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Strategic Professional Development

Guest blogger, Alice Smith, reflects on, and suggests ways to make professional development more efficient and relevant. 

Professional development: When I participate, it’s typically a lot of “sit and get” involving a PowerPoint and ninety minutes of mind-numbing boredom.  When I facilitate, I tend to get bogged down by that (very vocal) minority who claim that the session is either irrelevant or not challenging enough. Can you relate?

Recently, I spent a day planning professional development with ten other teachers and two administrators at my school, and I was reflecting on the idea that if we want professional development to be effective, we need to find a way to make it both efficient and relevant.

One of the greatest teaching hypocrisies, it seems, occurs during professional development. We preach about best practices like hands-on learning and differentiated instruction, but oftentimes our own learning involves five minutes of “turn and talk” sprinkled among ninety-minutes of staring at a presentation screen and listening to one voice drone on for the length of a Bible.

Then there’s an even greater problem: our lack of follow-through. Five years ago I attended a weeklong training on classroom management with about 20 of my colleagues. It contained a wealth of information that was presented in an engaging, memorable way, but unfortunately it took me several years to implement the program. And I never implemented it fully.

In fact, some of my colleagues gave up on the program immediately after the training. We had the best intentions of meeting throughout the school year to plan and reflect on our work. However, without time designated to that specific activity, our intentions fell by the wayside.

Even though we’re older than our students, we teachers still deserve an engaging learning experience and engaging learning experiences can still be professional and meaningful. And while no learning opportunity is going to cater to every teacher, professional development should offer enough differentiation for the majority of teachers to follow a path of individual growth.

In order to revamp our professional development tactics, my school decided to take more of a conference approach to professional learning. At a conference, everyone listens briefly to a keynote speaker, but then the participants get a choice of multiple breakout sessions. We decided to do the same thing in our school. We gave teachers one brief, central message about our school goals and then allowed them to choose from two or three smaller sessions. In those breakout sessions, they spent the bulk of the time connecting to their own content areas and interests.

In the book Clock Watchers, Stevi Quate and John McDermott list “choice” as one of the six tenets of motivation and engagement. “One of the ways to put  [people] in control of their learning is to ensure they have voice in their learning,” they write. “However, choice must be scaffolded and intentional.”

How do we implement more intentional, scaffolded choice into professional development? Again, it comes down to best practices.

At my school, we decided to implement pre-assessments and surveys in order to figure out what our teachers already know, their comfort level with specific skills, and in what ways they want to develop as educators. We also:

  • formed a team of ten teacher-leaders from a variety of content areas and backgrounds.
  • empowered those leaders to plan and facilitate professional development in our building.
  • asked our administrators clearly communicate our yearly goals.
  • developed a professional development plan that aligns with our pre-assessments, surveys, and those goals.

Most importantly, this plan also allowed time for follow-up sessions in which teachers reflected upon and further implemented their training.

For those of us who facilitate professional development, one of the keys to efficacy lies in that delicate balance between information and implementation. In her article titled, "Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability," Allison Gulamhussein notes, “The reason traditional professional development is ineffective is that it doesn’t support teachers during the stage of learning with the steepest learning curve: implementation.”

Professional development sessions need have a healthy balance of discovery and implementation – not just during the session itself, but also throughout the school year. Half of the time teachers should be engaged in interactive activities that allow them to learn and process new skills. But the other half of the time should be devoted to practical planning and/or meaningful conversations that apply directly to their individual classrooms.

This approach is sometimes difficult because, as always, time and resources are of the essence. But we can approach professional development more strategically. There may be a few growing pains, but the result will bring us all closer to a common goal: becoming stronger, more resourceful educators.

Photo Credit: "Waiting for Time to Pass" - CC 2.0 Generic (by) Richard Phillip Rücker on Flickr

Alice L. Smith is an English Language Arts teacher and STEM educator at Northglenn High School in Northglenn, CO. As a member of the STEM Advisory team, she leads a variety of professional development activities in addition to her classroom duties. Ms. Smith believes in helping students become persuasive communicators, problem solvers, and creative innovators, and her unique workshop-style classroom structure helps her achieve that end. She is also a Denver Writing Project fellow and coordinates continuity events for that organization. To learn more about Ms. Smith, visit her web site: www.smithglenn76.weebly.com or follow her on Twitter @Smithglenn76.

4 Comments

Jessica Weible commented on July 6, 2015 at 4:37pm:

Great insight!

My school is trying to take on a new approach to professional development and your article provides some relevant advice regarding the time and resources involved in the discovery and implementation of new ideas or methods. I'm interested in your school's conference approach to provide managed choice to the faculty. We've done something like that in the past and I think there is more initial buy-in, which is great. I'm wondering what the "follow-up sessions" look like. Do they happen immediately? Is there time for colleagues to meet back up later to share their progress once they start implementing something new? I think the follow-through is the crux of professional development and it's difficult to know how to support that the most efficient and effective way. Thanks again for the post!  

Alice Smith commented on August 15, 2015 at 1:05pm:

Your questions

Hi Jessica - Sorry I'm getting back to you so late. I just saw your post. There are a lot of different approaches to follow-up sessions. One idea that we have tried (that seems to work) is narrowing the scope of our PD so that we can offer fewer sessions but offer them multiple times. The topics we cover this semester will be repeated next semester, but teachers will have the opportunity to explore them on a deeper level and discuss how they have been implemented. I hope that helps!

Deonna C. commented on May 18, 2016 at 10:34pm:

Improving Professional Development

I love that you built in the conference style for your professional developments. The whole group goal setting, then moving into smaller sessions. My school has attempted to do differentiated sessions, but we struggled with variety and balancing the needs of the novice teachers and the veteran teachers. I am currently interested in supporting the PD planning on my campus and I think that teacher surveys and teacher input is a key place to start. I don't think that we effectively got feedback on what teachers needed. We may have moved on too fast before teachers felt that they had mastered the content as well. Thank you for sharing your experience. How did your school select the teacher leaders that are on your PD planning committee?

Anne Jolly commented on May 19, 2016 at 5:15pm:

Learning Teams

I like the ideas you suggested. Another follow-through idea might involve teachers who attend a session staying together as a learning team throughout the year, and working on the skills and information they chose to learn more about. 

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