Professional development leader
puts communities into practice

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An interview with Pete Bermudez via Smart Start and The North Carolina Partnership for Children.

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Pete Bermudez has devoted his professional life to helping teachers develop their practice, so his own career goal may seem a bit, well, counterintuitive.

“My job is to work myself out of a job,” Bermudez says.

Bermudez works with educators in various setting around the country to build Communities of Practice, learning groups that meet regularly to collaborate on improving their work and boosting student achievement.

“The idea,” he says, “essentially is to use a series of agreed-upon structures to guide professional conversations in a way that makes them more focused, more productive, more efficient.”

Once that’s accomplished, says the man whom admirers call “humble to the core,” it’s time for Bermudez to move on and allow his protegés to fly on their own, utilizing the protocols he taught them.

Implementing the Communities of Practice approach for the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning and Miami-Dade County Public Schools in recent years, Bermudez has empowered hundreds of teachers.

“What we’ve done at the Lastinger Center is developed ways to apply the concept to schools and school work,” Bermudez says, “and expanded in terms of application to other groups like superintendent cabinets, early learning communities, even fatherhood support groups.”

Bermudez’s work involves coordinating professional development training in elementary schools that are part of the Ready Schools Miami Initiative, a partnership between the UF Lastinger Center, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, The Children’s Trust and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. His work in other settings has been supported by the likes of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Motor Co. Foundation.

“Pete’s personality is characterized by a keen intelligence, great sense of humor and a deep understanding of how people learn and get better at their craft,” says Don Pemberton, director of the Lastinger Center. “He really wants the world to become a better place, and he believes that dialog and engagement and reflection and getting a group to work around common interests are ways of improving performance. He has been at the center of some of the most exciting school reform efforts in the state of Florida and across the country and has had a profound influence on the outcomes we’ve achieved.”

For Pete’s sake, not another workshop

As a career teacher, Bermudez is well aware that the mere mention of a training session is enough to induce eyeball rolling.

“Historically, teachers have been solo entrepreneurs,” he says. “Conditions that exist in schools are not always conducive to people collaborating. There is a lack of structure that supports sustained, embedded conversations in the workplace. They have a 30-minute lunchtime and maybe a planning period. But that planning period is considered their own private time to go to the restroom, drink a cup of coffee, make a few phone calls. Before you know it, it’s time to go back to the classroom.”

Bermudez also notes that professional development traditionally has been viewed as a form of teacher remediation rather than as a facilitator for professional growth.

“They’re hired, set in a classroom and given very little support,” he says, “so they’ve learned to teach on their own. When they’re not doing well, they’re told, ‘We’ll send you to a workshop.’ ”

The Communities of Practice approach changes everything.

“With standard workshops or meetings, there usually are a few dominant voices,” Pemberton says. “People get talked to, lectured to, presented to and there is not sufficient attention given to ’why are we having this meeting?’ ”

Bermudez teaches participants to start with the end goal in mind and work backward, focusing on steps that draw on their expertise and propel the task at hand, Pemberton notes. “Everyone in the room feels connected, feels supported and feels like their voices are heard. It’s one of Pete’s hallmarks.”

Bermudez’s training sessions typically begin with three days of participants working to pinpoint the cooperation stopgaps they face in their schools and choosing protocols that meet their needs. The goal is to “simulate the experience that we want them to create when they return to their workplaces,” Bermudez says. Several weeks later, a second training “capitalizes on their experiences and gives them a big push to grow and continue practicing the skills and using the tools they’ve learned.”


Where it matters

The success of Bermudez’s work with educators is most apparent – and most important – in the classroom. One educator who’s sold on Bermudez’s trainings is Cynthia Nambo, an instructional coach working with 11 Chicago-area public schools.

“Before Pete’s training, I would do ‘popcorn’ readings in the classroom,” Nambo says. “Students would read a sentence or paragraph, then I would editorialize everything as a teacher. I was doing the thinking and the kids were just listening to me.”

Today Nambo separates students into pairs or triads. She asks them to read and discuss the material then return to a full classroom discussion. The result: “It builds their confidence, refines their thinking and helps them speak more precisely about what they’ve read. It’s about helping them find clarity. Pete was phenomenal at helping me find that.”

For many veteran teachers, the Communities of Practice approach means a mental paradigm shift.

“A teacher really is a facilitator and it requires a change in mindset to realize that,” says Janet Padilla, manager of the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies, which uses Bermudez’ training extensively. “Growing up, teachers were the ones who had all the answers.”

Today teachers use Bermudez’s methods to “transform what happens in the classroom,” Padilla notes. “Pete has an amazing passion for doing the right thing for the students.”

That passion proves infectious in professional development and Communities of Practice workshops for educators. Padilla, who surveys participants after each workshop, says that Bermudez garners a 100 percent approval rate.

“Participants will say, ‘In my 30 years of education, this is the best experience I’ve ever had,’ ” she says. “We have so many of those stories.”

More proof is in the numbers, says Eric Williams, superintendent of Virginia’s York County School Division. After undergoing Bermudez’s training, the school system set multiple goals for student test scores and, using a series of protocols he suggested to structure the collaborative examination of student and teacher work, met or exceeded every single one, Williams says. One of those goals was to increase the number of students in the top quartile of the SATs. In 2008, 29 percent of York County students were in that top quartile. In 2009, that figure jumped to 31 percent, then to 35 percent in 2010. The achievement gap between African-American and white students has dropped from 17 percent to 9 percent in reading, 14 percent to 8 percent in math.

“Something he would always tell me was that whoever is in the room is supposed to be in the room,” Nambo says. “If I started to complain about someone in a meeting or group, he’d tell me, ‘Don’t complain. Each person here is here to challenge someone towards quality.’ He taught me to move through conflict, not around it. It’s in the conflict that we find the opportunities, where we find the gaps and learn how to bridge them.”

It all stems from Bermudez’s goal to work himself out of a job.

“My greatest success,” he says, “is when I see people that begin to take on the work and do it well when no one’s looking.”