ian Coon, a sophomore at Waukee, did a presentation to some of his teachers about how to use Google Drive and Google Calendar.
- Students can help bridge misunderstandings between students and educators. If there is an overarching concern about the student body, students can help explain it, work towards a solution, and play an important part in implementing it with interaction with their peers.
- Students can help choose the experts that they think will be most relevant to the needs of the school. According to a few of my teacher Twitter friends, the purpose of professional development is to “Improve teaching and learning - both for the teacher and ultimately for the students in the classroom.” Involving students in the visioning process of PD keeps every aspect of it- even those that may not directly involve students- focused on whether they will actually feel its impact.
- Students can tell you what they want to learn. Analyze data all you want, but only they can tell you where their passion lies.
- Students can keep you focused on the bigger picture. Last May I spoke at St. Paul Public Schools Visioning Day. The district brought together about 40 students from across the district and put them at tables with principals, district leadership, and community leaders. There was a brief presentation about the district’s progress up to that point, then the students and adults at each table came up with a vision moving forward and shared it with the rest of the group. It was a very powerful day- the important conversations that were had would not have happened the way they did without the presence of students.
Students benefit too- they get a sort of “real world” experience by helping plan and/or lead professional development. They also may feel more invested in their education when they know they have a part in it, and would gain a greater appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work that teachers do to make school work.
In education, we seem to be stuck in the mindset that there is an impenetrable wall between student learning and teacher learning. But I’ve seen firsthand what happens when it’s crossed. It may be slightly uncomfortable, but if done right it can totally reinvigorate professional learning for the entire school community. Data and adults are important, but sometimes it is most effective to go straight to those who it’s really all about- the students. That is nothing to be afraid of.