While I usually use this space to talk about children and their learning, today I’d like to talk about our teachers. In my humble opinion, we have the most talented teaching staff in NYC (ok, maybe not so humble). I am daily in awe of the passion, creativity, and expertise that our teachers and support staff display.
One of the qualities that sets our staff apart, that you may not see from the parent-perspective, is their penchant for professional growth and development. Having visited roughly 40 NYC schools, I can say with a degree of confidence that our teachers are the most inquisitive, reflective, and self-challenging group there is. I wanted to share with you some of the ways our staff challenges themselves to continuously grow in their professional development. Forgive me if this is somewhat lengthy; there is a lot to say in this area!
Visiting schools: Each of our teachers takes a half- or full-day away from their classroom at one point in the year to visit a nursery or ongoing school. While there, they are looking for ways to innovate and add to their own practice. We often hear from our teachers after their school visits about new methods they are trying out or changes to their classrooms they’ve made as a result of these visits.
Growth Meetings: This is a one-on-one conversation with myself or Shari that each teacher has at multiple points throughout the year. The emphasis in these conversations is on the self-reflective practice of the teacher, and discussing areas in which the teacher is committed to growing. These conversations are built off of the teacher’s reflection, as well as the administrator’s observational notes of the teacher’s practice, accumulated from multiple classroom visits throughout the year. This is a chance for teachers to reflect on specific aspects of their practice and brainstorm strategies for growing those areas as the year progresses.
Thursday staff meetings: Every Thursday, our entire staff gathers for a 90-minute meeting. The contents of this time are governed by the teachers themselves, through a small group of volunteer teachers who organize the theme of each meeting. A main point of emphasis in these meetings is the “Peer Learning Cycle,” in which teachers are broken into small groups based on a shared research-topic. The group spends the year following a strand of professional inquiry, such as how Reggio-inspired practice and Jewish values are woven together in our school or how teachers can support the development of kindness and empathy in the classroom. The conclusion of these groups will be a presentation to our staff as well as to our parent body (stay tuned!). Aside from this research, our teachers recruit sought-after professionals to learn from during these Thursday meetings. A major point of learning over the past three years has been from professionals in the field of occupational and physical therapy, speech language pathology, and play therapy.
Team Time: The most important growth that our staff experiences is through dedicated time spent together as a team, before and after class hours. Twice weekly each teaching team spends the afternoon reviewing, reflecting, and planning, once with an administrator and once on their own. This is a fruitful time of contemplation and questioning as our teachers discuss their students, classroom, and pedagogical practices.
There are some overarching theories which guide these strands, and the general culture of growth at our school. I’ll do my best to sum them up as briefly as I can!
Richard Elmore and a group from the Harvard Graduate School of Education introduced a model called Instructional Rounds, in which educators spend time visiting and observing each other’s classrooms. A key concept in this model is de-privatization, which calls for teachers to escape the potential “silo” effect of the closed-door classroom by inviting teachers to observe them at work and hear their feedback. A second key concept is fine-grained and descriptive observations of teachers, allowing for objective feedback. This results in teachers reflecting back to each other what they see in their peer’s practice, instead of a value- or judgment-laden critique.
Marilyn Cochran-Smith, a leading scholar of teacher development for over 30 years, coined the concept of “knowledge-in-practice,” which is when teachers generate professional knowledge through their lived experiences within the school setting. This is in contrast to “knowledge-for-practice,” which is when universities generate knowledge to be consumed by the distal classroom teacher, and “knowledge-of-practice,” which is when an expert or lead teacher is responsible for the tutelage of a younger, novice teacher. Our school uses these three approaches in combination, but emphasizes knowledge-in-practice. We believe that our teachers’ intelligence and curiosity should be put to work in their own classrooms, resulting in pedagogy and curriculum that are not “best practices” for a generic classroom with generic students, but are rather the best practice for their own classroom and their own students.
Robert Schaefer, then dean of Teachers College, wrote about the “school as a center of inquiry” at the adult level, not only the student level. He claimed that it is “our responsibility for the intellectual health of teachers” that they be “freed to inquire into the nature of what and how they are teaching.” Our teaching teams are continuously engaging in this type of work, calling into question their practices and never assuming that one way is the right way. With a poignant flair, he writes, “How can children fully know the dynamism of learning if the adults around them stand still?” Our teachers are never standing still; they model intellectual inquiry for our students.
Brene Brown, scholar and author, looks at the power of vulnerability (her TED talk has been viewed over 20 million times). Her work encourages professionals, and parents, to place themselves in vulnerable positions in order to experience meaningful growth. She writes: “I believe that feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not “getting comfortable with hard conversations” but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized: “We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here – you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.” Our staff is one that leans into this discomfort by asking themselves and each other hard questions that lead to new and innovative teaching methods.
It is my hope that this overview of how our staff learns helps you understand a deeper perspective on your child’s experience at the nursery school. We think the world of your children, and think they deserve the best. I am so proud of our full school staff for their passionate commitment to always growing, learning, and challenging themselves.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year,