Portfolios Promote Professional Growth
Professional portfolios are helpful tools for both new and experienced teachers, enabling them to reflect on achievements and identify their own learning goals.
By Deborah Berrill
Teachers, like other professionals, bring specialized thinking to complex situations. But like many other professionals, their thinking is so deeply embedded in their professional action that they often cannot name those specialized kinds of thinking.
Donald Schön, one of the most influential writers on professional practice, identified the problem in his 1983 book, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Schön called for professionals to become "reflective practitioners." But, for professionals to be able to reflect on their practice, they must first be able to see it.
The professional portfolio, infused with the Ontario College of Teachers Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession, can make these practices visible. Thus, teachers can critique their own practices and those of their institutions and can speak with a renewed sense of their own expertise and professionalism. They also can identify the professional learning programs that can best contribute to their professional development.
In one of Queen’s University’s BEd programs, the use of portfolios informed by the standards of practice provides consistent and rigorous demonstration of skills and knowledge and a way to reflect on teaching practice. Portfolio use also results in improved teaching and learning, an awareness of the beliefs that inform practice and a deep sense of personal professionalism.
My own experience in working with teachers and headteachers in the United Kingdom has shown me that the same process holds true for any educator who builds and maintains this type of portfolio.
STRUCTURING THE PORTFOLIO
The portfolio organization reflects external assumptions of what the BEd candidates learn, that is, the dimensions of teaching they are expected to know and demonstrate in a teaching interview and in the classroom. These dimensions are ongoing professional learning, planning, assessment and evaluation, classroom management, subject area background, special education needs, inclusionary practices, technology, co-curricular contributions, and leadership and service.
In the first year of the five-year concurrent program, BEd candidates receive a one-inch binder in which to start their portfolio. This remains the maximum size, for larger portfolios often get bogged down in detail, losing the big picture.
Initially it was daunting to create entries that make visible practices such as classroom management, which are related to interpersonal skills and problem solving. Slowly, strategies emerged through belief statements, which now precede each section, and the use of charts such as those that show a situation, including the challenge, the approach used, the outcome and a reflection on the entry.
Several conversations with Ontario College of Teachers officers during the faculty’s accreditation in 1998 prompted attention to belief statements for each of the Dimensions of Teaching as well as another dimension for ongoing professional learning. These strengthened the portfolios and the candidates’ understanding of their teaching beliefs and of the need to assume responsibility for their own professional learning.
Many teacher candidates enter faculties of education with leadership and service experience, and these components become part of their portfolios as well.
Over the years, it became apparent that these portfolios celebrated learning and professionalism as much as they demonstrated skills and knowledge. Teacher candidates increasingly valued the portfolios, put more thought and time into their development and in turn added to the integrity of the portfolio process.
Final-year elementary BEd candidate Suzanne Wong wrote: "I have gained greater confidence in being able to demonstrate my prior knowledge and in making plans about the areas which I will continue to develop in the attempt to become a well-rounded teacher. For example, I have more experience in the area of inclusionary practices — race relations — whereas I need to work on increasing my knowledge of technology in the classroom. I have found the process of developing the portfolio to be as important as the end product of the portfolio itself. Over time, I have re-assessed and reflected upon my progress in the different dimensions of teaching to continually build my skills and knowledge as a lifelong learner. The creation of the portfolio has enabled me to develop my personal teaching philosophy by thinking about the unique collection of experiences that I will bring to a classroom and how I will be able to make a positive contribution to a school."
After her first teaching interview, Cheryl McLaughlin, a first-year mathematics and computer teacher at St. Stephen’s Secondary School in Bowmanville, wrote: "Because of the portfolio, I felt very prepared for my interview. Although I did not get to fully use my portfolio, it was very reassuring just having it with me. I felt very elated after the interview. I have never felt so proud of all that I have accomplished as I did when I left the interview. I really have done a lot in the last five years and when I left the interview I was more proud of who I am."
