About Mike Dunn

Mike currently serves as the Director of College Counseling and Upper School History teacher at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia. He teaches courses in interest/career exploration, college essay writing, college admissions fundamentals, and World History. He is also the Principal Consultant for Mike Dunn Educational Consulting.

Featuring guest writer Chris Horne

Typical schools spend thousands of dollars each year on professional development. This could involve bringing in guest speakers to facilitate workshops or doing internal data reviews, but each school’s PD plan looks a little bit different. In all cases, these plans tend to have a focused goal: To help teachers and administrators learn and grow in their professional practice with the ultimate pay-off being more fruitful learning experiences for the students they serve.

With these goals in mind, Chris Horne and I connected as local area College Counselors this past fall. Chris works at one of the Mastery Charter Schools here in Philadelphia, and Mike works at AIM Academy, a small independent school just outside of the city that specializes in working with students who have language-based learning differences such as Dyslexia. His work is similar to mine; we are looking to help students design a postsecondary path that makes the most sense for the future and to prepare them to be successful along this path before they graduate from our schools. After connecting a few times over email, it became clear that we had a lot to share, and so, we set out a PD plan to visit each others’ schools over the last few months. Below is a recap of each of our visits and some of our major takeaways. We also share some of our concluding thoughts as to the power of the school visit being one of the most effective and affordable means of PD.

Mike’s visit to Mastery

Mastery Charter is a network of schools that is national in its scope. Mastery came to Philly as part of the School Turnaround initiative that was attempting to revitalize “failing” schools. Before we even thought about visiting each other’s workplaces, I had so many questions. Mastery is a different environment than my school, and I was intrigued to hear about how Chris and his colleagues built a postsecondary learning culture, supported their large caseloads, and used their network to further support the important work of encouraging postsecondary learning.

When visiting Chris’s school, three major aspects struck me as being really amazing. First was the way in which his work connected students to real future potential outcomes. This meant having students specifically draw out their path and reasons for their choices. The second was the celebrations. There were pictures, pennants, posters, and flags up all over sharing the success stories of Mastery grads. Furthermore, celebration was a regular part of the class I observed. Students applauded each others’ work and pushed one another to think critically about their potential path. Finally, the school’s general emphasis was on the importance of alumni. Once you’re in the Mastery family, you’re a member for life, and this was clear from many of our conversations. It was wonderful to see a school actually committed to the success of its students well beyond their time within the building.

I found my visit to Chris’s school to be nothing short of inspiring. I left with countless questions, a handful of actual, real ideas, and some actions I am going to start working on implementing into our program as soon as next school year.

Chris’s visit to AIM

Mike and I were first introduced by a mutual friend when I was looking for someone to run a more traditional PD session during my team’s summer orientation. I had learned a great deal from Mike’s one-hour presentation, and I was guessing I would learn even more if we were able to converse in a less structured setting. This guess proved to be resoundingly correct; I learned more by visiting AIM and by hosting a visit to Mastery than I could have in a presentation, hands-down.

Mike and his colleague Amanda escorted me and one of my coworkers around AIM, allowing us to see classes in action, have spontaneous conversations with teachers, and ask students about their experiences. I experienced firsthand the immersive classrooms, glass walls, and collegiate feeling of the school, which flooded my brain with ideas I could build upon at my own school. I witnessed Mike and Amanda’s authentic relationships with students and the enthusiasm their teachers brought to classes. Teachers were truly focused on their students’ learning. In some rooms, students were standing up or looking out a window during a lesson, which in my experience usually results in a reprimand. However, teachers were focused on whether students were engaged in academics, not their body posture, which allowed them to reach students who learn differently.

Teachers were truly focused on their students’ learning. In some rooms, students were standing up or looking out a window during a lesson, which in my experience usually results in a reprimand. Click To Tweet

During this visit, we did not have a particular agenda, but nonetheless, we found lots to discuss. The topics ranged from our shared love of college basketball to the most effective ways of preparing teachers to write recommendations. Our conversation flowed easily, and because of the less-structured nature of the day, we were able to strike a balance of work and fun.

Using a school visit as PD exemplified a quality I have been searching forever since reading Christopher Emdin’s works: co-generative dialogue. While I expected to benefit from my visit to AIM, I was surprised to find that I also benefited from Mike and Amanda’s visit to Mastery. We treated each other as equal partners, and our discussions were all the more powerful because of it.

Our Conclusion

While our visits were relatively short– we spent a half of a day at each others’ schools –and inexpensive, they were greatly impactful. We were able to connect with each other as colleagues within the college counseling world and use our relationship and visits to be generative for our own programs. We were able to further view the potential of our programs, while still examining their needs, and were able to engage in ongoing reflection and walk away with tangible ideas that we could actually incorporate into our programs.

But the most impactful part of our visits was that they were true, authentic learning experiences that were deeply personal and specifically applicable. We were engaged in a collaborative process that allowed us to relate our work to all of our takeaways, nearly in real time.

Both of us found this to be in stark contrast to the traditional or typical PD that we had experienced in the past. Sitting in a lecture or even a half-day workshop that is facilitated by an “expert” has shortcomings that are often insurmountable. In our PD, we focused on the value of connection and applicability. This removed the emphasis from a single expert and placed us in the driver’s seat of our own experience. The value of this cannot be overstated.

Finally, there cannot be enough written about the importance of networking within one’s profession. This is particularly true in the realm of college counseling, where it is incredibly beneficial to discuss the nuances of our consistently fluctuating job with others in our field. Additionally, there is not a set curriculum or set model for college guidance programs, so being able to discuss programmatic changes and implementation with colleagues is often quite valuable.

When thinking about professional development, the school visit is an incredibly effective means of facilitating professional growth.

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