Many recent conversations with educators have focused on personal professional learning. It shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s more effective than traditional workshops, which might focus on your concerns, might encourage collaboration and rarely offer follow-up support. By contrast personal professional learning starts with your needs and interest, which in turn are driven by the changing needs of your students. Voice and choice are important in student learning and yours. What is your purpose?

Personal, but not too personal

Since many of us are still learning what makes personal professional learning effective let’s explore what makes this form of learning work. Successful personal learning is driven by more than needs and interest. James Hunt summarized the findings of a study on professional learning. Educators, he concluded, need to learn “…continually, collaboratively, and on the job—to address common problems and crucial challenges where they work.” What’s our takeaway? Effective learning is personal, but it can’t be too personal. Collaboration is critical.

The experiences of successful coaches can help us understand what makes collaboration successful. (See L. Foltos, (2013) Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin) Coaches, and their learning partners, insist teacher isolation is the enemy. This conclusion isn’t unique to coaching partners. When I asked Colet Bartow, who supports teacher-librarians across Montana, why personal professional learning was important she immediately insisted, “One thing that keeps us from adopting innovative practices is isolation.” Educators also understand the value of collaboration. Leanne Steed, a school leader from Australia observed, “There are so many variables in teaching it can be a bit overwhelming. Working with peers helps me take on these challenges.”

Collaboration is so important educators have looked for new mechanisms, like “personal learning networks,” to collaborate. These networks may be among teachers in one school, but social media, like Twitter or Facebook groups, have increasingly facilitated the growth of online networks. Social media can be a powerful learning tool.

In a recent #Mtedchat participants observed their discussions “provide other perspectives on problems you face,” “encourage growth,” and “give you feeling of being supported.” One participant noted, “I feel like I am on an island,” and that Chats created a bridge to collaboration. In 140 characters that is pretty good. The limitations of chats and online groups may make deep and meaningful discussions difficult.

Discussion of tougher issues may require more time. Social media can be a starting point for deeper collaboration. Experienced educators use social media to identify people they want to meet and learn with and from in deeper, more reflective conversations. What makes their collaborations effective?


Educators are quick to observe that successful collaboration rests on trust. Coaches, and their learning partners, tell us trust comes from collaborating with someone:
• You know and respect;
• Who shares your commitment to improving teaching and learning;
• Who believes that collaboration is a valuable for innovation, and;
• Who you believe wants you to excel.

Continuous learning.

Successful coaches agree with Hunt’s conclusion that learning needs to be continuous. The coaching cycle graphic demonstrates learning is an ongoing improvement process. When they work with teachers coaches typically:
• Assess their peer’s practices and perceived needs;
• Discuss goals and objectives;
• Co-plan learning activities;
• Model or team teach, and;
• Observe their learning partner and reflect afterwards.

Teachers may be successful on their first attempt at adopting and innovative practice, but many need to go through several cycles of this improvement process before they successfully reach their objectives.


As educators look for coaches to support their learning, they don’t look for an expert to tell them what to do and how to do it. Instead they want a peer they can learn with and from. Draw on their experiences. Look for a peer who uses inquiry and raises questions that help you solve your questions. Inquiry is the key to building your capacity to innovate. Since the goal of collaboration is innovation find a partner who challenges your thinking. Don’t limit your choice to someone who teaches your grade level or subject area. Collaborating with a partner with different perspectives may produce more curiosity and spark innovation.


Choose a partner who will encourage innovation, but also understands change needs to be manageable. You aren’t likely to change your practice overnight. Pushing to make too big a leap to fast may lead you to shut down and revert to the current practices. Working with a partner to honestly assess your goals and current practices is a critical first step. Then define small steps to toward the innovative practice you want to adopt. Coaches tell me that successful small steps lead to more steps toward innovation.

Manageable also has meaning for educators who use social media for learning. To avoid being overwhelmed Colet Bartow counsels educators to:
• Identify your most important need;
• Use websites or Twitter feeds from conferences to identify people, Edchats, or groups focused on your topic, and;
• Start by following one social media stream.

Help other teachers improve

Effective professional learning is a two way street; learn with and from you peers. Start sharing what you are doing with others.
• Share what you’re learning and doing with peers in your school;
• Tweet and blog about your experiences;
• Share your experiences in Tweet Chats or Facebook groups. No more lurking, and;
• Present at conferences, unconferences, or EdCamps where you can share your experiences and get feedback.

Teachers worry about how they will recover if they make a mistake in front of others, but we need to remember that taking risks is the key to innovation. Learning from failures can produce powerful conversations and meaningful learning. Start sharing your successes and challenges.

What does this mean for me?

Successful personal professional learning means defining your purpose, and identifying learning partners who may be colleagues in your school and those you find on social media. Look for peers with expertise in collaboration, like a skilled coach. You will accelerate your learning.

Educators and researchers agree:  Collaboration among teachers is critical to improving teaching and learning. Unfortunately, collaboration is a learned skill, and one that many teachers are working to master. If collaboration is so important, how do teachers develop the requisite skills?

Successful peer coaches offer us five keys to collaboration.

