FETC 2013 | Feature

Bringing Passion and Collaboration to Professional Development

For "community of practice" expert Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, the first steps toward improving teachers’ professional development are bringing them together and keeping them interested.

Digital learning advocate and teacher trainer Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is looking to shake up the way teachers connect, collaborate, and work with students--but not in the way you might think.

“One of the things I tell [teachers] is that I don’t want you to change anything about your teaching. I want you to change everything about your learning, and do that first.”

For years, Nussbaum-Beach has concentrated her efforts on helping teachers become “connected educators” who are able to leverage both online and face-to-face learning networks to find the right people to connect and collaborate with on topics related to their passions and professional growth. “A connected educator is also somebody who understands how to take that information that they’ve gotten from the people they’re talking to, in a very diverse network, to help transform their practice back to the local setting,” she says.

One of the ultimate goals is to create what Nussbaum-Beach refers to as “teacher leaders,” a phrase she says can often be misconstrued. “When we think of teacher leadership, a lot of times, we think that they must want to be a principal or that they aspire to not be in the classroom anymore, and nothing can be farther from the truth,” she says, noting that what teachers are really looking for is a chance to lead on their own, in an authentic environment, without stifling amounts of administrative oversight or hand-holding.

To do that, educators must move beyond professional development as it is meted out to them, and look to join their peers in meaningful learning focused on collaboration. A good place to start might be professional learning communities, often abbreviated as PLCs, provided they keep authentic learning as a main focus, which historically has not always been the case.

“The problem was that, like anything when a particular initiative starts to become popular, a lot of time it will become watered down, and we began hearing terms like PLCs to mean anything,” Nussbaum-Beach says. Specifically, she points to the time a few years ago when online mediums like Twitter were first harnessed by teachers hungry for any interaction. It was a shift, she says, but not as significant as it could have been. “Teachers were talking about professional things and what felt like professional learning, but it really was the realization of, ‘Oh my gosh I’m talking to another adult and we’re talking about teacher stuff,’ but things weren’t changing.”

fetc presenter sheryl nussbaum beach

A former classroom teacher and district administrator, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach now works to help build communities for educators.

At FETC 2013, she will present the session Connected Learning Communities: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age, which will explore what professional development should look like in the 21st century.

Networks like Twitter can be useful for teachers, but Nussbaum-Beach prefers more intimate online experiences--often with a higher character count. These days, she devotes much of her time to building and improving online communities of practice (COPs), which she defines as ongoing, passion-oriented professional development communities created through online and social technologies. In them, teachers are responsible for their own learning around the subjects that interest them most.

This year, Nussbaum-Beach worked with the US Dept. of Education on a number of free webinars detailing how teachers might take steps toward joining or creating a COP of their own, and she’s spoken at FETC on the subject in years past. But mostly she’s devoted to her own Powerful Learning Practice community, which she began with co-founder Will Richardson six years ago. Nussbaum-Beach describes it as a place where educators can engage in active, self-propelled learning aimed at turning themselves into stronger educators who own the learning that they do.

Power of the Press

After navigating the treacherous waters publishing world when authoring her first book, The Connected Educator, Sheryl Nussbaum thought there must be way to do more for would-be authors and readers that was specific to education.

"The experience was great," she says of writing Educator. "I just didn't understand, in this era, why we would do it this way." Enter Powerful Learning Press, Nussbaum-Beach's newest venture with her co-founder Will Richardson, which seeks to empower budding authors much in the same way her Powerful Learning Practice network looks to empower teachers. One of her goals is to get beyond the conference circuit and discover a new set of authors, like working teachers and education leaders.

The publishing process won't be strictly traditional--authors retain their copyright and split revenues 50/50--and neither will the books. For one thing, they'll be shorter (Nussbaum-Beach says some might top out at 100 pages). And while they might get print runs, e-book versions will feature video and other interactive elements.

PLPress's first book, The Connected Teacher: Power Up, is available free at powerfullearningpress.com.

“Teachers are all about teaching and learning right? But all we do is help them develop the teaching part. We never really help teachers understand the learning aspect,” she says. “And you can’t give away what you don’t own.”

Nussbaum-Beach highlights what is perhaps the central difference between COPs like hers and traditional professional development as teachers have come to know it. “A healthy community is really taken over by community members who self-organize, and they bring the content, while traditional PD is like a course: Here’s the syllabus, here’s the outline, here’s what I want you to learn, and how to learn it,” she says.

“You can’t come in and then sit at the master’s feet,” Nussbaum-Beach says of COPs. “It’s not an excuse for the same people trying to drive and impose their kinds of objectives on a group people.”

Passion In Action
Today, Nussbaum-Beach says she wants the best of both worlds. There’s still a place for surface-level networking and chatter on Twitter, where links can be harvested and shared with others. But at the same time, educators should find a community of practice, where deeper conversations center on improvement strategies and problem-solving. Lastly, Nussbaum-Beach advocates for putting everything into practice in a community action project, a kind of self-directed learning initiative for teachers, which has become a central part of her Powerful Learning Practice courses.

In one example, Nussbaum-Beach cites a group of teachers who were dissatisfied with the limitations of their school’s acceptable-use policy. For their project, they researched forward-thinking policies from across the country, assembled focus groups, and eventually presented a rewritten responsible-use policy to the school board, which eventually passed. “You can imagine what had gone into that,” Nussbaum-Beach says. “It was a very empowering thing for those teachers.”

It is this culture of collaboration that will lead to the best learning. “What we’ve done for a lot of time in the instruction of education is we’ve pretty much force-fed kids,” she says. “We told them what they were going to learn, how they were going to learn it, and they were going to regurgitate it back to us to show mastery--and then doggone-it if we didn’t do the same thing to their teachers.”

But, Nussbaum-Beach says, there is another way. “When you think back to the most dynamic learning experiences you’ve had, where it’s around interest and passion, you have some element of control over your own learning, instead of it being something done to you,” she says. “That’s when the deepest kind of learning takes place.”