Professional Development as a Self-Care Practice

By Yael Krieger

[This article is the second in a four-part series featuring recent graduates of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI). MTEI is a two-year journey of discovery, helping educational leaders transform their educational communities into places where teachers learn together, exploring both Jewish content and how to enrich learning for students.]

I work at a pluralistic Jewish community high school. I love how we describe our goals for students:

“We want our students to look deeper, to engage meaningfully with the subjects they study. We want them to be unafraid to ask big questions … Deep learning represents learning that is intrinsically motivated and is the result of complex thinking, collaborative practice, integration, and reflection. It is both grounded in concrete knowledge and infinite in application.”

Until recently, I would never have described my own professional learning and the work I do with teachers this way. When it came to professional development, my experience was encountering experts transmitting solutions to the technical problems of teaching. In my role as Director of Educational Support at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, I was highly attuned to the disconnect between the educational goals for students and the educational goals for teachers. Two years ago, I became a fellow in the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI), and my entire paradigm of what teacher education should look like shifted. 

It is hard as a teacher to prioritize one’s own learning. It can feel indulgent and can lack the urgency we feel when attending to our students. MTEI reminded me that teaching is a practice that requires constant reflection and nurture. Professional growth is about valuing deeply what we teachers do every day and giving ourselves permission to learn how to become stronger in our practice. MTEI offered a vision of the possibility of creating a community where teachers are constantly developing their practice with each other. I learned through MTEI the importance of intentionally creating structures that foster collaborative inquiry and trusting relationships. 

As a result, my work with teachers changed. I no longer saw myself as the provider of information, but rather as the facilitator for teacher growth. To this end, over the past year, my team designed Teacher Learning Walks for the teachers at my school. A Teacher Learning Walk has three goals: 1) To enhance professional dialogue about teaching and learning 2) To strengthen a culture of inquiry and self-reflection through collaborative learning, and 3) to support constant improvement in our classroom practice. The walk consists of four, five minute classroom observations. We enter each classroom with the same focus of inquiry (i.e. How is the teacher assessing student understanding?). Our observations are not for our “host” teacher, but for ourselves and our own learning, reinforcing the notion that learning is most complete when we learn from and with each other. Our observations are not judgmental, but factual, and only later get opened up to curious wondering. After our observations, we regroup for a reflection and conversation. What questions or thoughts arose as a result of our observations? How might this impact our own practice? 

The conversations that emerge are generative, multi-vocal, and push us to think more deeply about why we choose to do certain things in the classroom. Based on observations, teachers ask questions, reflect on their own practice, express their own uncertainties, and build on each others’ ideas:

“Teacher 1: One thing that I noticed in two of the classrooms was kids helping each other … listening to each other … It helped them come to an understanding together.

Teacher 2: It’s also this genuine thing. They’re having a conversation with each other because they need to work on their learning … as opposed to something more artificial-feeling like a quiz where it’s not intrinsically motivated.

Teacher 3: A teacher observing that interaction between two students actually could get more insight into that thinking process rather than just outcome. It gives the teacher more data around how to support and intervene. 

Teacher 4: How do you make the decision of when and whether to intervene? That’s something I struggle with in my own teaching is mindfully making the decision when to correct and redirect and when to let them figure it out on their own.”

Facilitating conversations like this humbles me, teaching me that my own vantage point is never enough. We see only one perspective, and without coming together, our understandings are doomed to be one-dimensional and incomplete. But seeing beyond our own interpretations is hard. Stepping out of our preconceived, meaning-making categories is not a simple task. Teacher Learning Walks invite teachers to slow down, to pause on their judgments of what’s good or bad, and begin to analyze the complexity of the experience.  

What has been particularly impactful for me through the initiation of these Teacher Learning Walks is seeing how hungry teachers are for a space to talk about teaching. In surveys teachers filled out reflecting on the Learning Walks, teachers requested more time for observing classes, asked for more support in launching ideas that emerged from follow up conversations, and desired more time for conversations with colleagues. Community, collaboration, and conversations are not “bonuses” that happen only after we finish serving our students. Thanks to MTEI, my urgency to focus on student learning now sits alongside my commitment to learn as a teacher and educational leader who seeks to foster other teachers’ learning.

Yael Krieger is Director of Educational Support at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay and is a recent graduate of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI).