Building teacher expertise involves a commitment by school leaders to provide staff with opportunities to continuously improve their skills and practices. It also means leading by example.
Principal Julie Perry is a firm believer in attending training days and professional learning sessions alongside her staff. ‘There's always something more for me to learn,' she tells Teacher. ‘And I'm getting the same messages as they are, so then I can coach them properly – I'm not doing something different to what they've just learnt.'
Although Perry took on the leadership role at Howard Springs Primary School, on the outskirts of Darwin in the Northern Territory, six years ago, she explains her approach to professional learning stretches back much further. ‘A long, long time ago I worked with two Canadians – Barrie Bennett and Peter Smilanich. They worked in Western Australia (with the WA education department) on a program and I was involved in that program.
‘They always used to talk about the “Principal Principle” – the importance of, if you don't have the principal on board, then the leadership isn't showing a dedication or a belief in what teachers are doing. So, it gives the wrong message … if they're sending you along to training but [the principal] is not going. I always thought that you know that's true and it's just something I've kept doing.'
She says there are plenty of benefits to joint professional learning, for school leaders and staff. In addition to being on the same page when it comes to implementation, Perry adds that she finds it enjoyable and inspiring, and her staff enjoy having her there and see it as supportive.
Howard Springs Primary serves 280 students. ‘We've got kids that are on the rural blocks, kids that come from Palmerston Indigenous Village just down the road, kids from caravan parks, and then from suburban homes as well – so, it's quite a mix.'
There are 10 classes, each with a class teacher. An arts teacher covers release time, the school also has a senior teacher who is a maths coach, a support teacher for three days a week, assistant principal and principal. Perry maps out the professional development needs of staff at the end of each year, before doing the strategic plan. ‘Then when we do our performance management at the beginning of the year we set goals with each staff member, based on the strategic plan. Whatever our whole-school push is for that year the staff members decide how they're going to approach that and their goals in that area. For example, this year we're doing inquiry learning and writing as our main focus, along with continuing our maths – maths has been a focus for four years now.'
She points out that planning professional learning for staff has to be linked to individual needs. ‘Some don't need it as much as others – some have been teaching a lot longer. I've got a few that are close to graduates, I haven't got any graduates this year but I had them last year and they've stayed on. So, you couldn't have one-size-fits-all.'
As far as in-school expertise goes, Perry runs sessions on writing, and the school maths coach holds regular PD. ‘We started off having a coach a few years ago because maths wasn't a strong area in the school, and then when staff had a coach and saw how much it changed the way they taught, that's what they wanted to keep. They said “if nothing else continues on in our program then, long-term, we need to keep this coach”.'
For the focus on inquiry learning, the school is part of a small group of rural schools working with Kath Murdoch. Perry says staff have found her inspiring to say the least and the school is hoping to secure a grant to provide further sessions. At the beginning of the year, staff attended two days of training with Growth Coaching International on peer coaching and classroom practice. Howard Springs Primary has also hosted Professor Peter Sullivan, and Dr Kath Glasswell still connects through Skype from the US following initial face-to-face sessions.
As for the challenges, the school leader says accessing quality professional learning can be tricky. ‘You've got to be smart. You need to work together, you can't do it on your own. It's not easy to send people to sessions down south, it becomes extremely cost ineffective. You don't want one or two people going, you want a group to go so that you can come back and do some reflective practice together. So, doing it as a team, it's best to work with other schools [and teacher associations] to have people up here.'
As a school leader, when was the last time you attended professional learning alongside your staff?
Think about your teaching team. What are their individual professional learning needs? How often are these reviewed? How are your professional learning programs linked to whole-school goals?