1.  Build a trusting relationship with peers based on personal and professional friendship.

2.  Teachers who have worked with coaches tell me that they want to learn with and from a peer, not an expert. Friendly peers still need expertise to collaborate effectively.

Educators should adopt and use norms for any collaborative meeting.  Meeting norms, like starting and ending on time, and remaining focused, are important.   Collaborative norms, like discussing ideas not people; respecting others’ ideas, and; taking responsibility for your learning are critical to successful collaboration.

Learn and routinely use a few key communication skills, like active listening, paraphrasing, clarifying questions and probing questions which are essential to building educators’ capacity to improve teaching and learning. Using these skills assists teachers to formulate strategies and develop answers to the issues they are facing.

3.  Don’t expect to change teaching practice overnight.  Start small, and build on initial classroom successes. Successful small steps produce more steps toward innovation.

4.  Take some risks, innovation depends on it.  But not alone.  Collaboration with trusted peers encourages risk taking and increases your likelihood of successful innovation.

5.  Observing peers is a powerful tool for changing practice.  Done poorly, the reflection that follows observation can destroy collaboration. Focusing on student learning, not the teacher, is one strategy to keep reflection positive and meaningful.  Learn and use protocols- like the Success Analysis Protocol- which anchor reflective conversations on what the students are doing and learning.

Your next step toward effective collaboration is to find resources, like a successful coach, and start to develop these key skills.


Barber, M., & Mourshed, M. (2007). How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top. Retrieved from http://mckinseyonsociety.com/how-the-worlds-best-performing-schools-come-out-on-top/.

Darling-Hammond, L.,  Wei, R., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad.  Retrieved from http://www.learningforward.org/docs/pdf/nsdcstudy2009.pdf.

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Fullan, M. (2011a). Whole system reform for innovative teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://www.itlresearch.com/images/stories/reports/ITL%20Research%202011%20Findings%20and%20Implications%20-%20Final.pdf.

Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (1999). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups.  Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.

Markow, D., & Pieters, A. (2010). The Met Life survey of the American teacher: Collaborating for student success. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED509650.pdf.

Educators who are striving to help their students meet the Common Core Standards and develop 21st century skills recognize the need to adopt pedagogies like Project Based Learning and New Pedagogies for Deep Learning to better prepare their students. This recognition hasn’t always translated into successful adoption. Working alone many educators are struggling.

What is required to help teachers successfully adopt innovative pedagogies?  Experts tell us collaboration among educators is one key (Fullan, 2011, & Darling-Hammond, et al., 2009).   Collaboration be a powerful tool, but schools can’t expect that encouraging teachers to collaborate is a simple panacea that will improve teaching and learning.  As Garmston and Wellman (2009) concluded, collaboration is a learned skill.  Educators need a teacher leader to serve as a catalyst and help peers develop collaboration skills.

For twelve years I have worked with Peer Coaches who have been successfully at assisting teachers to improve by providing just-in-time assistance, co-planning learning activities, modeling effective learning strategies, and observing peers teach and reflecting afterwards.  Their success rests on developing communication, collaboration and lesson design skills.

Coaches’ success also rests on building a relationship that encourages teachers to share what they do know and to share what they don’t know.  This requires coaches to:

  • Create a friendly personal and professional relationship as an equal with their peers.
  • Personalize the relationship so the peer’s needs drive the work.
  • Assure the work is manageable not overwhelming.  Coaches meet peers where they are, and encourage them to take steps, sometimes small steps, toward improving teaching and learning.  Successful small steps encourage teachers to take more steps toward their ultimate goal.
  • Support peers without taking ownership for their learning.  Coaches don’t answer every question raised by peers.  Instead, they ask probing questions designed to get their peers to think more deeply about their issues and to develop their own answers. This strategy helps peers to develop their capacity to adopt innovative pedagogies (Foltos, 2013).

Using coaches to unlock the power of collaboration is the key to successful systemic adoption of innovative pedagogies and creating the culture of collaboration that will help schools continue to improve teaching and learning.


Darling-Hammond, L.,  Wei, R., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad.  Retrieved from http://www.learningforward.org/docs/pdf/nsdcstudy2009.pdf.

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Fullan, M. (2011a). Whole system reform for innovative teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://www.itlresearch.com/images/stories/reports/ITL%20Research%202011%20Findings%20and%20Implications%20-%20Final.pdf.

Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (1999). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups.  Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.

In October Mary Lou Ley, the facilitator who leads Wisconsin’s Peer Coaching Collaborative, shared how coaches use probing questions to move beyond the friendly, supportive relationship between teacher and coach.  This approach certainly would feel comfortable to many educators who focus only on what is “nice” when collaborating with other educators.  (To learn more about getting beyond nice see MacDonald, E.  June, 2011.  When Nice Won’t Suffice.  Journal of Staff Development)

This type of relationship may fit nicely in the coaches comfort zone, but it may not work to improve instruction.  Ley says coaches should use the kind of probing questions that push teachers to improve instruction.  These probing questions may make educators uncomfortable, or even feel like they are being asked to take risks.  But these same questions also encourage the teachers coaches collaborate with to improve teaching and learning.

