In the online forums section of teachermagazine.org, we recently asked readers to describe how they would improve professional development in their schools. Here are some of the responses:
mimijean: My school district recently shaped professional development day as a time when our cohorts could work to review our curricular maps, develop our final exams, and discuss our current lessons. The time spent was invaluable. By our next staff meeting, our cohort had our final exam done...
K.Wag: Having the textbook rep come and having everyone in the district who uses that book listen to their presentation six years in a row is not professional development. The best professional development is just like our classrooms, sessions that include discussion and hands-on activities. Giving veteran teachers a chance to share what works for them and how they go about their jobs is invaluable. Flexibility is also key. Allowing people time to work in small groups or to conduct independent research has benefits that quickly become apparent.
Anon. The most significant professional development for me was a year-long project (meeting two hours per month) in which we evaluated our own teaching by looking at one aspect per month. The month that I looked at my own questioning techniques and the impact of what I asked and how I asked the questions changed my teaching forever.
I am nearing the end of my career as a full-time teacher and have taught in elementary schools as well as at the college level. I have attended and given many professional development workshops at many levels. Actively involving the participants in activities that allow them to feel the excitement of discovering something new is one element that usually leads to a successful workshop. It also serves as a model for helping teachers see how to get their students more engaged. The experience I described above had me very actively involved, discovering aspects of my teaching that I was totally unaware of and enabled me to recheck my progress any time I wanted.
Ruth Brewer: One of the most valuable professional development sessions I’ve had recently was when the mother of a student with Asperger’s came to talk with us. Her insight into how to work with special-needs students and their parents was invaluable. I have used many of her ideas to make the classroom a “safe environment” for her son and for students with other emotional or family issues.
Rebecca Larkin: I had the opportunity five or six years into my career to accept a scholarship to study Shakespeare in Stratford through coursework, theater productions, and conversations with the actors and directors. What an opportunity! As the only British literature teacher on staff in our small school, I was unable to find the mentorship to direct my efforts. This opportunity spoke directly to my greatest weakness (content) and infused me with an enthusiasm and understanding of Shakespeare that I could share with my students for years.
David Cohen: I think professional development can be improved by distributing opportunities for leadership. At my school, we took some steps towards professional learning communities, but there were some teachers reluctant to invest their time and energy. In a couple of cases, what brought them on board was the opportunity to lead, rather than having to follow. There should be ways to rotate and share leadership opportunities, allowing more teachers to take greater ownership of their professional growth.
blankea: The missing element in professional development is the actual practicality of integration. I would love to see presenters explain how to integrate some of their methods within the duration of time and format that teachers are expected to follow. Some of the current professional development opportunities are either all theory or “activities” without research. I’m looking for professional development that teaches me the validity of each point of extension of teaching technique. Also, include actual teachers who are still teaching to explain points of integration.
Tom McDougal:The best PD I have experienced focuses on implementing new ideas in the classroom. It’s called lesson study, the primary form of PD in Japan. Lesson study has a clear track record of enabling profound changes in instructional practice. Lesson study embodies important ideas brought up by earlier comments. It is teacher-led, it provides opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership, and most critically, it is focused on the “practicality of integration.”
Dr. Bernard: Teachers need the chance to grow through leading other teachers. Teacher leadership is a valuable source of professional development, particularly in these times of diminishing budgets. Teachers can share best practices with other teachers and receive feedback in small group sharing sessions, all while keeping a focus on the goal of increased student achievement.
Another important component is planning time. If a teacher lacks adequate planning time, all the best practices gained in these sharing sessions will remain in a folder on the desk instead of being implemented.
RSTAR: As a “new” science teacher, after 25 years in IT as a manager, I chuckle when I am part of 250+ people in an auditorium and the PD presenter is supposed to reach all of us: English, PE, music, and so forth.
The idea of “one size fits all” for PD is, in my opinion, a fallacy. I also chuckle about the pay for these fly-in fly-out professionals: they provide interesting advice sometimes, but they have no stake in the game. Give me someone whose reputation is on the line and I’ll listen to him. Otherwise I can read one of the millions of books on classroom management, inclusion, and so forth.
The PD times that have been valuable to me have been when our department is allowed to structure what we want and then do it, and when there is a common school-wide issue that we all have to address.
I also attend non-CEU workshops on my own time and would like to see some way to have these count for PD. For example, even though a bona fide rocket scientist at Pratt and Whitney is not a state-recognized CEU provider, his seminar on calculators in the classroom was just plain excellent, and far beyond anything a vendor or such would offer. Here was someone who manages professional scientists, uses calculators daily, is cognizant of all the devices and software that are available, and consults with schools, yet he is not a “recognized” CEU provider. Just plain silly, to me.
Read all responses in this forum.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Reader Response: Design Your Own PD