Teachers are telling me they need to spend time away from their campus to be inspired and to learn through networking. As we’ve shifted to more job-embedded professional learning, opportunities for teachers to network have dwindled, leaving them feeling more siloed. They miss that infusion of new ideas from peers outside of their building or district and the accompanying excitement of gathering with so many like-mind, dedicated educators. When teachers are deeply embedded in job-centric professional learning, exposure to outside voices and ideas is limited and that can leave teachers feeling flat and uninspired.

The opportunity to hear from people who are doing very different things – the energy, the excitement, the ideas – teachers seem to really be missing that.

I have been privileged to do quite a few focus groups lately as part of Learning Forward’s work with districts across the United States – and that is where, more and more, I am hearing this directly from teachers. As a former teacher myself, I can emphasize, and well understand that it’s not only difficult to get funding to attend a conference, it also can be daunting to feel that you merit the privilege and expense of attending a conference over your colleagues.

I remember years ago when I first went to Teachers College Reading Project at Columbia University in New York. Each year the institutes attracted about 3,000 attendees and we each received this black, logoed tote bag to cart all our books around. As I’m getting off the subway and walking toward Horace Mann Hall on Columbia’s campus, I look around and there’s this flood of people carrying this black tote bag all moving toward this building coming from all directions. It was a powerful moment to think about thousands of reading teachers gathering in the same place at the same time. You could just feel the excitement growing as we got closer to the building. (Of course, then it also occurred to me, “This is every 7th-grader’s worst nightmare to have 3,000 reading teachers all in one place at one time!”)

But really, it was a flash of awareness for me as I looked around and saw all of those black tote bags moving in one direction, of just that power of gathering and purpose.

It’s hard when you’re a teacher to ask for a large amount of money to go to a conference, because you feel like, “Why am I special? Why do I deserve this money?” Among teachers, there is already such a tall poppy syndrome – when harsh criticism is directed at those who stand out – that they resist requesting or seeking what they think might be perceived as special treatment.

From my perspective as a former teacher, I would say districts often think about the professional learning directors and the superintendents and principals attending conferences like Learning Forward’s 53rd Annual Conference coming up in December 2022, but teachers too must be empowered to have agency in stewarding their own professional learning. Teachers especially need to be included in learning how to discern high-quality, standards-based professional learning that helps them understand and meet the needs of their diverse learners. They need to be inspired by new ideas and the practices of others, both conference speakers and their attendee-colleagues. They need to feel the contagious passion that comes from discussing new ideas with other dedicated educators.  And as a result, they will take home not only new ideas, but a renewed commitment to make a difference for their school, their colleagues, and their students. They need an opportunity to feel the power of a learning community that radiates energy and empowerment.

When teachers start demanding better professional learning, that could represent a huge inflection point for driving the high-quality professional learning movement that K-12 education needs. Click To Tweet

When teachers start demanding better professional learning – when they know what it looks like and what it feels like, they will start demanding it, and I think that could represent a huge inflection point for driving the high-quality professional learning movement that K-12 education needs. But when faced with professional learning that is not high-quality, teachers burn-out on professional learning and vote with their feet. I hear from teachers and district leaders where this is happening right now – teachers are reluctant to sit through more professional learning than they are required to.  Unfortunately, when teachers fill their required hours for professional development in the first few weeks or even months of the school year and consequently stop going, they no longer have access to the learning they need to address emerging student needs. Campus and district leaders can’t make mid-course corrections to impact student learning if they can’t engage teachers in timely and relevant professional learning throughout the school year.

Participating in opportunities to learn from and network with peers is not special treatment or rarified privilege. It’s an essential tool for both professional growth and commitment. Let’s help teachers experience that power of gathering in a learning community. Let’s give them opportunities for great networking where they learn, build community, and get to carry the tote bag.

Acting Vice President, Professional Services at Learning Forward | + posts

Sharron Helmke is the Acting Vice President for Professional Services at Learning Forward. She is a professional certified coach with the International Coaching Federation and a Certified Gestalt Professional Coach. She is the author of the recurring “Coaches Corner” feature in The Learning Professional. Sharron formerly served as senior consultant for Learning Forward, leading our Coaches’ Academies and supporting schools, districts, and regional organizations in the implementation of instructional coaching programs, mentoring, and teacher leadership development. She also serves as a content development consultant, supporting the design of Learning Forward’s virtual offerings and customized professional learning, including the ELA Mentor Coaching and the Content Coaching programs.

Previously, Sharron served as a classroom teacher, campus based instructional coach, ELA program coordinator, and coordinator of instructional coaching. She holds a doctorate in transformational change for societal impact and her published research focuses on shared leadership for instructional improvement.