Teacher Passion Projects as Professional Development

Original drawing from The Industrious Sloth, by Amanda Zhou

For the ninth year in a row, Leysin American School Educational Research (LASER) has accepted a number of teacher passion projects as professional learning. These projects are reimbursed with a stipend and, for those who present their work at a conference, travel expenses.

The projects are essentially action research cycles as professional development. We value projects that are autonomous yet collaborative, and that focus on the work in the classroom or other job site over a long period of time. We feel these elements are necessary, if not necessarily sufficient, for professional development to make a difference.

Next year’s projects will test instructional styles, including a focus on executive functioning skills by one teacher and flipped classrooms by another, the use of comics for language learning and simulations in social studies classes, literary criticism in the IB diploma program and a reading initiative across the school, and the investigation of critical thinking in the maker space.

We could not have planned these projects as administrators – we would not know the match between teacher interest and motivation, available time, and the curriculum. But we don’t need to plan them to know that each of them will be good professional learning for the teachers in charge. Most or all of the projects will also affect other faculty members – those who hear of the work in the same department, those who teach nearby, and those who come to presentations about the work. The process is organic, bottom up, and sustainable. It also promotes individual self-efficacy and collective teacher efficacy. 

I took some time this week to look back at the history of projects. I categorized them twice, once by topic and once by traditional academic department. I was interested to see what our main focuses have been and whether or not our brand of professional development was interesting across the school. In both of my categories I left out a several projects – singletons in the first category and non-academic projects (resident life, activities, administrative, other) in the second.

There have been 65 projects for an average of seven projects annually. Leysin American School has just under fifty teaching faculty for just over 300 students. 

MAJOR THEMES

Testing classroom technology

Four projects, looking for an appropriate LMS, testing smartboards, testing iPads, and experimenting with other technology tools, were a direct outgrowth of how LASER itself started. The initial interest in tech faded with changes in priorities in the IT office.

Climate, ecology, and sustainability

For most of its first decade, LASER was run by two of us. I was most interested in academic professional development and my co-director, John Harlin, in citizen science projects and the climate crisis. At least eight projects, led by five different faculty members (it is possible for the same individual to apply for a project each academic year) focused on environmental programs. These eight projects took place during the program’s first five years. 

Student agency, self-regulation, and agility

Spread across all nine years of the program are projects meant to promote student agency, often through pulling agility into the classroom. The shortest description of the LASER mission is “self-regulation,” so I was glad to see the focus on agility in classrooms, activities, and the residence halls, as well projects focused on self-paced classrooms and student-led programming in the arts, English, and math. At least seven projects are represented in this category.

Residential life

Six projects in residential life or residential life/academics also span the length of the program. Projects include curriculum development, examining homework practices, student leadership, and bringing music to the residence hall.

Curriculum, instruction, and assessment

By far the greatest number of projects fall in this category, represented by 19 projects completed by 17 teachers. Projects fall fairly evenly across all years of the program, and as we’ll see in the next section, all departments of the school. Art and STEAM are perhaps a bit more represented than other subjects, given the small size of the departments.

Professional development for teachers

This category and the next are much more prevalent in the last four years of the program. In the case of professional development, the increased interest in projects designed to help colleagues may show the maturation of the program overall, moving from an inward to outward focus. The spirit of the professional development program, I would like to think, has become part of the culture of the school, and projects supporting everyone’s professional development have therefore become more common. Projects by seven different individuals included building relationships with others in similar roles in and outside of the school, as well as peer coaching and work with accreditation agencies.

Healthy and productive lives

Five projects were devoted to social emotional learning (SEL), restorative practices, and personal skills like time management. Four of them were conducted during or after COVID, but I have a feeling that an increased focus on SEL was already underway before COVID, so perhaps attributing this uptick to the pandemic is misplaced. Projects were conducted by those working with exceptional student support or in the residence life program.

SUBJECT AREAS

I was pleased to see a nice distribution of projects over all of the traditional departments. Table 1 provides a quick summary.

Table 1. Subject areas, projects, and project leaders

Subjects AreaNumber of projectsNumber of project leaders 
Arts (music and visual art)66
English66
Entrepreneurship11
Environment32
ESL11
Math65
Physical education11
Science54
Social studies53
STEAM33
World languages32

The distribution of projects across departments matches more or less the different sizes of the departments, with perhaps a little overrepresentation in arts and STEAM. The ESL department is a bit underrepresented. That may be due in part to the way I categorized the projects, but probably also points to an area in which we could usefully promote future projects.

Summary

In our first nine years of supporting Teacher Passion Projects as Professional Development, we have seen a relaxation and uptake of certain topics, depending on the focus of the school and the interests of key players in the research center and those most closely involved with the research center. With an average of just over seven successful projects annually, we see across 65 projects that every academic department in the school has been involved with the program, in addition to the non-academic departments that I didn’t look at closely here (e.g. residential life, activities, administration, and student support). 

A next step is to share the success stories hidden behind the projects. There is the project about the experimental grading in a single math class that helped lead to school wide grade reform; the combined projects focused on developing a more agile positioning toward curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and the personal success stories of those who have told me their projects rekindled their interest and motivation, and that presenting or publishing their projects elevated their personal sense of being a professional.

I’ll save those stories for a future post.


Here is the full list of resident scholar projects at LAS, starting in 2014. You will also see the visiting scholar program on this link. Resident scholars are faculty members at LAS, visiting scholars are not. They are invitees who spend time working and living besides us, so that we might learn from them, and they from us. 

If you would like to explore how to set up teacher passion projects as professional development in your school, please reach out to [email protected]

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