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Professional Development: The Triangle of Continuous Improvement

Jordan Catapano

Teachers encourage their students to be lifelong learners and propound upon the benefits of education. It stands to reason, then, that teachers themselves apply their own principles and commit themselves to ongoing learning, improvement, and professional development. This would ideally be applicable to all areas of a teacher’s life, but nowhere is it more necessary and natural than to a teacher’s own teaching practice. Just like with student learning, there are a few basic components of a teacher’s cycle of learning and professional development that will inevitably lead to growth. Those elements are:

  • Learning: Grow your mind by exposing it to reliable, relevant information.
  • Trying: Apply what you’ve learned; it might not go perfectly.
  • Reflecting: Think about what you learned and how you applied it, and make plans for a next step.

Let’s look a little more closely at how a teacher can apply this triangle of continuous improvement over and over again in their years of teaching.

Learning as Professional Development

We have to face one of two realities: Either we know it all, or we don’t. And seeing as the former is rather unlikely, it is much more honest to admit that we don’t know everything there is to know about teaching. Although we feel like we may know a lot – or at least know “Enough” – there is always room for more knowledge and empowerment through further learning.

The alternative to ongoing learning is to implicitly suggest you have discovered the “Perfect” way of teaching. While there are many effective ways of teaching, there is no foolproof method and new research, standards, culture, and individuals demand every school year be a dynamic process.

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Once a teacher commits to learning more, it’s easy to identify a glut of customizable ways to engage in that learning. Here are a few broad methods teachers can take advantage of to develop their knowledge and expertise.

  • Peer observations – observe other teachers in your building and have them observe you. Take notes on how other teachers approach topics, engage students, and navigate classroom management, and have others give you feedback on your methods.
  • Read – there is no shortage of books and articles devoted to education. For starters, take a stroll through your local bookstore or cruise through Amazon’s recommended lists. Get recommendations from colleagues. Cling to websites with articles related to your teaching interests (like TeachHUB.com!) that inspire you.
  • Research – when was the last time you consulted the research on a given topic or methodology? Spend time on the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), or delve into the bibliographies of the articles and books you find.
  • Classes – sign up for courses at a local university or learning cohort. You don’t necessarily have to be pursuing your next degree, but it’s worthwhile to learn in a formal setting alongside fellow professionals.
  • Conferences – attend a conference gathering where professionals share their latest experiences, research, and ideas. Build relationships with colleagues for continued networking after the conference, too.
  • Online – Who’s in your PLN? The Internet is full of social media networking opportunities, blogs, podcasts, and webinars where educators are sharing their experiences and visions for success. Tap into these resources at times and in ways that are most convenient for you!

Learning as a teacher is simply about making room in your life to do what you tell your students is so important: That is, to continually grow in knowledge of your profession. Put yourself in the way of quality information that will make you a smarter teacher.

Trying (and Failing)

So once you spend time learning about potential improved methods you could apply to your teaching … the next step is to APPLY them. We could read and listen and plot and scheme all we want. But we won’t make a dent of improvement for our students until we actually try the things we’re learning about.

I prefer words like “Try,” “Attempt,” and “Experiment” when talking about applying what we’ve learned. Teaching is not an exact science, where a particular method could be fine-tuned and calibrated to an indiscriminate sequence of actions. Implementing anything in education requires faith in trial and error. Some things you put into place will work exceedingly well. Others – brace yourself – are going to blow up in your face.

Part of becoming a better teacher is attempting to implement strategies that work for you and your students. But you won’t know what works until you try it, and if you’re trying something new for the first time, failure is almost a certainty. We must remember that this is how learning works. Just like our students will try and fail when learning new skills, you too will have attempts that will fall short as well.

The important thing is to try. Once you learn new strategies for tech integration, student engagement, literacy instruction, or differentiated feedback, come up with a practical plan for yourself and put it into action. Just try one thing at a time, and over time you’ll see what works and what doesn’t for you and your students.

Reflection

Any attempt – whether a success or not – is worthless without reflecting afterwards. This is the third component of the Triangle of Continuous improvement. Without reflection, you won’t know what made a success a success or a failure a failure.

Reflecting as a teacher is the act of combining what we know from our learning (our head knowledge) to what we execute in the classroom (our experiential knowledge). Only when we meaningfully look back on what happened and why it happened that way can we move forward with any improved intentionality.

Here are some basic ways teachers can reflect on their learning and implementation:

  • Make notes for next year – if you plan on teaching the same unit or course again next year, store a record of your experiences and recommendations right there with those course materials. Next year you’ll see those notes and make adjustments accordingly.
  • Keep a journal – a journal is a detailed way of summarizing your experiences, thoughts, and feelings. You can be honest with yourself on how well something went. The very act of writing down your thinking helps you process your thinking better.
  • Discuss with peers – who are your trusted colleagues you could talk things through with? Have honest conversations with them about what you each are trying in the classroom and how it goes. If you have a colleague trying some of the same things as you, you can compare notes and benefit from your varying experiences.
  • Get feedback from students – just ask your students what they’re thinking. Did they feel engaged? Did they learn? Have them share their perspective with you via a discussion or survey to aid your reflection.
  • Film yourself – sure it’s awkward, but watching yourself allows you to see what you’re like from a student’s point of view. Film your lessons and see how your actions relate to what you set out to do.
  • Be observed – invite a colleague into your classroom and have them share their observations with you. Combine their feedback with your own goals and perspective, and use it all to make decisions about how to proceed in the future!

And Repeat ...

Just remember how straightforward the process of continual improvement is: “Learn more. Try stuff. Reflect on it.”

If a teacher were to commit to applying this simple process as part of their regular practice, they will inevitably see growth in their methodology year after year.

Of course, this is a continuous cycle of improvement, which means that after you apply the process you repeat it. Learn, try, and reflect, then go back to learn more, try more, and reflect more. Not everything will go perfectly, but you will experience a slow but certain growth incline. Ultimately it is your students who stand to gain the most from your commitment to growth. Not only will they benefit from your improved pedagogy year after year, but they will personally witness a professional who exemplifies what lifelong learning is all about.

What do you think about these three simple steps and the professional development goal of continually improving as a teacher? Share your thoughts with us in a comment below!


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.