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Students benefit the most from staff learning days

Educators in Action

For teachers to do their jobs well, they need to have quality opportunities for learning.

Bellingham Public Schools and the Bellingham Education Association found a way to balance the learning needs of both students and their teachers by instituting truly meaningful staff learning days (“purple Fridays”) once a month.

Students getting one day off a month might seem like a lot, and school officials acknowledge it often requires parents to arrange childcare on those days. But students are still getting the 180 days of instruction required by state law. And staff learning days benefit students because they are with their teachers more than in previous years. The number of excused teacher absences for professional development has dropped significantly since monthly staff learning days began in 2014-15.

The days work so well, other districts in the area are paying attention, Deputy Superintendent Mike Copland said. “This is possibly the most robust extra-day strategy, certainly in this region.”

Typical staff learning days put teachers from the same school together in the mornings. Then teachers break out in the afternoon to meet with their colleagues from other schools who teach the same subjects or the same grades. Teachers use the time at the end of the semester in January, or the end of the year in June, for grading and student assessment. Middle and elementary school students are dismissed early on the Thursday before staff learning days, to make time for teachers to meet with parents.

Teachers said in a recent survey that they benefit from the learning days. The percentage of teachers saying staff learning days were “highly impactful” in supporting their professional growth went from the low 50s two years ago to the low 80s last year, Copland said.

“I feel like a real professional, to tell you the truth,” said Phil Henoch, Sehome High School math teacher. “You guys are valuing our time as professionals, and allowing us to learn.”

The number of absences per teacher in September and October 2016 was 55 percent less than during the same months in 2013-14, the year before the current staff learning-day program began. This is part of a trend in decreased teacher absences: The absentee rate for teachers decreased 13 percent in 2014-15 and 28 percent in 2015-16 compared to 2013-14.

“Teachers want to be in the classroom,” said Bob Kuehl, assistant superintendent for human resources. “And we want our team to be in the classroom consistently teaching kids, and not out for professional development.”

“As good as substitute teachers are – and I don’t want to minimize their value – the classroom teacher provides the consistency of support and instruction that students need,” Kuehl added.

Staff learning days in their current form will continue at least through 2017-18. Administrators and teachers have ongoing meetings to make the learning days work even better.

“They’re continuing to adjust and modify to best meet the professional development needs of teachers,” Kuehl said.

Photos: Deputy Superintendent Mike Copland works with art teachers during staff learning day on Oct. 14, 2016. Teachers in similar subject areas but from different schools often meet during staff learning Fridays.

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