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BCTF Advantage

Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 2, October 2010  

Big dreams and bigger plans for the best ProD 

By Jane Turner and Mary Filleul  

Professional autonomy district-wide, Nanaimo style

You know the old saw—“Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it”? We could say the same thing happens around professional autonomy. Everyone is in favour of it but, year after year, teachers find it a challenge to implement collectively. Recently, Nanaimo teachers grew a huge idea when they mused about how to create a range of opportunities for all district teachers so they could make professionally autonomous decisions on a PD day.

In a “share your dreams out loud” moment, the Nanaimo District Professional Development Committee asked, “Why don’t we try an open space conversation to engage all our teachers?” If you have ever participated in an open space activity, you will know how large that question is. If you have never experienced open space, keep reading to find out how courageous they were to even pose the question.

First we need a little history. A small and passionate group of Nanaimo teachers participated in a BCTF Learning Inquiry (see Teacher, March 2010) during the 2008–09, 2009–10 school years. They became tremendously excited about the entire experience. This was a professionally autonomous process that engaged them in deep learning opportunities and built cross grade, school and subject area community, yet all the while pursuing their own learning questions. Teacher inquiry was (and is) the epitome of teacher professional autonomous learning.

Recognizing the power and relevance of this process, Nanaimo teachers began thinking about finding a way to make available for all district teachers, if they so desired, a chance to participate in an inquiry experience. So the “dream big” conversation ensued and the “Imagine!” day was born.

As a first step, all PD reps in the district came together for a SURT (School Union Representative Training), conducted using the open space discussion method. Briefly, open space is a process in which attendees set the agenda, establish the areas, topics or questions that are of interest to them, then go and dig a little deeper into what they know, need, or want to know, and do under each of those interest headings. It is a process that trusts in the ability of participants to be their own leaders, followers, notetakers, discussers, or whatever else needs doing. Teachers, you will not be surprised to learn, are really good at this.

During their SURT, Nanaimo PD reps identified nine broad topic areas or questions. These ranged from “classroom technology use to help students learn” to “bridging the gap between grades.” Social justice was there in a real way—”meeting the diverse needs of students academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviourally” and “creating a welcoming school community.” Rather than wanting to explore more global goals like literacy and numeracy, teachers were keen to discuss topics closer to their classrooms, such as how to motivate their learners and develop meaningful assessments for learning.

These topic areas and questions were taken back to the schools throughout the local. Teachers were invited to spend their September 27 PD day together talking in one or more of these areas. All but four schools replied in the affirmative. The time was to be paid half from teacher PD funds and half from the district. It is important to note here that this was a completely voluntary activity. Neither the PD committee nor the district demanded participation from anyone. Clearly, there was an intense eagerness to learn more about both the process and the various topics.

“Be careful what you wish for” was in the minds of the Nanaimo PD committee. Now they had to figure out how to engage the thousand signed-up teachers in an open space process and how to make it a grand success. A call went out for volunteer facilitators (training to be provided) and over 40 keen replies were received, many of whom attended their first open space discussion at their SURT training in the spring.

On September 15, we went to Nanaimo to “train the trainers,” as these volunteers would each be leading an open space group on September 27. We designed and led an experiential learning opportunity by combining a modified open space group discussion and facilitation training with the over 40 volunteer participants. It was an amazing session.

The energy in the room, the commitment to the process and the analytical skills of the group resulted in developing the skills needed to facilitate what might just be the largest PD day open space discussion ever tried in the province. The group also planned the details for the day, problem solving and generating creative ideas on how to have the day flow seamlessly from start to finish.

As of the Teacher submission deadline, the Nanaimo open space PD experience, aptly named Imagine!, has not yet occurred. Stay tuned for the next issue of Teacher to find out how it worked. Whatever the outcome (we’re pretty sure it will be fabulous) the Nanaimo teachers are to be commended for taking a fundamental right and powerful tool of teachers—professional autonomy—and finding a way to bring it to reality in a meaningful, relevant, and innovative context.

If your local has found a way to bring professional autonomy to life, please e-mail Jane Turner at the BCTF (jturner@bctf.ca) with the details. They will be shared with the PD chairs around the province.

Jane Turner is an assistant director in the BCTF Professional and Social Issues Division and Mary Filleul is a community schools team teacher (mfilleul@vsb.bc.ca) at Windermere Secondary, Vancouver, and a BCTF inquiry facilitator. 

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