To demonstrate the impact of Peer Coaching that uses communications skills as a key to improving learning, Ley shared the results of a recent evaluation of Peer Coaching. It found that 71% of participants felt coaching made a significant impact on their ability to use technology to promote critical thinking and problem solving, engage students in learning, and improve academic curricula.

Ley and her team collected examples of learning activities from participants at the start of their coaching experience and at the end of the assessment year, when educators had some considerable experience with coaching.  The evaluation team looked at indicators of quality like cognitive challenge, inquiry and collaboration, real world connections, and the level of technology use to assess these learning activities. Their assessment showed that using these quality indications more than 70% of the learning activities collected prior to significant coaching experience scored at a low level.   After participating in coaching throughout the assessment year these same educators submitted examples of learning activities that reflected their coaching experiences.   The results were amazing.  When judged by the same set of quality indicators, evaluators found that nearly 60% of the educators’ learning activities were “High Quality.”

Learn more at http://bit.ly/qxQiPR.

Communications Skills

Recently some Australian facilitators asked for additional resources that would help them develop stronger communications skills.   Here are some proven resources.

National School Reform Faculty Resources

Several of the protocols we use in Peer Coaching, like Chalk Talk, and the Communications Skills protocol, are used with permission of the National
School Reform Faculty.  This group has many other valuable communications skills resources and protocols.    A couple of the communications skills
resources that might be valuable are:

  • The Constructivist Listening Dyad, which helps develop an understanding of active listening and offers an exercise to develop these skills.
  • Feedback Nightmares; a brief exploration of negative feedback.
  • Feedback Principles, tips on offering strong feedback.
  • Pocket Guide to Probing Questions; a great resource to sharpen your skills in asking probing questions.
  • If you are observing another teacher and reflecting afterwards the Student Observation Protocol: Court Reporter will be a valuable resource to make the reflection more successful.

You can find an index that brings you too these and other resources at:    http://www.nsrfharmony.org/protocol/a_z.html.

Communications and Norms of Collaboration Resources

The Communications Skills Cue Card and the Seven Norms of Collaboration we use in Peer Coaching are used with the permission of the publishers of Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellmans’ book, “The Adaptive School:  A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups.”

Chapter 3, Developing Collaborative Norms, and Chapter 4, Two Ways of Talking that Make a Difference for Student Learning, help educators explore and use a variety of communications skills.

The workbook for “The Adaptive School” also has several tools that help educators use Norms for Collaboration more effectively.  You can find these on pages 45-54.

Microsoft Education Competencies

Microsoft’s Education Competencies are also useful for developing more effective communications strategies.
You will find them at  http://www.microsoft.com/education/en-us/training/competencies/pages/default.aspx#Competencies

The links for “Integrity and Trust,” “Listening,” and “Interpersonal Skills” bring you to resources educators can use to improve communications

In an effort to build on what they were learning, and to avoid stressing the teachers, Melanie asked the teachers to observe a learning activity in literacy or math and then teach that same lesson in their classroom within a week.

The model has been a real success at Lakelands.  They have just started their third term of coaching and all but one teacher, who is new to the school, is involved.  Melanie regularly updates the principal every two weeks; sharing who is working with whom and what topics they are working on.  These briefings insure the principal understands how Peer Coaching supports the school’s goals.  Teachers are focused on improving student learning and making the kids more competent 21st Century learners.   He has faith and trust in the program and has continued to use two thirds of the school’s professional development budget, which Melanie is quick to note, “…is really a lot of money for any school,” to support coaching.

Coaching has had a profound effect on school culture. Teachers are routinely collaborating, sharing programs and lesson content.   No one is surprised to see a grade four teacher in the kindergarten classroom.  Teachers are talking about their student’s improved learning and how they are achieving these goals in the classroom.  While the  coaching model at Lakelands may be different, it is working.

But she still faced a second dilemma.  How do you involve every teacher in the school?  Her answer was to encourage her colleagues to brainstorm what they were interested in learning, who they might want to buddy up with, and how they might work together.  Based on this brainstorming teachers began to pair up.  Brainstorming made it clear that the staff wanted to collaborate by co-planning learning activities, by observing each other teach and discussing what they saw and learned after these observations.

Time obviously was an issue for this school.  A bit of creative scheduling helped address this challenge.  Every Monday students at Lakelands have a 30 minute long whole school assembly, and the teachers involved in peer coaching that week are released from the assembly and they use that time to talk about what lesson coming up that week and to do a bit of planning.   Once every three weeks students at the school have an hour long SRC assembly and the teachers involved in peer coaching that week are released from the assembly and they use this time for lesson planning and to arrange visits to observe each other in the following week.   The principal’s financial commitment made it possible for a casual / relief teacher to cover three teachers classroom each week.  Each of
these teachers had 60 minutes to observe a peer, and 30 minutes to reflect afterwards.

As they teachers started co-planning, Melanie worked to make sure the teachers built trust as they collaborated.  She spent time helping them understand and practice positive, constructive feedback, and the educators reviewed and work to apply their group norms.  Each of these skills got more important as they began observing each other and started to reflect on what they saw and ask peers why they did some things.

Tune in next week for the last installment of When Opportunity Knocks.