Sunday, December 7, 2008

This Professional Development Model Works

In one room, one of our own high school math teachers was helping colleagues learn to use The Algebra Lab. Down the hall, another district teacher was showing a group of colleagues how to set up a marine aquarium in their classrooms. On the second floor a second-grade teacher showed colleagues how she implemented Grace Pylon's Workshop Way in her classroom. Elsewhere a parent shared poignant stories of the struggle and victories her family experienced every day with her autistic son. In the library yet another district teacher shared slides of her summer research with penguins. There was even a bona-fide outsider, one of the original whole language researchers1.

Oh, those teacher work days. Students love the day off from school. Parents begrudge the additional child care burden. What do students and parents imagine teachers do on teacher work days? Because work days are so often scheduled near the end of a term, they might imagine teachers are grading papers and calculating grades for report cards. Teachers wish, but more likely they are captive to yet another worthless professional development workshop commissioned by the district administration. Teachers resent most of the professional development they are forced to endure. But teachers loved professional development in my district.

Education Week recently sponsored a discussion of professional development. The moderator introduced the topic of discussion:
Teachers are often dissatisfied (to put it mildly) with school/district professional development offerings. If an administrator or policymaker asked you how professional development for teachers could be improved, what would be your advice? What do schools commonly do wrong in providing professional development? Alternatively, what sort of PD experiences have you had that really worked and benefited your instruction and that you would like to see more of?

What teachers want in professional development is the ability to choose in-service workshops based on input from their self-evaluation of needs and interests. They want workshops presented by qualified presenters. These presenters do not have to be affiliated with a professional development company or university.

What they do not want:
1. Required attendance to the only possible choice.
2. Commissioned summarizers of other researchers' studies.
3. Presenters who waste time with obligatory hands-on activities.
4. Fly-by-night presenters unavailable for follow-up.
5. Arbitrarily pre-filtered presenters.

The last bullet may require further explanation. Districts are fond of purchasing professional development from a professional development company or a university. These presenters fly in, present, and fly out. Worthy individuals with useful messages cannot get heard because they do not work for the contract company or university, and the district has either committed all the available professional development budget or signed an exclusive contract with a company or university. Teachers would appreciate other alternatives. In the example of one comment to the Education Week discussion:
I also attend non-ceu workshops on my own time and would like to see some way to have these count at PD. For example, just because a bona fide rocket scientist at Pratt and Whitney is not a state recognized ceu provider, his seminar on calculators in the classroom was just plain excellent, and far beyond anything a vendor or such would offer. Here was someone who manages professional scientists, uses calculators daily, is cognizant of all the devices and software that are available, consults with  schools, yet he is not a 'recognized' ceu provider. Just plain silly, to me.

Professional development designed in-house is far less expensive and far more effective than the pricey canned stuff generally foisted on teachers.

Here are some ideas:
1. Veteran teachers share their best practices.
2. A conference format with several options within any particular time frame
3. A longitudinal lesson study Japanese style (a fuller explanation of the Japanese model of professional development I forthcoming).
4. A collaborative discussion addressing a specific concern within the district.
5. Teachers design, conduct and share the results of active research within district classrooms.
6. Reflective analysis of the rational behind specific teaching strategies.
7. Reviews of books and journal articles of interest.
8. Demonstrations of math manipulatives and other resources.
9. Presentations by parents.
10. Classroom swapping-teaching for a day in a very different grade or subject area with no more preparation than an average substitute teacher.

When I taught for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools, we teachers designed and implemented our own annual Educator's Day, held on a Thursday and Friday in March, complete with vendors and community booths. The entire district took over the high school for these two days. Each fall, at least one teacher from every school volunteered to be part of the planning committee. We solicited proposals from presenters among our colleagues, parents and the general community. We sent out surveys asking teachers what they wanted to hear. We also collected evaluation forms on every presentation that included a request for suggestions for the next year. We usually extended a special invitation to a noted researcher to present their original research. These original researchers were a highlight. Teachers appreciated hearing research “from the horse's mouth," so to speak.

No one took attendance at our educator days, so presumably if a teacher stayed home, or took a long weekend vacation, no one would know. But Educator's Day was so valuable, no one stayed away. We even included opportunities for social time when teachers could interact privately with the presenters and colleagues from other schools. Even the general public attended workshops. Each year saw greater success than the year before.

If you need help designing your own Educator's Day, you may contact me at the email address of the blog, or by writing a comment to this entry.

You may also contact the Fund for Teachers. Fund for Teachers solicits proposals from teachers for summer travel sabbaticals. Individual grants are worth $5000; team grants are worth $10,000. Deadline for applications is January 9, 2009.

Footnote 1. Later, I discovered California had failed in its implementation of “whole language,” but California's version turned out to be something far different than what the original researchers had presented to us.

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