I love learning. As a classroom teacher, I always tried to improve my practice by reading academic and practice-based articles, attending trainings and connecting with fellow educators to share resources and troubleshoot challenges. The ability to learn and grow is part of what made teaching dynamic and energizing for me.
Despite my love for learning, I strongly disliked most professional development sessions. The way sessions were facilitated often contradicted research-based teaching strategies. It is also frustrating when pre-packaged PD sessions are disconnected from your specific school context and student population.
To most teachers, this critique isn’t surprising. PD has a bad reputation in education circles, and it isn’t because teachers are resistant to professional learning. On the contrary, teachers want professional learning that is practical, engaging and relevant.
The impact of substandard and irrelevant PD is also noticeable to students.
In 2017, I formed an after-school student activism and leadership club with a small group of seventh grade students. I wanted this club to be youth-led, so I relied heavily on student conversations to guide our work. One thread that quickly emerged from our initial discussions was teacher practice. Students felt frustrated by their teachers’ lack of focus on building classroom community and supporting students’ self-confidence.
After these discussions, I posed a question to my students: “Do you all want to lead a training for us–your teachers–focused on how we could do better?”
My students unanimously answered “YES!” but quickly became skeptical of the idea. “Wait, we can DO that?” Underpinning this skepticism was the core belief, reinforced by schools, that young people are exclusively the learners and adults are exclusively the teachers. My students were ready to disrupt that dynamic.
Planning a Student-Led PD
Our first step was getting on the school’s PD calendar. Luckily, this step turned out to be the easiest. A group of students from the club met with the principal and explained their idea for leading a PD on building classroom community and supporting student self-confidence. By the end of the meeting, they were able to secure a 30-minute time slot during the next month’s staff meeting.
Next came the trickier part: planning an engaging professional learning experience. I started by asking my students two sets of questions to generate ideas that were rooted in their experiences:
After brainstorming independently, meeting in small groups and discussing as a large group, my students emerged with powerful ideas and aha moments:
“I feel most confident when teachers recognize the effort I put into my work, not just my final grade.”
“I feel a lack of community when teachers publicly point out negative behaviors, rather than talking with students individually.”
“I feel a lack of community when teachers yell.”
These realizations, rooted in personal experiences and stories, kept coming.
Once my students had a clear idea of the lessons they wanted their teachers to learn, they devised a plan for presenting this information. “I don’t want it to be boring like school,” one student shared. “Yeah! We should do activities to show teachers how we like to learn!” another student added.
In other words, they wanted the format of their PD session to be a model for how their teachers should teach; this insight felt profound and brought my students a new level of energy and a sense of possibilities. From there, the students developed their plan for creating an engaging learning experience.
Professional Development in Action
In the end, their session looked like this:
- Opening Question: How is everyone’s day?
Rationale: My students wanted to show that teachers don’t need to jump straight into content but should start class by connecting with their students.
- Overview of Purpose: To show teachers what they should do and what they should avoid to build community and support self-confidence in the classroom.
Rationale: Many students shared how helpful it was when teachers gave an overview of their lessons, so they wanted to reinforce this practice.
- Brief Direct Instruction: Explain to teachers what practices and actions harm their sense of community and self-confidence.
Rationale: My students wanted to start with the key lessons so that the teachers were grounded in where their students came from. My students also believed that oftentimes, direct instruction was too long, making it hard to stay focused. They wanted their direct instruction to be under five minutes.
- Perspective-taking Skits: My students chose two examples of actions to avoid and developed skits to act out with the teachers. In their skits, teachers volunteered to act as students and my students acted as the teacher. One skit, for example, focused on data walls; the teacher called a student up to her desk and gave the student an anonymous pin for the data wall: “Great job! You got a 90% on the test. Go put your pin up on the data wall.” Then, the teacher called up a second student: “It looks like you struggled on this test. You got a 60%. Go ahead and put your pin on the data wall.” This student was directed to walk toward the data wall looking embarrassed and dejected.
Rationale: My students understood that for their PD to be impactful, teachers had to actually experience what it’s like to be a student. They crafted their skits to give teachers real-life context for how these harmful practices can show up in class.
- Brief Direction Instruction: Explain to teachers what practices and actions they should do or continue doing to support community and self-confidence
Rationale: Rather than only focus on the negatives, my students wanted to highlight some of their positive experiences to encourage teachers to maintain them.
- Reflection: What’s one thing you will take away from this training?
Rationale: My students wanted to ensure teachers identified at least one way their training will impact their teaching moving forward.
Reflecting on Student Impact
The process of guiding my students through planning their PD session by simply asking questions, providing structure (i.e. requiring my students to write an agenda), and offering feedback affirmed an important part of my teaching philosophy: creating engaging learning experiences requires honoring students’ autonomy and centering students’ lived experiences.
For my students, leading this PD session and experiencing a shift in the traditional power dynamic opened up a new sense of advocacy possibilities. Following this, 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 make meaningful, effective change.
Teachers throughout the building also expressed how impactful this training was for gaining insight into their students’ experiences and building more empathy. Many teachers talked about incorporating more relationship-building activities and providing more positive feedback to their students. In the days following, my students confirmed their PD session’s impact on their teachers. “Mr. Homrich-Knieling, they actually listened! My math teacher has started class by asking us how we’re doing!”
Oftentimes, in traditional professional development sessions, students are talked about as an abstract while adults make guesses about what their students want and need in a learning community. Creating space and support for students to lead from their personal experiences and teach their teachers how to meet their needs radically disrupts that traditional PD dynamic. Students deserve a voice in their own education, and it’s beyond time that we honor that.