Basic Elements of Strong Professional Development for Teaching Artists

We know a lot about the ways to spark, support and sustain the learning of students in our school residency programs. We eagerly apply all our understandings of pedagogical practices, and we carefully create a safe and stimulating learning atmosphere every time we work with students.

However, we often overlook that same knowledge and care we take with the creative atmosphere when we address the ongoing learning of the teaching artists who deliver our programs. We assume that because they teach, the same truths do not apply to them as learners. Too often I have seen excellent educators offer professional development sessions that consist entirely of giving information--with the assumption that because things have been said, they have been learned. I have seen discussion assumed to be mastery, bypassing the hands-on necessity. I have seen tense, anxious atmospheres undermine the safety of the professional development learning environment--a teaching artist who feels threatened is not a productive learner. I have seen a workshop aimed at the middle level of experience make the beginners in the room anxious and the old-hands frustrated.

The YA Residency Rubric is a major contribution to the field, helping us clarify our understanding of good, improving and exemplary practice. As our field becomes clearer about what good practice looks like, we must concurrently attend to the quality of the professional development we offer to support ongoing improvement. The following are some guidelines to consider for designing professional development programs that are as creative and effective as the practices they address.

Staff professional development
We cannot expect others to master what we ourselves do not understand. The designers of the professional development (PD) need not know and be able to do everything the artists need to master; and at the same time, they must be aware of, and involved in the subjects to effectively guide the direction and evolution. The answer is co-learning. Staff must learn about the focal areas, and learn from the residency experiences, along with artists. At this time, in YA, and in the field in general, we are all learning, all advancing the distributed knowledge of the focal topics. There is no dishonor or leadership weakness in admitting to this; co-learning enriches the atmosphere of the PD for all.

Input from the learners about what they need to learn
The teaching artist must have some ownership of the topics addressed and the form of the PD. This needs to be more than just token input; it must provide an authentic sense of alignment between his personal goals and the focus of the PD program. If there is a disagreement between what the administrators deem as essential and the teaching artists (TAs) want to address, there is some important misunderstanding at the base of this that needs to be clarified for all. Eyes on the same prize

Goals and assessment
The goals of the PD must be clear, stated early and often, and the means by which TAs will be assessed made clear from the start.
Both long-term and short-term goals must be clear, e.g. the purpose of each particular PD occasion and how it fits into a larger PD and programmatic context.
These goals must be relevant to the creative and personal aspirations of the TA to get full commitment; they must be more than just the hoops she must jump through to keep the gig. (That promotes "gig" thinking and behavior.)
Assessment practices must be introduced early and consistently; they must be clear and as objective as possible to seem fair. They must be focused on improving practice rather than hiring/firing.

Multiple voices
Assessment is neither judgment nor evaluation. It is an ongoing dialogue about creative work and accomplishment. The rubric provides an excellent tool for launching and sustaining such a dialogue. The TA's self-assessment is the most important voice, and there should be other voices involved too--the administrative overseers, peers, partner teachers, even students. Observation by staff, by peers, by videotape replay, are all ways to spark the dialogue, which can use the rubric to clarify understandings and target on areas for focus.

The TA must experience the PD focus to be relevant to his residency practice and to his personal goals as a TA. We must provide opportunities for him to apply it to his own work, to experiment with the new tools to take ownership of them, and to reflect with colleagues about the experiences.

Real partnerships with teachers (in which the TAs and teachers both go further than they could go cooperatively but separately) are not lucked-into--they are built. A program that wants catalytic partnerships must invest in the foundation-building that produces them. We cannot assume that TAs know what schools are like, what pressures teachers face, and what kinds of results schools require; conversely, we cannot assume that teachers know how to make good use of the resource a TA provides, or that she knows how to tap that power to boost all the learning in the room. Partnerships, and the environment that nurtures them, are the result of professional development commitment over time. Planning time is the most crucial resource for building deep partnerships.

Multiple tracks
Just as a novice painter and a very experienced one have different needs in the same workshop, teaching artists at different stages in their development have different needs. PD programs must consider an orientation track for new entrants that emphasizes the basics and suggests what long-term growth entails. The senior TAs need to be challenged to keep growing too. This suggests that a "one workshop fits all" model does not work for all, and challenges us to meet professional learners where they are, just as we attend to classroom learners. One of the most common complaints about teaching artist work is that the activities are not suited exactly enough to the developmental stages, needs and interests of the learners--the same criticism can be leveled against much PD. Experienced TAs need to be challenged with new kinds of work--e.g. research and evaluation, peer observation, leading PD, ambassadorship.

As with school students who are "required" to participate in residencies, TA PD must seek to create an atmosphere of serious play, of inquiry, of personal aspiration in order to engage the intrinsic motivation essential of real learning. Don't underestimate the value of fun as a fundamental element in PD. Don't underestimate the importance of payment as an expression of professional respect; TAs should be paid respectfully for their time if we expect wholehearted participation. TA work is lonely work; PD should seek to build a collegial atmosphere that supports the growth of distributed knowledge.

You can't hurry real learning. PD takes time and unfolds over time. You can't cram it into short timeframes and expect good results; you can't address a topic once and assume it is "covered." The priority that PD holds in an organization is expressed more in the allocation of time and money than in the claims of importance. PD that effectively engages and supports the passion and commitment of the learner goes much further because the learner sustains the learning more on her own.

Where is the art?
Too often the art is left out of PD or is included in perfunctory ways. TAs are artists, and they wither without artistic engagement. We must be as creative in PD as we are in classrooms in finding ways for artistic engagement to spark learning of all kinds. Too often our PD contradicts the very educational priorities we seek to emphasize. Of course, not everything must spring from artistic engagement (and artistic engagement does not always require artistic media), but artistic thinking and creative investment cannot be left out or merely on the periphery in PD.

Be the thing
Our PD programs must seek to model authentically the kind of learning we hope to inspire our TAs to practice. We must walk the talk. While this is challenging, and can be time consuming, a wholehearted embrace of this challenge changes the entire PD equation, making it a group inquiry rather than a job requirement. A group of creative inquirers who are exploring ways to achieve best practices learns much faster, stays more committed longer, than a group of employees trying to do what the boss requires.

Those general principles in place, here are a few short reminders about strong PD practice:

Clarify, share and get agreement about expectations and responsibilities
Examine all assumptions, such as: TAs know enough about schools
Share the reality of schools by working with, hearing from, teachers and administrators
Prioritize self-assessment over all other kinds of assessment
Base "success" on clear, consistent, perceived-to-be-fair and inspiring criteria
The goal is engagement in key issues more than information delivery; don't just "tell" -- include relevant, hands-on exploration, observation of excellent work, reflection about practice
Place the information of experts in a relevant context, allowing for hands-on exploration and dialogue
Provide time and priority for planning; partnership-building takes a lot of time
Create an atmosphere that's safe, collegial, challenging, inquiring, and serious fun
Use a consistent vocabulary and address semantic questions
Provide time for dialogue about ideas and about practice
Support individuals taking ownership of PD topics in their own way
Take into consideration multiple levels of expertise--use differentiated instruction to engage both novice and advanced, and/or provide separate tracks
Express professional respect in pay
Get ongoing TA input about PD program, not just feedback

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