Getting Better: Professional Development is Not a “One-Shot,” Building Learning Communties Builds Highly Effective Teachers

How many times have you sat in an auditorium listening to some “expert” tell you how to teach?

I was one of those cynical high school teachers who resented anyone telling me how to teach, and, I was wrong, learning is a lifetime activity. In my era we learned to teach by trial and error, we learned from our colleagues and, mostly, we learned from our students.

The principal handed out a thick packet of faculty conference notes and then preceded to begin to read the notes to the staff, I raised my hand rather vigorously and interrupted, I suggested: “Maybe you can read one line and we can jointly read the next, responsive reading, like in church.” The principal moved from boring faculty conferences to a committee meetings structure.

It was the rare school and the rare principal that supported a professional development structure.

Over time I became a reflective teacher, moving from blaming kids to constantly tinkering with my lessons and adding tools to that teacher toolbox.

In the last few years the Department of Education encouraged common planning time and the new teacher contract actually embeds planning time in the contract. Common planning time without a context may be meaningless.

Professional development, mentoring, guiding teachers and principals are complex processes. To be polite, highly effective principals measured by test scores do not always make highly effective professional developers; in fact, too often they’re ineffective teachers of teachers.

A principal hired a retired principal to work with new(er) teachers; we were chatting in the principal’s office. The retired principal: “These new teachers are impossible, they think they know everything, they refuse to listen, I’ve been doing this for forty years and they’re only going to spend a couple of years in teaching …”

I wandered down to a teachers’ room, a couple of new(er) teachers were working on a project … I asked: “How’s it working out with Ms. X (the retired principal)?”

A new(er) teacher: “She’s sounds like my mother … all she does is criticize, she can’t listen, she hasn’t been teaching in a classroom for thirty years …”

Professional development is an art and a science. Simply hiring a retiree to work with teachers or hiring a vendor to speak at a faculty meeting is not a professional development system.

The excerpt below describes the elements of a professional development system,
:

Elements of Quality Professional Development

Appropriate Content
Professional development should incorporate content knowledge and specific research validated practices that support demanding content standards (such as cooperative learning techniques for math within the heterogeneous classroom). Professional development should link this new knowledge to the prior knowledge of the participants. Professional development should deliver content appropriate to the needs of participants. Where these include process or management skills, links should be made to the teaching of (or establishing an effective learning environment for teaching) rigorous content.

On-going and Sustained
Professional Development should be long-range in nature, recognizing that learning is incremental and meaningful learning needs to be supported over time. This allows participants to experiment with and reflect on their practice in a supportive setting. … and not consist of single events, weekend conferences, or activities that recur over a year with different people. Such activities can be useful as initiating events (e.g., to introduce ideas); they are not strategies through which deep growth and change are accomplished.

Active Engagement
Participants should experience through first-hand and active engagement the curriculum / pedagogy / assessment activities as a model of what needs to occur in the classroom. Activities must be inquiry-based and be as varied and engaging for the participants as they are for students. The facilitators of the activity should model the practices that they advocate.

Collegial
Teams of professionals should work together on real work: development of curriculum, problem solving concerning classroom practices, reflection about pedagogy, development of common language, and engagement in reciprocal observation and feedback. This element also requires that the participants be actively involved in the design and implementation of activities that have direct application to their work.

Job-Embedded
Professional development activities occur as a natural and normal aspect of a professional life. It is embedded in the routine organization of the school day and year and viewed as an integral part of the life of the school. It represents a mutual obligation: on the part of the system to provide opportunities for and on the part of the individual to engage in life-long learning. Professional development should require participants to plan and reflect upon their professional activities and practice.

Client-Focused and Adaptive
Professional development should be based on the interests and needs of the participants and the schools in which they serve. Professional development activities, just as people, should grow and change over time adapting appropriately to changing needs and changing people. Professional development should be based on formal analyses of needs. There should also be a balance between the support for institutional initiatives and the support for those initiated by participants, individually and collectively.

Incorporates Reflection
• Participants must have time to analyze and reflect, with opportunities for the infusion of new information and perspectives, as well as criticism and guidance from external sources. Professional development should not attempt to deliver practices simply to be uncritically replicated in the classroom or school. They should challenge, enhance, and make connections to their current practice. This creates a cycle of experience and reflection that promotes continuous improvement.

Other models below:
Five Key Elements to Successful Embedded Teacher Professional Development: http://www.nwea.org/blog/2013/five-key-elements-to-successful-embedded-teacher-professional-development/
Teachers as Learners: Elements of Effective Professional Development: http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/NES_Publications/2002_08Dunne_475_1.pdf

Half of all teachers, 70% in high needs middle schools, leave within five years; one of the primary reasons is the lack of support system, the absence of a professional development system. Under the current school management model superintendents only exist because the law requires superintendents, they have no pedagogical staff, networks are lightly staffed, only 7 or 8 pedagogues on the staff supporting twenty-five schools. Grants provide a range of support services and some principals hire retirees or vendors. A few organizations, NYC Outward Bound, the Internationals High School Network (http://internationalsnps.org/), the UFT Teacher Centers and the Partnership Support Organizations (PSOs) provide more structured, targeted professional development. Others schools have embedded a culture of collaboration, a culture of on-going professional development, for too many what is called professional development is a top-down, rigid, punitive and, ultimately ineffective.

The current close relationship between the Department and the Union offers a window, an opportunity to move the school system from a paramilitary structure to a collaborative structure; windows are only open for so long.

Teachers thrive in safe settings that allow them to experiment, to stumble, to gain expertise, in thoughtfully constructed professional development systems.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with school district leaders and principals who engaged with staff and with kids; superintendents who ran faculty conferences, who walked the halls of schools, who talked to kids. Superintendents who “rule” by edict, who model imputence, destroy cultures of collaboration, destroy learning communities.

How many superintendents have you worked with who were comfortable talking with teachers not talking down to teachers?

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