Powerful Professional Development
After my 4th year in the classroom as a science teacher, I switched from a very small, private Christian school, to a large traditional public school. Not only did I drastically change educational environments, I also switched from science to math — the subject area I was officially qualified to teach. In the transitional summer, it was explained that I had to attend a week-long PD session in order to teach Algebra. In my prior school, we did not have the resources to deliver PD, so this would be my first PD experience. I was actually pretty excited because it had been almost a decade since my last math course and I was eager to brush up on my math and hone my skills so that I could be a highly effective teacher.
To say I was thoroughly disappointed would be a gross understatement. The PD was disjointed and poorly organized. Worse than mere administrative issues, I left the week-long torture chamber with a disdain for training in public education. If this was what PD was like, I wanted none of it. My small cohort experienced what was called “hands-on” PD. Let’s just say names can be deceiving. Not only was the PD far from experiential, the modeling and lectures that took place were laced with ridiculous misuse of education buzzwords and misappropriated claims of instructional benefits of benign strategies. Phrases like: “The students need to do all of the work. They should always be more tired than the teacher.” And: “If you aren’t actively carrying a clipboard, you can’t possibly have effective classroom management.” — because, you know, clipboards are the key to classroom management.
Needless to say, I left that PD frustrated and hoping that the “training” I received was not indicative of what would be expected of me in the classroom. Fortunately, when school started I discovered that my administrative team was incredibly supportive and they helped me develop into a master teacher over the next five years. However, I never forgot that first PD and I am troubled to share that the majority of PD I have attended since has been closer to that negative experience than they should have been.
In education, teacher training basically divides into pre-service and in-service training. While the
re are probably significant gains to be made on university campuses regarding pre-service training, I have become increasingly interested in what constitutes effective in-service PD. There is a litany of research that suggests a plethora of characteristics that effective PD should entail. Common among many of the educational studies is the idea that PD should be experiential, offer long-term support, and should be content specific and pedagogically sound.
However, my experience, though admittedly anecdotal, suggests that teachers (and leaders) know effective PD when they see it. I’ll save this rant for another article, but I am confident that one major hurdle in education research is the apparent thirst to identify success markers of a profession by quantifying outcomes rather than qualitatively assessing the process. In other words, for some reason, researchers seem more interested in using student test scores to assess teacher effectiveness rather than using valid qualitative analytical techniques. This is so ridiculous that many educators, actual practitioners, have completely written off data-driven educational strategies. This is not a good decision by educators, but it is easy to understand why many (including myself often times) have grown callous.
Rather than rely on quantitative data to identify effective PD strategies, I submit the following formula…
When considering PD, you should look for the following factors:
Is the PD didactic or experiential? The K-12 education community practically unanimously agrees that students learn best when they engage in lessons and move beyond merely listening to a lecture — no matter how fascinating the lecturer or how cool their slideshow, Prezi, videos, or whatever else is. Why don’t we apply this same logic to PD? Aren’t teachers students? Doesn’t it make sense to put teachers in authentic learning situations and then coach them with strategic, driving questions — you know…apply quality teaching techniques to PD. Crazy! Right?
Is the PD applicable? You’re going to see a theme emerge here. For the better part of the last two decades, it has become clear that teachers have to differentiate their instruction for students. However, this is rarely (if ever) considered when designing PD for teachers. Like students, teachers are at different points on the learning continuum. In any given PD session, you can (and likely do) have a wide range of expertise, experiences, and interests. PD should be differentiated to foster maximum applicability for all who attend — this is especially true of school-wide or district-wide mandatory PD.
Is the PD accurate? Whether the goal is to help teachers develop content or pedagogical acumen, it is imperative that the facilitators be experts and honest. It is ok for the facilitators to not know everything — in fact, that should be expected. It is not ok for facilitators to try and fool the participants in order to cover up a lack of competency. The leaders must be honest and should be absolute experts in the content they are training teachers on. I know this sounds like common sense, but from my experience, this is apparently not so common.
Is the PD transformational? What do you leave the PD with? Did the training actually change some behavior or mindset? Are you going to actually try to implement something from the training? You should leave with something you can use…a unit/lesson plan, a new management strategy, more thorough questioning techniques, a more robust understanding of instructional and/or assessment strategies…something! If PD isn’t changing how people think or behave, it is a waste of time and money.
I was so disillusioned with the state of PD I experienced, I had to do something about it. I started pursuing opportunities to deliver (what I hoped) was better PD. After several years of trial and error, I finally was exposed to enough quality PD that my light bulb moment occurred. Teachers are expert learners. Generally speaking, teachers often choose the profession because we were good at school. School worked for us. We are good at learning new things. In fact, we love learning new things. That is an empowering belief as a PD designer and facilitator. When you realize your audience is really good at learning, you can trust them to play along and make amazing personal discoveries. The key is to strategically design contextually relevant learning situations so that teachers identify and internalize opportunities to improve. Rather than prescribing 7-steps to implementing educational buzzword number #873, place teachers in highly experiential, non-trivialized situations that prompt them to create their own strategies. Once they have identified the need and started to develop personally meaningful solutions, it is easy to swoop in and offer evidence-based strategies to help them formalize their experience!
That is the kind of PD I want to experience and it is the kind of PD I hope my organization provides!
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