Professional Development: One District’s Evolution

Some say that great teachers are born, while others say great teachers are made. In either case, it takes quality professional development for any teacher to continue learning and growing as an educator. Finding the best approaches to professional development can be an evolutionary process.

In the past week, CTQ bloggers kicked off a two week exploration of the theme: How Do Teachers [Really] Learn? We invite you all to join us with your thoughts and questions here on the blogs or on social media at #Love2Learn.

The phrase “professional development” is one I’ve heard and used often in my years of teaching. It has been part of my teaching life from the beginning; as a student teacher, I participated in two days of professional development with my cooperative teacher. On the surface, one would think that the profession knows exactly what is needed in professional development and how it should be delivered, but more than twenty years after I started my career, the profession is still considering what works best. Ben Johnson wrote in this blog on Edutopia, “Invest in either finding the best teachers or providing exceptional professional development to help them become the best.” As I consider how my district has approached professional development over the past twenty years, I see that the district is focused on hiring strong teachers and providing high-quality, relevant, and challenging professional development for our staff. This hasn’t happened overnight; it’s been a process that is continuing to evolve today.

Stage 1: Whole staff with outside professional or administrator: Over twenty years ago, professional development in my district was typically held on one of two days over the course of the school year, and it often involved whole-district presentations by one or two experts in some aspect of teaching. At one point, we participated in a county-wide presentation by a nationally-known expert.  The presentation was meant to get important ideas across as efficiently and effectively as possible, and having several districts contribute to the expert’s fees was certainly a more economical way of getting hundreds of teachers to hear this expert first-hand. However, the session wasn’t as meaningful or successful as hoped: teachers had a hard time hearing the speaker because there were hundreds of us in the session, and the speaker faced a nearly impossible task of having to address a huge, broad audience. District leaders learned from these experiences, and the era of small-group professional development began.

Stage 2: Smaller groups with some teacher choice: By 2000, my district began allowing teachers to personalize professional development by providing options during professional development days. Instead of relying on whole-staff sessions, we had some whole-staff sessions along with options for smaller, more specific sessions to address more specific grade-level or content area needs. Professional development included offerings on technology tools. Initiatives like the online gradebook program required everyone to attend, but district leadership set up smaller training sessions to better address individual teacher questions. The district made a conscious effort to balance required sessions with choices.

In addition to providing for teacher choice on professional development days, my district also began offering intensive, small-group professional development sessions during the work day, exploring topics and issues surrounding assessment. Over the course of a couple of years, several small groups met monthly, examining the role and purpose of assessment in education.  Participants had homework, usually reading a couple of chapters within a professional text on assessment, and then the groups met with the district’s curriculum director to discuss the ideas presented in the book. While we couldn’t count those hours toward meeting our minimum number of professional development hours for the year, the paid release time from our classrooms sent a clear message that the district valued these discussion and studies so much that they were willing to release us from our classrooms to participate. It was a powerful way of providing teachers with much-needed time to explore critical elements and issues in education.

Stage 3: Small groups, teacher-initiated and teacher-led: By 2006, the district was inviting teachers to submit proposals for professional development time and lead work with each other. For example, in the summer of 2006, we saw that we needed to change the way we were teaching certain writing modes, like letter-writing. A couple of us met to map out plans for strategically addressing these needs. A couple of years later, one of my eighth grade colleagues and I wanted to change up our writing instruction, so we applied for professional development hours and asked for some professional books. The two of us engaged in a 10-hour study, refreshing our understanding of writing pedagogy and revamping our approach to working with our student writers. This experience not only benefited our knowledge, but working together was energizing and refreshing, and our students benefited the next year as we applied our studies to our work.

Stage 4: Continuing evolution: small groups, teachers as experts, and job-embedded professional development:  In the last ten years, professional development in my district has continued to invite and challenge teachers to pursue the kinds of activities that will help us grow and learn. Now, it is common for teachers to get together to study books or explore particular approaches to instruction. In the past two years, in our middle school alone, teachers in our resident educator program (for teachers in the first five years in the profession) have written proposals and received funding for books to lead book studies. These sessions have drawn participants from across content areas. Administrators also turn to teachers as experts. My building principal routinely asks teachers to give brief overviews of strategies or technology tools they are using successfully in their classrooms. The administrative staff asked several teachers to share their knowledge of various technology tools at our recent staff inservice day, and over the course of two hours, teachers could learn about everything from Google Docs to Web 2.0 tools to Zaption. Follow-up surveys were overwhelmingly positive; many said they would like to see this kind of approach used in professional development again.

My district hasn’t stopped there. This year the administration is encouraging teachers to go and observe each other. The administration is dedicated to this idea; my principal and assistant principal have both said that if necessary, they will cover classes so teachers can go observe other teachers. The idea is they want us learning from each other.

Johnson’s blog post suggests that districts need to either hire exceptional teachers, or provide exceptional professional development to help teachers become exceptional at their craft. However, I think that strong, high-quality professional development is a necessity to continue learning and growing as professionals. Whether people enter the profession as exceptional teachers or not, all teachers need to continue learning and growing. When teachers are able to pursue professional development that strengthens their practice, they can grow to become educators with a deep understanding of their students’ needs, strengths, and the strategies to increase learning and growth. A district using several approaches, including teacher-designed and teacher-led professional development, empowers teachers so they can pursue the training and learning they need and want.