With the passage of the TEACHNJ Act in 2012, which brought us the AchieveNJ evaluation system, a major shift occurred in the realm of professional development (PD). New Jersey went from an approach that was practitioner driven to a system built on the paternalistic belief that teachers need a strong hand to force improvement. By tying the creation of professional development plans (PDP) to the evaluation process, the statute and the resulting regulations moved the focus of adult learning from one of personal growth to one that seeks to fill deficits in specific skills.

All too often, administrators recommend PD from which they can draw a direct line to components and indicators of the evaluation system. This often takes the form of attending workshops, watching videos or receiving a top-down form of academic coaching. None of these formats involve collaboration, co-creation or peer learning. Connecting professional development to evaluation has produced a passive, external approach to PD that has little regard for effective adult learning practices.

Fortunately, the state code that governs education does allow for professional development that is done collectively with fellow faculty members and builds toward a common purpose. The AchieveNJ regulations set the Standards for Professional Development, with which all PD experiences shall be aligned. The very first standard states: “Learning communities: Occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment.”

Leaning on the Standards for Professional Development, teachers, School Improvement Panel (ScIP) members and local leaders can advocate for a form of PD that far exceeds the expectations set forth in TEACHNJ. Educators want professional development that is personally relevant and helps build a stronger learning community. Approaching PDPs from the perspective of attending to the collective good has an additional benefit of disseminating the learning of each individual amongst the faculty in an organic way, effectively strengthening the whole community through the differentiated efforts of the members.

This PD could take a variety of forms. Individuals could use a tuning protocol where the learning community helps them to gain deeper insight into personal events and projects. ScIPs could organize school-wide edcamps where the entire faculty shares what they have learned through their PDPs. Members of professional learning communities could host conversations around specific challenges and work collaboratively to solve them. Through each of the practices listed (and many others), it is easy to meet the mandates of TEACHNJ while also achieving something greater, the development of a strong community that learns together. NJEA’s Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division offers a variety of workshops on these collaborative approaches. Contact your local association leaders and ask them to arrange a training opportunity.

There is a bias towards paternalism in TEACHNJ and the mandates around evaluation and professional development clearly reflect it. It is a bias that sees a school as the sum of its parts, a bias that we know to be untrue. As you move through your PDP this year, reject that bias. Find ways to learn with your colleagues for both your own good and that of the collective whole.

Mike Ritzius is an NJEA associate director of Professional Development and Instructional Issues. Contact him below. 

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