By Thomas Patteson and Laura Birdsall
Issue: Issue #57 Vol. 14, Autumn 2009
New Approaches to Professional Development in Waldorf Schools
Impartial observers might have the impression that the educational reform debate has become a standoff. On one side politicians and parents are demanding that schools be made more accountable. On the other side teachers resent the imposition of one-size-fits-all standardized testing and feel that they are losing control of their classrooms. But some encouraging signs are pointing the way beyond this impasse. Educational reformers—whether teachers, politicians, or parents—are realizing that deeper teacher involvement must accompany greater accountability. Schools need to be held to higher standards, but teachers must also have ownership of their work if the quality of education is to improve.
An example of this trend can be found in the field of professional development for teachers. Traditionally, this involves teachers attending presentations by visiting professionals. Because outside consultants are removed from the particular school and the teachers’ classroom experience, their perspectives are not always relevant to teachers’ problems. Furthermore, in this model of professional development, teachers tend to become passive receptors of knowledge instead of active contributors to pedagogical improvement. Over the past couple of decades, teachers and educational professionals have been working to develop alternatives to this traditional model. One of the most promising is based on the simple idea that teachers themselves are the best resource for improving classroom teaching. Called “peer coaching” or “in-house professional development,” this approach draws on the wisdom and experience of colleagues to make the educational process more effective and humane.
In January 2008, River Valley Waldorf School began implementing an in-house professional development plan. The pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school, located in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania (about 40 miles north of Philadelphia), contracted the Triskeles Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in nearby Exton, to oversee the process. Triskeles, in turn, recruited Steven Strull of the National School Reform Faculty to introduce the project.
Strull, a longtime advocate of peer coaching in education, compares the idea to doctors’ “rounds,” where medical professionals work through group discussion to identify and address patients’ problems. According to Strull, traditional education is one of the only fields where the professionals are directed by the managers and administrators and not the other way around. This practice, Strull maintains, has a direct, negative impact on the teaching quality because administrative decisions are not necessarily informed by firsthand knowledge of what is happening in the classroom.
Strull led three day-long sessions with the River Valley Waldorf School faculty in the winter and spring of 2008. In these meetings, Strull shared the fundamental ideas behind the National School Reform approach and led the faculty through a number of basic exercises. Laura Birdsall, an experienced teacher who has done consulting work for River Valley in the past, also attended these sessions and continued the project after Strull’s workshops ended.
At the heart of the peer coaching model used at those River Valley Waldorf School workshops was the protocol, a written set of step-by-step guidelines that provides a framework for faculty discussion and ensures that it remains focused and effective. As Strull defined it at his first meeting with the faculty, “A protocol is a tool to teach yourself the habits you wish you had.” The various protocols used by the National School Reform Faculty were designed to anticipate and address issues that all teachers encounter.
Leading the group through the protocol is the responsibility of the facilitator. Ideally someone is selected from among the members, but it can be someone from outside the group. Strull initially served as facilitator, but the teachers quickly grasped how the protocols worked and were soon able to facilitate them on their own.
The structure of the protocol depends on the particular problem or issue that the group has chosen to address. For example, in the “Consultancy” protocol, the presenter shares a dilemma that she has encountered in her work. The dilemma is not a question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” but a complex problem touching on the foundations of teaching practices. The protocol begins with the presenter sharing relevant background information and then posing the dilemma in the form of a question. The group first asks clarifying questions of the presenter and then moves to more probing inquiries; these are meant to help the presenter reach a deeper understanding of the dilemma. Now, with the presenter listening and taking notes, the members of the group talk with each other about the dilemma in light of the additional information that emerged through the questioning process. Following the group discussion, the presenter responds briefly to the group’s conversation, sharing how the process has altered her perception of the dilemma. Finally, the facilitator leads a short discussion about what just took place and brings the process to a close.
Strull’s experience in public schools is that teachers frequently respond to the pressures of their profession by withdrawing into their classrooms and facing their challenges alone. Because of this, one of the foremost goals of peer coaching is to “de-privatize” teaching practice. The experience of isolation can also be true for Waldorf teachers and may have an even more profound impact on Waldorf students’ experience, given that class teachers stay with their classes for up to eight years.
Because the content of the protocols is supplied by the teachers themselves, this model of professional development can be a meaningful improvement over the traditional “sit and get” format. Discussion emerges organically from teachers’ classrooms. “This work helps you improve on what you’re already doing,” Strull explains. “It creates more meaning in what you’re already involved in.” Confronting pedagogical issues using the protocol format is a learning experience shared by all participants. Ideally everyone benefits by the collective wisdom of the group. But in the end, the use of protocols to guide faculty pedagogical discussions must be evaluated to determine if they do, indeed, increase teacher effectiveness and foster a culture of continual improvement within the school faculty.
Results and retrospective
The project was a learning experience not only for the River Valley Waldorf School (RVWS) faculty, but also for Strull, who was largely unfamiliar with the philosophy behind Waldorf schools. Fortunately, he found that the Waldorf emphasis on communication and discourse made the use of these protocols a natural fit, and the RVWS was very receptive to them. At the same time, he noted that many of the school faculty members were accustomed to a more unstructured, open-ended form of dialogue, and consequently had to adjust to the more tightly controlled format of the protocol.
Laura Birdsall began working full-time at RVWS in July 2008 and has continued to lead the work introduced by Strull. Under Birdsall’s guidance, the school decided to dedicate roughly half of the year’s faculty meetings to addressing pedagogical issues using the protocol format. From September to December, 2008, the faculty held seven pedagogical meetings. During this time virtually every teacher brought issues from her/his classroom as material for group work, and most have also taken turns facilitating the protocols.
The RVWS faculty is determined to see that this new focus on pedagogy takes root in the day-to-day life of the school. “What happens between meetings? Do teachers continue sharing? Or are the pedagogical meetings ‘islands’ in a busy month?” These questions touch the very heart of the project. As important as the group sessions are, the ultimate test of the endeavor is whether a culture of communication and mutual support is enhanced at RVWS, enabling the faculty to continually grow and improve the quality of their teaching. But for the time being, RVWS teachers have found that the open communication inherent in the Waldorf model has become more focused and productive. In short, the implementation of peer coaching has helped them realize one of the core values of Waldorf education: dialogue as a means of creating a more effective and humane environment for students and teachers alike.
The River Valley Waldorf School is very grateful to the Helen Bader Foundation of Milwaukee, WI, whose support allowed them to take up these exciting new tools for working together to improve their pedagogical practices and governance.
For more information:
National School Reform Faculty: www.nsrfharmony.org
River Valley Waldorf School: www.rivervalleyschool.org
Triskeles Foundation: www.triskeles.org