Small Schools and Teacher Professional Development.
by Klonsky, Michael
Small schools, at their best, can and often do provide new avenues for
the professional development of their teachers, ones that contribute to
the schools' well-documented success. They can also enhance the benefits
of more common in-service professional development activities. This Digest
reviews some of the recent research on professional development issues
in small schools and smaller learning communities.
WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN'T WORK IN PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Professional development literature of the past three decades provides
clear distinctions about what works and what doesn't. This research substantiates,
for example, the ineffectiveness of the all-too-common one-shot workshop
(Fullan & Stiegelbauer, 1991). In contrast, effective professional
development programs focus on a clear set of priorities; provide ongoing,
school-based support to classroom teachers; deal with academic content
as well as teaching methods; and create ample opportunities for teachers
to see and attempt new teaching methods, according to many experts (National
Staff Development Council, 2001). There is also evidence to show the effectiveness
of professional development models that are peer-led, open-ended, classroom-based,
and active (Peery, 2002). The more "extended" or ongoing and continuous
the professional development, the more it encourages effective classroom
practices (Wenglinsky, 2000, p. 30).
LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER
A compact faculty size (for example, a staff of 15-20 for a school of
300) can support close interpersonal relationships. In such settings professional
development is often enhanced by teaming and by small, task-oriented group
formations (Mohr, 2000). For instance, teacher teams may work on interdisciplinary
units, or on personalized learning plans for all students. Under these
circumstances, the entire team, including guidance personnel and even career-service
staff, share students and may teach multiple subjects or mixed-grade levels,
or collaborate on interdisciplinary teams. Thus, the necessity and opportunity
for shared professional learning are heightened.
Fine and Somerville (1998) found that the flexible scheduling and faculty
teamwork in smaller schools allowed for a level of depth and an interdisciplinary
approach that provided students with a much richer educational experience
(p. 106). In successful small schools, they point out, "time is given for
common planning and exchanging valuable information about students--and
there is well-funded time for professional development" (p. 108).
While small schools' faculties often have a strong sense of collegiality
among teachers rather than one strong leader (Meier, 2002; Ancess, 1997),
highly active principals and lead teachers can play important roles as
instructional leaders and teacher coaches, providing job-related learning
experiences and time for teachers to work together (Vander Ark, 2002).
Leaders in small schools often teach students themselves and may have intimate
knowledge of the students as well as the things that teachers need to be
effective (Cotton, 2001).
In small schools, teachers often use models of "Teacher Talk," "Critical
Friends," or other peer-coaching models in which teachers serve as coaches
for other teachers and facilitate reflective professional development activities
that enable them to know students and themselves better (Klonsky &
Klonsky, 1999; Guiney, 2001). Knowing students well also entails professional
development that supports the teaching of students with special needs and
those from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.
Practices such as interdisciplinary teaming and examining student work
in small groups foster a sense of professional community. These practices
both improve the capacity of teachers and contribute to a friendlier and
safer learning environment (Klonsky, 2002). These professional communities,
says Kathleen Cotton (2001), have as their key features the related elements
of professional development and teacher collaboration. Cotton also reports
that small size "allows school personnel to make shifts in their schedules
as needed to support practices the school deems important" (p.21).
FACULTY-DIRECTED PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Small faculty size makes possible stronger consensus over professional
development priorities and agendas as well as the sharing of successful
teaching strategies. Because relationships between teachers and administrators
in small schools tend to be more personal and informal, there is a greater
tendency for cooperation among the staff (Barker, 1986).
The Bank Street study (Wasley et al., 2000), which compared Chicago's
new small schools to its large traditional schools, reported that small-school
teachers were more likely to engage in professional development that they
themselves found valuable, instead of participating primarily in professional
development that was mandated or imposed by central office or school administrators.
The result was a more coherent and integrated educational program in those
schools. The study also reported greater teacher satisfaction and sense
of responsibility for student learning.
Finally, small schools set in motion many different types of "inside-out"
innovations (Larson, 1991). These are innovations that come directly out
of the teaching experience rather than from top-down decision making or
big changes in organizational structures. Small schools provide a better
chance of seeing the results of these innovations and their connection
to professional development because of the high visibility of students
and their work.
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT TO MEET PARTICULAR COMMUNITY NEEDS
Professional development activities in small schools, such as those
discussed above, tend to be highly intensive and long-running. Such practices
have been effective in helping teachers to collaborate within their professional
communities, to personalize and integrate instruction, to build a culture
of trust and collegial support, and to improve the quality of teaching
and learning in their schools (Daniels, Bizar, & Zemelman, 2001). Wasley
and Lear (2001) found that, in high-performing small learning communities,
professional development was "ongoing, embedded, and site-specific" (p.
There is also evidence that supports a professional development connection
with teacher leadership and activism (Ayers, Klonsky, & Lyon, 2000;
Barth, 2001; Wood, 1992). For example, many small schools are focused around
some area of social justice as their purpose or reason for being. Teachers
in these schools learn about local community issues such as gang violence
or joblessness as a way of engaging with their students' concerns and daily
Many other small schools encourage experiential or active learning.
Teachers in such schools need support in engaging their students more actively
in their own learning process (Cawelti, 1997). Teachers at the Met School
in Providence (RI), for example, work as coaches with students, helping
them to plan their high school curriculum and work many days out of the
classroom in their chosen fields. The Met has created courses to help staff
develop the coaching skills they need, skills that aren't provided through
traditional teacher education courses or professional development programs
Small-school activism and teacher leadership also come into play where
new small schools and smaller learning communities have emerged as part
of large-school conversions and comprehensive school restructuring initiatives.
In many such initiatives, teachers move into project director or principal
positions, calling for new skill sets to fulfill their duties (Cushman,
PREVENTION OF BURNOUT, CONFLICT, AND OBSTACLES TO COLLABORATION
The amplified demands on faculty and staff time for increased professional
development can also lead to burnout and teacher resistance to small schools.
Gladden (1998) found cases of teachers resisting the "heavy workload of
small schools" (p. 125). These demands are especially acute in the beginning
stages of new start-up schools (Ancess, 1997).
There may also be staff relationship problems that arise around professional
development work, between those teachers in a school-within-a-school and
those remaining with the larger school. Small-school teachers, for example,
can be pulled between professional development requirements of their small
school and those of the large school (Raywid, 1996).
Small-schools approaches to professional development can be stifled
in cases where the program or the facilities don't support the necessary
interaction among faculty members, i.e., where teachers in a team work
at extreme ends of a building or have no common planning time built into
But these problems have been overcome when good professional development
strategies have been put into play. Nancy Mohr (2000) for example, found
benefits when professional development was done in interdisciplinary teams:
"Teachers who work on teams not only improve their craft but also begin
to see the patterns in their work and relationships. They learn together,
critiquing one another's practice by looking at student work" (p.148).
Other small schools have created time for professional development when
their students were out doing field studies in their focus areas.
Teachers in small schools have found ways to take more ownership over
their professional development. Small schools can provide an environment
well suited to new and improved forms and models of teacher professional
development, which, in turn, can lead to improvements in teaching and learning
to help transform schools.
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