I like to study. As a classroom teacher, I have always sought to improve my practice by reading academic and practice articles, attending trainings, and connecting with fellow educators to share resources and solve problems. The ability to learn and grow is part of what has made teaching dynamic and energizing for me.
Despite my love of learning, I strongly disliked most professional activities. The way the classes were delivered often conflicted with research-based teaching strategies. It is also frustrating when pre-packaged PD sessions are disconnected from the specific school context and student population.
For most teachers, this criticism is not surprising. PD has a bad reputation in education circles, and it’s not because teachers resist professional learning. On the contrary, teachers want professional learning that is practical, interesting and relevant.
The impact of poor quality and irrelevant PD is also visible to students.
In 2017, I started an after-school student activism and leadership club with a small group of seventh graders. I wanted this club to be youth-led, so I relied heavily on student conversations to guide our work. One topic that quickly emerged from our early discussions was teacher practice. Students felt frustrated that their teachers did not focus on building community in the classroom and supporting students’ self-confidence.
After these discussions, I asked my students, “Would you all like to do a training session for us, your teachers, focused on how we can do better?”
My students unanimously answered “YES!” but quickly became skeptical of the idea. “Wait, can we DO this?” At the heart of this skepticism was the basic belief, reinforced by schools, that young people are only learners and adults only teachers. My students were ready to disrupt this dynamic.
Student-led PD planning
Our first step was to get on the PD school calendar. Fortunately, this step turned out to be the easiest. A group of students from the club met with the principal and explained their idea of running a PD to create community in the classroom and support students’ self-confidence. By the end of the meeting, they were able to secure a 30-minute slot during next month’s staff meeting.
Next came the more difficult part: planning an engaging professional learning experience. I started by asking my students two sets of questions to generate ideas based on their experiences:
After brainstorming independently, meeting in small groups, and discussing in a large group, my students emerged with powerful ideas and points:
“I feel most confident when teachers appreciate the effort I put into my work, not just my final grade.”
“I feel a lack of community when teachers publicly point out negative behavior instead of talking to students individually.”
“I feel a lack of community when teachers yell.”
These realizations, based on personal experiences and stories, kept coming.
Once my students had a clear idea of the lessons they wanted to learn from their teachers, they developed a plan to present that information. “I don’t want it to be boring like school,” one student shared. “Yes! We have to do events to show teachers how we enjoy learning!” – added another student.
In other words, they wanted the format of their PD session to model how their teachers should teach; this insight was profound and brought a new level of energy and sense of possibility to my students. The students then developed their plan to create an engaging learning experience.
Professional development in action
As a result, their session looked like this:
- Opening question: How is your day?
Justification: My students wanted to show that teachers don’t need to jump straight to the content, but rather start the lesson by connecting with their students.
- Objective Overview: To show teachers what to do and what to avoid to build community and maintain confidence in the classroom.
Justification: Many students reported how helpful it was when teachers reviewed their lessons, so they wanted to reinforce this practice.
- Brief Direct Instruction: Explain to teachers what practices and actions are damaging to their sense of community and self-confidence.
Justification: My students wanted to start with key lessons so teachers know where their students are coming from. My students also found that often the face-to-face instruction was too long, making it difficult to stay focused. They wanted their direct instruction to be less than five minutes.
- Perspective skits: My students chose two examples of actions to avoid and developed skits to act them out with their teachers. In their skits, the teachers decided to play the role of students, and my students played the role of a teacher. For example, one skit focused on walls of data; the teacher called the student to her desk and gave him an anonymous pin code for the data wall: “Great job! You got 90% on the test. Go put a pin on the data wall.’ Then the teacher called the other student: “It seems you had a hard time passing this test. You got 60%. Go ahead and put your pin on the wall of data.” This student was told to walk towards the wall of information looking confused and depressed.
Justification: My students understood that for their PD to be effective, teachers needed to actually experience what it was like to be a student. They designed their skits to give teachers a real-world context of how these harmful practices can play out in the classroom.
- Quick guide: Explain to teachers what practices and actions they need to do or continue to do to support community and self-confidence
Justification: Instead of focusing only on the negative, my students wanted to highlight some of their positive experiences to encourage teachers to support them.
- Reflection: What will you gain from this training?
Justification: My students wanted to make sure that the teachers identified at least one way in which their learning would influence their future teaching.
Reflecting on student influence
The process of guiding my students through the planning of their PD session by simply asking questions, providing structure (ie, asking students to write an agenda), and offering feedback confirmed an important part of my teaching philosophy: creating an engaging learning experience requires respecting student autonomy and centering life experience of students.
For my students, leading this PD session and experiencing a shift in traditional power dynamics opened up new opportunities for advocacy. After that, my students began meeting with the administration to advocate for changes to the school’s dress code policy. They realized their own collective power and understood how to use their power to effect meaningful, effective change.
Teachers across the building also expressed how effective the training was in gaining insight into their students’ experiences and building more empathy. Many teachers talked about including more relationship-building activities and providing more positive feedback to their students. In the days that followed, my students confirmed the impact of their PD session on their teachers. “Mr. Homrich-Kneeling, they really listened! My math teacher started the lesson by asking how we’re doing!”
Often in traditional professional development classes, students are talked about as abstract, while adults make assumptions about what their students want and need in the learning community. Creating space and support for students to manage their personal experiences and teach their teachers how to meet their needs radically disrupts this traditional PD dynamic. Students deserve a voice in their education, and we honor that beyond time.