Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

An Affinity for Learning: Teacher Identity and Powerful Professional Development

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

An Affinity for Learning: Teacher Identity and Powerful Professional Development

Article excerpt

From one perspective, professional development (PD) is a shared experience, with many teachers inhabiting the same learning enviromnent and encountering the same material. Shared learning experiences are important from a policy implementation standpoint in that they help to foster coherence in instructional practice across classrooms, schools, or districts. But this laudable policy aim is complicated by the fact that within any single learning environment, there are as many unique learning experiences as there are learners themselves. One teacher's transformative experience may be just another Tuesday for her colleague sitting a few feet away. What could help explain this variation? And what might a better understanding of this variation imply for PD design and policy?

One approach to answering these questions is to apply the analytic lens of teacher professional identity. An identity lens is promising given its attention to individual learners, including their past experiences and guiding beliefs and how they use them as filters through which to interpret their learning and with which to justify present and potential actions. Drawing on interviews with 25 teachers in which they reflected on their most powerful learning experiences (PLEs), I consider the extent to which teacher identity may emerge from or contribute to these learning experiences. It is my hope that the present study--with its inter- and intrapersonal approach to studying PD--may serve as both a complement and a contrast to the research orientation predominant in PD literature, which tends to focus more abstractly (and impersonally) on design elements and best practices.

Professional Development

Defined broadly and inclusively, PD may be understood as activities or relationships intended to support and develop teachers' instructional practice. And yet PD activities vary widely in design, including in-district or out-of-district workshops, college-level courses, formal or informal mentoring relationships, teacher inquiry groups, or peer observations (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009).

Professional development is seen by a broad cross-section of stakeholders--teachers, principals, policymakers--as essential for instructional improvement and student learning (see Borko, Elliott, & Uchiyama, 2002). One indicator of the enormous faith placed in the potential of PD to drive instructional improvement is the consistently high level of spending on teacher development. The teacher development organization TNTP (2015) studied three large U.S. urban districts and estimated that they spent on average US$18,000 per teacher per year to improve instructional practice, between 4 and 15 times the cost per employee in other comparable industries.

And yet, despite proclamations of PD's importance and deep investments of time and money, the return on investment remains disappointingly low. TNTP (2015) lamented that even this massive investment in PD had little apparent impact on teaching quality, as measured by multiple modes of teacher evaluation and corroborated by empirical research (Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, & Shapley, 2007). Teachers, too, have long been dismayed by PD's failure to realize its potential (e.g., Calvert, 2016; Smylie, 1989). Speaking to preservice teachers in 2012, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pegged the full cost of PD at US$2.5 billion each year and then noted, with a blend of sympathy and resolve, "When I say that to teachers they usually laugh or cry. They are not feeling it." (1)

Decades of correlational and quasi-experimental research have resulted in many "best practice" frameworks that lay out instrumental PD design elements (e.g., Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001; Guskey, 2003). Summarizing the features identified by this strand of research, Wayne, Yoon, Zhu, Cronen, and Garet (2008) wrote that "it is generally accepted that intensive, sustained, job-embedded PD focused on the content of the subject that teachers teach is more likely to improve teacher knowledge, classroom instruction, and student achievement" (p. …

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