Professional Development in Christian School Communities: Five Affirmations

This past summer, the Calvin College educational leadership graduate course (EDUC 531) explored the topics of professional development and supervision. One of the outcomes of the course was a set of collectively constructed affirmations about professional development. The affirmations arose from the class activities, which included reading 1 and 2 Corinthians; discussing school vision, mission, and the development of a nurturing school culture; reviewing research on school change; and analyzing data on professional development that had been collected by the class.

The participants in this course were Andy Alblas, John Barkel, Jessica Brooks, Hubert Chen, Justin Cook, Ben Iwema, Tae Hun Jin, John Kranenborg, Charis Larson, Rick Mingerink, Eric Pols, Maria Van Dyk, Kristin van Eyk, Kevin Vos, Guana Walton, Jacquie Willson, and Albert Boerema (professor).


Affirmation 1: The professional development program and activities arise from the vision and mission of the school.

A clearly defined vision and mission critically affect the success of a school’s professional development program. School staff members need and appreciate clearly articulated shared goals. If it’s been a number of years since a school has reviewed its vision and mission, perhaps it’s helpful to think about it in this way: visioning imagines the future, and the mission explores the avenues the school should follow to achieve its vision. A professional development program is part of the mission, and the vision provides the framework for the development goals of the staff. Professional development, in addition to benefitting teachers, should advance the goals of the school.

Affirmation 2: The professional development activities are shaped by good principles of learning.
Professional development is a form of learning. While this may seem obvious, professional development activities are not always constructed using the same best practices that we use in our classrooms. Research by cognitive psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists has deepened our understanding of how people learn, both children and adults. Unfortunately, our professional development programs are often created to meet a standard or to fill a gap, and the product, perhaps a workshop or speaker, may be valued over the learning process.

We know that an adult learner-centered environment takes into account the knowledge, skills, attitudes, experiences, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting. We also know that it is important to engage learners in the process by linking the learning to their interests, concerns, or problems. Because learning requires us to reshape previously held ideas, the capacity to understand depends on our willingness and ability to reexamine those ideas. Adult learners grow in understanding through self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-adjustment as they apply what they have learned to new situations.

When learning takes place in a community setting, like a school, it relies heavily on collaboration. It is important to establish the expectation that teachers learn from one another and are encouraged to be active, constructive participants. These learning communities facilitate collaboration as they model collective problem-solving strategies and continual improvement.

Affirmation 3: Professional development is a life practice in which the community holds itself accountable and depends on the positive participation and commitment of all members.

Professional development depends on the health of the learning community and upon positive participation by teachers, administrators, and others. In many schools, teachers are held accountable through periodic evaluations, student scores, and feedback, while administrators are accountable to a board, superintendent, or other authority. In a true learning community, teachers, administrators, boards, and parents should be responsible to one another under the common goal of promoting school vision and mission. In a learning community, all persons act as peers under the umbrella of trust and mutual support.

In many schools, administrators select appropriate professional development opportunities for the staff, but this responsibility should be carried out with the participation of the larger staff body. Shared responsibility provides significant input for administrators and it gives them the opportunity to choose meaningful, applicable, community-building opportunities. When administrators act on the feedback of teachers, teachers are held accountable to their own requests.

This professional dialogue is mutually beneficial. Both participation in development and community commitment to the vision and mission of the school are increased. Increased participation and commitment lead to powerful cultures of learning that affect all participants: administrators, teachers, and students. Each member of the staff body must be willing to participate in the learning community, not only for the purpose of individual growth, but also to contribute his or her experiences to the community’s growth. When staff members collaborate to choose learning opportunities, and when individuals’ experiences are validated, they will approach learning with a positive attitude and contribute to the positive learning environment for the community.

As with any other group of learners, a staff differs in the time and the cognitive processes needed to learn and the context in which learning takes place. Professional learning communities provide a helpful model for teachers to learn from and offer support to each other. Even within a professional learning community, different strategies can be applied to accommodate a diverse group of learners.

Affirmation 4: Professional development influences the growth of teachers at all stages of their development.

The professional life of a Christian school teacher is one of continuous development and growth. Such development and growth is an organic progression rather than a mechanical process. Teachers grow in their professional careers much like plants grow from seeds. Although there are certainly stages in this growth, these stages are not steps. Chart the growth of a plant and you will see a fluid and dynamic line that fluctuates and changes. Such is the organic growth of a Christian teacher.

At the heart of this is the belief that everyone can learn and grow. God gave us a mind that is so beautiful and complex that no individual can exhaust its abilities in a lifetime. With that said, we see no end to professional development. No teacher will reach a “final” stage, for such a stage does not exist.

Professional development must effectively nurture teachers wherever they are on the developmental continuum. Whether they are emerging teachers or mature classroom leaders, all teachers must be given the opportunity to obtain the professional development experiences needed to help them continue in their growth. What is most beneficial to one teacher may not be as beneficial to another. A school must focus its professional development so that all teachers will be enriched and refined in the areas of their focus.

School leaders represent the gardeners in this analogy. They must attend to the professional development programs of the teachers so that optimal growth is achieved. To do this, a school must promote a diverse format of professional development. A variety of development opportunities must be undertaken so that all teachers will have the learning experiences they need that allow them to grow. As new experiences are gained, the knowledge obtained carefully cultivates the mind of each teacher.

Affirmation 5: Professional development creates communities that value the rhythm of continual learning.

Learning communities create a vocational rhythm where teachers teach, reflect, discuss, and return to teach—a rhythm of renewal in a community where the individuals are known. This rhythm of learning is not just an effective process for development; participating in a learning community is itself the embodiment of learning as shalom: the school community flourishing.

In covenantal communities, individuals see their growth as communal edification. As individuals grow, the community will grow. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, the body is made up of many individual parts, but each part is essential for proper functioning of the body. The learning community often collaborates for specific development, which arises from the needs of the whole community.