After accepting a job, Lindsay Deeks, a Grade 5 teacher at Regency Acres elementary school in Aurora, wrote: "I did use my portfolio in my interview ... and it was very successful for me! I had already marked some pre-selected components with those post-it tabs..., which made it easy for me to flip to evidence of my understanding when I was asked a question. The interviewers were quite interested at both what I had to say and how I presented myself through my portfolio."
The process of building the portfolio insists on articulation of the teacher’s beliefs and demonstration of how the teacher’s practice reflects those beliefs. This kind of re-centering helps teachers find perspective. Teachers emerge from the process with a deep sense of their own professionalism, their educational expertise and a clear picture of the professional learning they want to do.
During this growing culture of portfolio use, I found myself questioning my own teaching more closely, asking just how each of the units I was teaching could be demonstrated in the portfolio. Thus, the portfolios also became accountability measures of the relevance and effectiveness of my teaching.
Several questions arose: Can I incorporate the knowledge and skills from this unit into the portfolio? What artifacts or entries will go into the portfolio from this learning? Are these artifacts effective? Or, do they demonstrate that the teaching needs to be re-focused, the material compacted, the application modified? Should everything we teach necessarily be reflected in the portfolio?
These questions tightened the teaching of individual courses and spoke to how courses complemented each other. The portfolio structure became a means for selecting course content — and emphases within that content. This enabled me to see my teaching differently and to explain how what I was teaching fit into a larger context.
Making my teaching visible through the portfolio meant that I could criticize my teaching and examine my teaching practice to see if it reflected my beliefs and reasons for being in the profession. The portfolio helped me see where and how I was spending time and energy — and where I was not.
Portfolios let teachers critique what and how they teach, enabling them to see what is present and what is missing from their practice. This stepping back helps teachers identify why they may be spending more time on things that are less important, to the detriment of activities they value more. This in turn helps them rectify those situations, bringing them and their practice closer to their reasons for being in the profession.
PORTFOLIOS FOR EXPERIENCED TEACHERS
What has occurred with the development of professional portfolios in the Queen’s pre-service teacher education program is just as possible to develop with classroom teachers.
I have been working for some time with teachers in England on developing portfolios that address almost identical dimensions of teaching, but at a more sophisticated level of professionalism and expertise.
Teachers and headteachers in England now have annual performance appraisals that use the national standards of the Teacher Training Agency. (Available on the agency’s web site: www.tta.gov.uk and the National College for School Leadership web site www.ncslonline.gov.uk.)
Teachers and headteachers must assemble their own materials as part of the annual school perform-ance management procedures. Some are using portfolios to show their professional practice and to identify goals for their professional development.
In demonstrating and celebrating their practice, teachers include student work. For instance, they articulate the challenges faced by students with special education learning needs, describe the specific approaches they used, comment on the effectiveness of those approaches and talk about new strategies they tried when earlier ones did not meet the students’ needs. They include photo-reduced, dated examples of student work, reflecting on the growth that students have shown. Out of this particular context might come professional learning goals for the next year.
PORTFOLIO PROCESS AS A WAY OF THINKING
When teachers use portfolios that have professional standards embedded, several things happen. Teachers reflect on their own practices in relation to shared standards. Teachers identify their own areas for future professional learning, and consistency and rigour are assured across all schools.
The heart of the process is teacher reflection.
This kind of portfolio is a mechanism that promotes authentic personal appraisal of teaching practice in a context of shared professional values and expectations. Professional portfolios celebrate professionalism, promote high standards and make continual learning an integral part of ongoing critical reflection.
Most importantly, the portfolio process becomes a way of thinking. It enables teachers to be critical practitioners, to speak to their own practices and change them to reflect their beliefs about what teaching should be.
Deborah Berrill has been keeping her portfolio for eight years. She is a member of the College and an associate professor in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. She teaches in the concurrent program at Trent University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about portfolios, visit www.portfoliomaker.ca.
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