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Education Opinion

3 Best Practices for Giving Teachers Ownership of Their Professional Development

By Matthew Lynch — July 23, 2018 5 min read
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By Wendy McMahon

How do you provide helpful, personalized professional development to thousands of teachers? That’s a question longtime instructional coaching expert Dennis Dotterer and his team at the South Carolina Department of Education have been working on for more than a decade. The best practices he has discovered not only support personalized PD and save time, but even reduce costs.

What’s the secret of South Carolina’s success? Dotterer says that most recently, it’s using video to create a productive feedback loop with teachers. Here, Dotterer, the TIF Transformational Director for South Carolina, shares three of the most valuable best practices he’s discovered on his journey to create effective and sustainable PD programs.

1. Build leadership through personalized PD. When Dotterer talks about the importance and benefits of personalizing PD, Hampton District One immediately comes to mind. Aiming to support educators who want to better their practice while also increasing the number of instructional leaders in the district, Hampton One created a five-week program designed to support teacher growth. The teachers in the program are typically highly respected mentors within the system. They are classroom teachers, not dedicated instructional coaches.

Through the program, each teacher is connected with a grade-level peer, a school instructional coach, a member of the school administration and someone from district administration. Using Insight ADVANCE (a suite of tools that use video for classroom observation and evaluation), teachers share videos of their instruction with a different person each week and receive feedback. Throughout the process, teachers review the feedback data they received and begin the process of individualized self-reflection to identify an individualized path forward.

“From there,” Dotterer says, “the school leaders are utilizing that information within their PLCs [professional learning communities] to start talking about critical reflection and how to increase individualized self-reflection so teacher leaders are able to identify strong practices and practices that need to be modified along with the professional development needed to go with that.”

As Dotterer explains, using this approach “teachers get to the point where they’ve enhanced their own self-reflective skills, they can identify the needs of their students and themselves. And they can move forward with professional development.”

2. Plan for sustainability. Over the last year, Dotterer and his team worked to transition from the TAP (Teacher Advancement Program) System to a more sustainable PD model through the TIF program. “What we’ve done with TIF in this final extension year is remove the performance pay aspect and focus a lot more on increasing teacher efficacy through PLC support and coaching,” explains Dotterer.

Part of that increased support came from using video observation and evaluation. So far, the video-based PD system is being used in 50 schools from five districts throughout the state. Teachers record videos of an entire class or even elements of a class and then share the videos with coaches and professional learning communities for evaluation, reflection, and direction on future professional development.

Schools use the videos as part of their observation/evaluation system, capturing teacher performance and scoring it with the state rubric. But more importantly, says Dotterer, it’s helping coaches and administration provide teachers with the essential feedback they want and need. And that has made for a successful adoption.

“Teachers see that this actually makes their life easier. Rather than thinking ‘great, it’s one more thing,’ they understand how this will support what they want to do as teachers and what we want to do as schools.”

The system is also saving districts money. As Dotterer explains, “They don’t need as many full-time coaches because using a video-based feedback system, an individual doesn’t have to be in your classroom at the time you’re teaching to be able to coach you.” For schools with two master teachers or instructional coaches, Dotterer says, that’s a savings of almost $200,000.

3. Use video to save time and concentrate efforts. Finding the time for an instructional leader to sit in on a class for every teacher in a district just isn’t feasible. It’s much more practical to have teachers record all or part of a lesson and then share that recording with instructional leaders.

Dotterer uses “bell ringers” (activities used to engage students at the beginning of a class) as an example. “Let’s say one of the things I notice in all of my walkthroughs is the fact that the ‘bell ringer’ is not quality instruction based on standards,” says Dotterer. “The bell ringer is say Fabulous Five, and all they’re doing is random questions. Or they’re doing a worksheet or a puzzle.

“Obviously at the middle school level, I couldn’t get in to see 72 teachers. However, I could have 72 teachers video the first five minutes of their lessons and share them with me.”

Instructional leaders can then divide those videos among the leadership team for review and bring a summary of what they are seeing within the school to the next leadership team meeting. Those findings can then direct what development will be delivered during PLCs or full-faculty PD efforts in the near future.

In addition to guiding PLCs or school-based PD, Dotterer says instructional leaders can also give individualized feedback to teachers and identify whether those new practices are being implemented effectively or what modifications could be made to best meet the teaching style of a particular individual.

With these best practices in place, Dotterer and his team are now looking for future ways to improve professional development. Over the next year he hopes to roll out a new iOS app that lets teachers record and share videos directly from their phone, making it even easier for them to get feedback and improve their practice.

Wendy McMahon is an education technology writer who has been working and writing in the edtech field for more than 15 years. Follow her on Twitter @wendymcmahon.

Dennis Dotterer is available via email at dadotterer@ed.sc.gov.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.