When recently presenting at the Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, I was struck by how much things have not changed, especially in terms of professional development models. In discussions around education reform, we have begun to recognize that a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work for all of our students, yet there’s little conversation about differentiating PD for teachers, despite differences in experience, content areas taught, and learning preferences.
The traditional model doesn’t work
A typical PD calendar usually includes a full day of PD in August (when teachers would rather be setting up their classrooms and planning) and usually another day or two in the middle of the year.
Faculty meetings can serve an important role for PD, but too often the same material is presented to the whole faculty in the same way, despite the expectation that teachers are then expected to implement these strategies to meet the needs of their specific students in their content areas.
When individual teachers attend a workshop or conference, there’s little expectation for how that newly learned information will be implemented or shared with colleagues upon their return.
Sometimes a school or district will bring in an expert. This approach is expensive, and in my experience, many experts aren’t willing or able to tailor the professional learning to meet specific school needs, which means teachers and administrators must still take this information and translate it for their content areas and for their specific students.
Though I love versions of the EdCamp model for professional growth, it assumes that teachers know what they need to know and how they need to change their practice to meet the needs of their students.
Instructional coaches have been shown to have an impact on teacher practice, but most schools can’t afford the number of coaches necessary to support all of their teachers in changing practice, especially in these tight fiscal times.
What does work: One story
There have been numerous research studies citing that professional development should be sustained, ongoing, focused on student learning and meaningfully integrated into the daily life of the school. The real question is how?
In order to successfully implement new practices and improve student learning, a learning community needs to 1) focus its efforts, 2) work collaboratively, 3) be willing to reflect and examine what’s working and 4) be willing to make adjustments when they aren’t seeing the desired outcomes for students. A school or district can’t wait until end-of-the-year assessments to evaluate whether or not the efforts are helping students grow. They have to be willing to update the plan and change direction if need be.
What can this look like in practice?
1. Focus efforts. Instructional leaders need to clearly articulate not just the desired outcome but also how to get there. Teachers need professional learning that is immediately relevant, job-embedded and chunked so that change is manageable.
At our AMLE session, Nicole Tucker-Smith shared the story of how she used teacher-created, short 2-minute videos to focus professional learning on improving reading at her large middle school. Different content and grade-level teachers received slightly different versions that used examples from their curriculum.
2. Work collaboratively. Once teachers have a shared understanding around a particular strategy, they need time to collaborate on how they would implement these strategies with their particular students. Initially teachers watched the short videos together, but they quickly asked to watch them on their own, providing them more time to share ideas with each other during planning times. This also allowed teachers to learn at their own speed—they could watch the videos multiple times, pausing and rewinding when desired.
In our AMLE session, a principal asked how we were able to monitor whether or not teachers watched the short teacher-created videos before participating in collaborative planning sessions. While we had the technical ability to track this information, accountability shouldn’t be about whether or not a teacher or administrator participates in a professional learning experience — accountability should focus on a change in practice.
To successfully change practice, everyone who provides feedback to a teacher needs to recognize what the implementation of a particular strategy should look like. The short video format allowed all administrators and teacher leaders to have a shared reference. In addition, for each strategy included several “lookfors,” specific teacher and student behaviors that would indicate successful implementation of a strategy. It’s important to note that these lookfors were not designed to be evaluative — they were to be used to provide specific feedback to support teachers refining their practice.
3. Reflect and examine what’s working. After teachers implemented strategies, they need time to share what works and what didn’t with each other. Small adjustments can make a difference between reaching all students and only reaching some.
4. Make adjustments when not seeing desired outcomes for students. Sometimes a desired change in practice doesn’t lead to the desired student learning. When teachers and administrators are focused on a specific, chunked strategy, it allows them to drill down to see what might be impeding student learning. At Nicole’s school, it became clear that while students were mastering the reading strategies, they needed more vocabulary strategies to be successful.
As we collectively continue to think through changes in educational practice, let’s make sure that we’re also rethinking how we provide professional learning for our teachers. If we’re not meeting the needs of our teachers, they’ll struggle to meet the needs of our students.
Katrina Stevens has over 20 years experience as a district leader, professional developer, principal, adjunct professor, consultant, academic dean, department chair — and throughout all of these roles — a teacher. She has worked in public and independent schools, from elementary through higher education. Stevens publishes via her blog where she writes extensively about professional learning, educational technology and lean thinking.