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Professional Development: A Few Tips You May Not Find in the Literature

May 12, 2011

By this time, most of us are very aware of the important role that professional development plays in our goal to raise student achievement. Over the years, much has been written as to the make-up of effective professional development. You can go to the U.S. Department of Education website and find information that lists the “Attributes of Effective Professional Development” consisting of items such as:

  • Results-driven
  • Standards-based
  • Job-embedded
  • Differentiated
  • Linked to learning needs (student and teacher)
  • Collaborative in nature
  • Sustained over time
  • Discipline-focused/Content Rich
  • Reflective
  • Evaluated

Dylan Wiliam out of the Institute of Education in the University of London presented several year’s ago at the Governor’s Institute for Data Driven Instructional Practices. Dylan makes a powerful case for focusing professional development around the use of formative assessments as he argues that the research indicates that is the most cost-effective way to improve teacher quality and thus student achievement. (We will have a lot more to say about this in a later blog). He further makes the case that teacher improvement takes time for a variety of reasons:

  • Teachers don’t come at this as blank slates—they already have their own habits and have lived in classrooms for many years (even as students!).
  • New knowledge has to go up against long-established, familiar, comfortable ways of doing things—ways that meet the traditional expectations of what a classroom should look like.
  • It takes time and practice to undo old habits and become graceful at new ones.

Thus, professional development must be sustained over time.

Some Things You May Not Find in the Literature

Over the past 10 years, I have been involved with a wide range of school districts both offering professional development and observing it. From that experience, there are a number of “practical” considerations that I would like to offer for your consideration and that aren’t always discussed in the literature.

Timing Is Everything. I am amazed that so many school districts schedule a fair amount of their professional development at the very start of the school year—sometimes the day before the first day of class. This is probably the worst time possible for most professional development. Why is this the case? Because most teachers’ minds are primarily focused around the first day —are the books in, is the room set up—does the schedule make sense—how many students do I have—who are they—what am I going to teach that day etc., etc. This is a very stressful time for many teachers and while some professional development at that time makes sense—reviewing the PSSA/AYP data, discussing priorities and/or changes—introducing new staff; it is not a good time to be doing the kind of professional development discussed above.

One Size Does not Fit All. I have watched administrators go to extraordinary lengths to either include everyone in the same professional development or to make sure that everyone is assigned to a small number of professional development efforts. While the intentions are good, too often the strategy is flawed. Sometimes special area teachers (art, music, gym, language etc) are so far removed from the subject area that they get frustrated and angry and actually hurt the overall professional development effort. So what do you do when you really need to focus on one area that is of limited interest to other teachers? That answer is given next.

Trust the People You Hire. I learned this trick from a wise principal who relied upon the professionalism of his staff to deal with the above issue. He would develop his priority area and for those who didn’t fit nicely into this, he would give them an option. They could attend the main priority session or they could develop a plan (that he had to approve) as to how they would gainfully spend this time. Invariably, they came up with focus areas that made sense to them, to the principal and to the school. So instead of having disgruntled teachers sitting in on a session that only tangentially affected them, they were developing their own professional development program—a win-win situation.

What Interests My Boss, Fascinates Me. This old adage is particularly valuable for administrators. A PD day is not the right time to get caught up with the mail or return some phone calls. It is important that principals and other administrators become engaged in the priority professional development areas. One of the very best at this is Bart Rocco, Superintendent at Elizabeth Forward. He makes sure that his administrators are involved and he makes it a point to attend many of the sessions—not just as an observer but as an active participant. It is not an accident that wherever Bart goes, school improvement follows.

Plan Your Schedule and Schedule Your Plan. Make sure your professional development schedule makes sense. I have seen districts that want to analyze benchmark assessment data during an in-service day, only to discover that the assessment was not given early enough to have the data available for the already scheduled in-service day. Focusing in-service time on data can be very effective but it requires some planning to make sure the tests are given in a timely manner to insure the data is available. Some benchmarks require time for the results to be available for the staff. For example those using 4Sight data for this purpose must make sure they have factored in time to give the test, score the open-ended questions, send the results to the Member Center and have the results transferred to the EdInsight Data Window (or other software).

These are just a few of the things that I have observed over the past ten years. I could go on and on—but let’s save other thoughts for another day.

James Turner

Category: Tips

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