Professional Development Opinion

Four Ways to Make Professional Development Work

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 29, 2016 7 min read
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We welcome consultant and leadership coach Thomas Van Soelen, Ph.D as our guest blogger.

“Newbies:" a word sometimes used with affection, sometimes with pity. Either way, the assumptions schools often make about teachers new to the profession can be quite destructive, particularly when planning teacher induction programs.

Formal teacher induction programs became popular, and often mandated in the first decade of the 21st century as policymakers began to seriously consider the sobering research on teacher retention. Resources exist which calculate the cost for replacing individual teachers. As some of the most promising newly-hired teachers became some of the first to join the newly-resigned, states and school districts rallied to create programs for this important group of educators.

Unfortunately, the construction of these programs often did not include the very teachers the programs purported to support. Instead, well-intentioned veterans design systems they thought would be helpful to produce the necessary jump in teacher retention statistics.

A decade later, the landscape is still unfortunate. A significant percentage of newly-hired teachers leave the profession in the first five years. If we thought of a teacher induction program as a student in Response to Intervention, we would need to rethink the intervention and design something new because our target has not been met.

The Familiar
Teacher induction programs often reflect traditional professional development. After-school meetings are required for newly-hired staff and are often topical in nature. A typical schedule might look like the following:

August: Classroom Management
September: Parent Conferences
October: Report Cards
November: Dealing with Parents
December: Celebration - made it halfway!

These predetermined topics are fraught with assumptions. We might assume the following:

  • These topics are still relevant in today’s climate and context
  • These topics meet the needs of the newly-hired teachers in the room
  • Even having predetermined topics meet the needs of today’s newly-hired teachers

Although newly-hired teachers are not exclusively from Generation X, many teachers new to the profession have experienced a different education system than what many baby boomers have grown to know (Abrams & von Frank, 2013). These now-adults can easily recount learning experiences in their K-12 schooling characterized by voice and choice. They remember times where their opinion mattered and responsiveness was practiced in order to better meet their needs.

The Not-So-Familiar
A principal at Snellville Middle School (Georgia) wanted to create a more supportive structure for his newly-hired staff, so he enlisted me as an external facilitator to lead a group of novice teachers, practicing School Reform Initiative critical friendship. This particular kind of professional learning community meets adult’s learning needs in order to positively impact student learning. Members bring authentic situations and products from their workday forming the basis of meaningful agendas. Particular structures and protocols are used to dig into the work and provide feedback.

This group met monthly as their teacher induction program, under the assumption the individuals in the group could and would provide the support each other needed. At the first meeting, we heard what most kept them up at night and what left them dissatisfied with their teaching. It became quite clear this group of teachers in their first two years of teaching could learn a great deal with and from each other.

Polly was one of the most vocal participants in this first meeting, having much to say about her content, her students, and her relationships with her colleagues. Coming into the profession as her second career, Polly had opinions about many things and admitted she had much to learn in order to feel successful. Shortly following the first gathering due to a confluence of factors, Polly exited the group.

Each month one or more of these hard-working educators sought feedback from the group. These educators spent time looking at student work products, examining rubrics and assignments, and teasing out confounding dilemmas. They emulated the very qualities Sharon Kruse and her colleagues identified over two decades ago as the lynchpins of professional community (Kruse, Louis, & Bryk, 1994).

Looking at Student Work
At one of these meetings, Katrina, an English language arts and social studies teacher, brought a project about Kente cloths, cultural fabric from modern-day Ghana. She wanted to work to be meaningful for students, but she grew stuck in figuring out how to assess the highly visual products.

The group used a Consultancy protocol (Dunne, Evans, & Thompson-Grove, n.d.) to help her think differently about her dilemma. In this process, there are times when Katrina speaks and times when she removes herself from the group so the group can better “own” the situation.

Katrina reaped important thinking from the group, partially due to the fact others did not teach social studies. In particular, the group used the steps of the Consultancy to question her assumptions about what was important in the project and how she was valuing these in her grading criteria.

Assessment was the nucleus of this student work examination. In other sessions, this group dove into authentic assessment, middle school team dynamics with their colleagues, and student engagement. Never once did the typical topics of most teacher induction programs surface. Treating them like “newbies” who needed after-school seminars on predetermined topics would have completely missed their learning needs.

Barrow County Schools and Fulton County Schools (Georgia) have both used similar frameworks for newly-hired teachers. Garland ISD in Texas has over 300 second-year teachers in a similar program. Instead of relying on 1:1 mentors, individuals were selected to be the leader of a “mentoring community” of novice teachers. Meeting monthly, Project GOAL (Growing Our Academic Leaders) groups engage in work just like the group described in this post. Often times individual schools still held onto their “buddy systems” in order to orient newly-hired staff into their schools. #gisdGOAL

Recommendations to districts or schools:

  1. Orientation does not necessarily equal induction. Spending days before students arrive learning how the copier works can be important for their orientation to a job but does not induct them into a profession.
  2. 1:1 Mentoring can be limiting. Even with an accomplished mentor who builds a trusting relationship, there is a hierarchy of expertise present. Groups of novices learning together with a trained facilitator can practice more equity.
  3. Resist planning topics. The assumptions we have working with students follow us as we work with adults. The field’s push into using data formatively can inform us as we develop programs for the newly-hired.
  4. Good for the goose, good for the gander. Leaders have begun to join such inquiry groups (Fahey, 2012), seeing these groups as safe havens for reflective educators. One way to consider such groups for newly-hired is to get in one yourself.

Additionally, individual schools (International School of the Americas, San Antonio, Texas; Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, Devens, MA; Culver Academies, Indiana). support every teacher in the building using these tools. They invest in teacher leaders, training them how to facilitate protocols for professional conversation, like those used with the School Reform Initiative.

Looking back at the topics Polly so clearly delineated at the first meeting, I wish she had stayed. Direct lines can be drawn from the areas where she wanted support and how the group chose to spend their time. In fact, Polly is now a statistic in the very teacher retention data the program sought to improve. She quit after the first year, citing an inability to ameliorate the problems she was experiencing. We had a group just for her - if only Polly had been there.

Abrams, J, & von Frank, V. (2013). The multigenerational workplace. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Dunne, F., Evans, P., & Thompson-Grove, G. (n.d.). Consultancy. The School Reform Initiative. http://schoolreforminitiative.org/doc/consultancy.pdf.
Fahey, K. (2012). Where principals dare to dream. Journal of Staff Development, 33(3), 28-30, 42.
Kruse, S., Seashore Louis, K., & Bryk, A. (Spring, 1994). Building professional community in schools. Issues in Restructuring Schools (6), Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.

More about Thomas:
After a decade of central office leadership as an Associate Superintendent, ( @tvansoelen ) now spends his time working directly with schools as a consultant and leadership coach. Through Van Soelen & Associates, His primary expertise areas include teacher evaluation, instructional coaching, leadership development, and learning communities. He is the author of Crafting the Feedback Teachers Need and Deserve: A Guide for Leaders.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.