How to Begin
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This handbook is both a guide and a reference resource for professional development planners for K-12 arts education. It is based on extensive research of arts education practice across the United States. The results of the research show that systemic, ongoing, collaborative approaches to professional development yield powerful impacts for students’ learning in the arts. Moving away from the professional development model of “one-shot” workshops, this guide will support you in providing effective professional development through establishing, growing and sustaining an arts learning community.

What exactly is an arts learning community? In an arts learning community a group of people, who share common values and beliefs, come together to examine and improve educational practices supporting instruction in dance, music, theatre and visual arts. High quality professional development among a group cultivates growth in ways individuals cannot do alone.

Through this learning community approach, you as the professional development planner, are not alone in the design and delivery of professional development. Educators from within schools and individuals from across the community may all contribute to the inquiry and development of the arts learning community, leading to young people benefiting from learning experiences in and through the arts from a broad arts education workforce. To begin, consider who shares your values and goals for high quality instructions and learning in the arts.

In building an arts learning community, consider:
Aides and paraprofessionals
Arts and cultural organization educators
Arts educators (pre-K- 12) in and out of your system
Arts teacher professional associations
Classroom teachers
Community members who know young people, particular cultures, and how to connect them  
District level arts, curriculum, and assessment specialists
Entertainment and arts-related businesses
Governmental agency personnel involved in arts, education or community development
Higher education researchers and professors preparing upcoming teachers and artists
Legislators and state officials
Parents, parent associations, and families
Philanthropic officers
Principals and superintendents
Retired arts teachers
School board members
Social services workers
Special educators
Students and student groups
Teaching artists

As your arts learning community moves forward, emerging themes from research provide useful insights. Consider these ideas while charting the arts education professional development path for your specific circumstances.

Keep students at the core. Keep students, their work, and their learning journeys front and center. Help educators find ways to practice applying what they learn to their work with students. Check your professional development priorities and look for evidence that the students benefit. Involve students and recent graduates as partners in the learning community; they have tremendous insight into teacher effectiveness. Young people can inform the design of learning systems or co-teach in institutes.

Grapple with performance-based assessment. The ongoing work of crafting useful assessment of learning in and through the arts provides rich and meaningful professional development. Grappling with authentic performance along with more standardized assessment helps communities internalize the transitions in student work as young people develop proficiency. Teachers, partners and students understand what proficiency looks and feels like.

Encourage teachers to lead. True professional growth is ongoing. Provide opportunities for educators and their partners to ask questions about their practice, discover answers and resources, and apply what they learn to their teaching and leadership. Empower educators to lead, organize, plan, communicate, advocate and shape policy. Teacher-driven professional development taps educators to no longer be just “beneficiaries” as they co-construct systems that meet the needs of teachers and students. Master teachers lead formal development, sometimes working in partnership with valued partners, and the community develops ways to assess the learning.

Tap arts processes. Arts integration also works for adult learners. Arts education professional development can tap arts processes that bring people together and build community.  The powerful content innate to arts learning can help people focus on each other, creating a productive adult learning environment. Educators learn and use arts content to create a productive learning mindset.

Think systemically. Plan to cultivate multiple levels of support with teachers, district and school administrators, elected officials, and state leadership. Then, look externally for potent community allies. Teachers benefit from advocates creating space, time, and incentives for them to risk changing their practice and trying new ways of teaching. Consider whole school professional development for greater sustainability of a permissive, arts-infused learning community.

Continually adapt and improve. Once you’ve built a structure and program, prepare to knock it down and build it all over again.  Structures are subject to what’s needed to adapt to changing student and educator needs. Combine inquiry with leadership to support flexible structures and adult learning opportunities. Continued adaptation helps the professional development remain relevant to the changing learning community.

With these big ideas from the field in mind, take some time to reflect on the arts education professional development needs in your school and district.  
The Assess Your Need section can help guide your thinking.