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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: The Kind of Professional Development We Need

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 23, 2015 12 min read
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(This post is Part One in a four-part series on this topic)

This week’s question is:

What are the do’s and don’ts of professional development?

It’s not unusual for teachers to groan -- internally or externally -- when the topic of professional development is discussed at our schools. Many of us have had unhelpful and often insulating PD experiences.

Today’s post begins a four-part series exploring how we can change this situation.

The series is beginning with a two-part piece by well-known educator and author Rick Wormeli. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Rick at my BAM! Radio Show. The final two posts will include guest commentaries from multiple educators, as well as comments from readers.

You might also find The Best Resources On Professional Development For Teachers useful.

Response From Rick Wormeli - Part One

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and writer living in Herndon, VA. He can be reached at rwormeli@cox.net. His recently released book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching is now available from Association for Middle Level Education. He can be reached at rwormeli@cox.net and on Twitter at @rickwormeli2:

“In a time when so many advocate for restructured schools, for greater decision autonomy for teachers, and for connecting the schools more intimately with homes and communities, it is more important than ever that teachers have the capacity to appraise their actions, evaluate their work, anticipate and control consequences, incorporate new theory and research into practice, and possess the skills and understanding needed to explain their work to other teachers, and to students and their parents....These reflective capacities are not innate to human beings, nor are they acquired quickly. They are not acquired during a planning period sandwiched somewhere between classes, or during evening “mini-courses” after full day’s work. They are, rather, the outcome of sustained and rigorous study, and of dialog and exchange with master teacher educators.”

-- Professor of Education, Gary Fenstermacher, Teaching for America’s Future, 1996

Here’s What, So What, Now What is one of the great formats for teachers to use when giving descriptive feedback to students: “Here’s what I noticed about your work...,” “So this means you understand how to...and the differences between...,” and, “Now, let’s create the next steps in your process...” Another effective format for descriptive feedback, Point-and-Describe, comes from Fay and Funk’s Love & Logic books: “I noticed you had your notes on the left side of the double-entry journal so you had quick access to that information as you worked the problems on the right side.” Descriptive feedback in many assessment books consists of three parts: identifying the learning goal, determining where a student is operating in relation to that goal, and identifying what the teacher and student need to do in order to close the gap between the two.

In each of these techniques we focus on decisions students make and the outcomes of those decisions, not so much the quality of their work. This is much less threatening, and it allows students to internalize the feedback and use it, resulting in maturation and higher quality work: Instead of, “Nicely organized project,” we observe, “I noticed you decided to control for salinity factors first in this project. Tell me more about that decision.” There’s no judgment here, as judgment slows reflection and learning. Observing what decisions were made and their impact on the intended course helps students retain autonomy: they can change decisions and achieve different results.

Of course, we want teachers to provide descriptive feedback to their students, so we train them on these techniques, then sit back and watch them fly.

Except they don’t.

A few teachers give descriptive feedback an initial try, then run out of steam, returning to their lessons devoid of descriptive feedback. What went wrong? They were given the specific tools to use with students, and they clearly understood their value.

Most likely, the teachers weren’t committed to descriptive feedback because they never experienced its positive benefits personally. Teachers are more inclined to provide descriptive feedback and other successful teaching practices to their students when they experience those same practices themselves. When teachers write reflectively and make better decisions as a result, they can’t wait to help students write and reflect in class. When teachers are committed to a fit lifestyle, they are apt to include such thinking and activities in their work with students. When teachers feel the benefits of helpful and emotionally safe feedback from colleagues and administrators and they improve their teaching as a result, they are excited to offer those positive feedback experiences to students. And even better, they are empathetic with their students’ experiences, knowing how to frame feedback in constructive ways students hear and use.

Want teachers to differentiate instruction? Then differentiate their professional development and describe the behind-the-scenes planning of it. Want teachers to incorporate more technology? Then incorporate more technology in interactions and help teachers experience the positives that come with it. Want them to conduct evidence-based assessments with students? Then be evidence-based in all teacher evaluations.

Helping teachers experience the practices we want them to provide students is a powerful element of any professional development (PD) program. No matter how wonderful it is, however, relying on only one element or vehicle for PD is insufficient and frustrating for everyone involved. In addition, lifting a PD template from another school and putting it in play exactly “as is” in our own school without tweaking it for the unique needs of our own community rarely works. Just as we ask of our teachers, we’ll need to provide flexible and diverse PD, if we want to be helpful.

So far, my comments are written from the building leader’s perspective, but the best professional development is orchestrated by the teacher. It’s rare for a large and lumbering school division or school to respond completely to the specific needs and background of any one teacher. Professional development is not done to teachers, it’s done with teachers, and ultimately, teachers are in charge of their own development, not the school. Anything we can do to help teachers build and direct their own training is a plus. Yes, the school leader can provide feedback and visionary direction, but it is at the teacher level where new initiatives and PD gain traction. Great building leaders facilitate, urge, and, as needed, incentivize teachers to take ownership of their own development.

Effective professional development is 24-7. Seriously, every time the faculty gathers face to face or on-line, we should anticipate professional development through discourse, idea exchange, sharing articles or lecture notes, listening to a guest speaker, observing and critiquing others’ lessons, analyzing data, contemplating the latest research report, participating in an on-line discussion, or by visiting a helpful website. It’s not something we compartmentalize into, “I only do professional development on the third Thursday of each month.” Those who embrace the 24-7 mindset explore potential research and ideas on-line, subscribe to professional journals, ask for professional critique, and seek the opinion of respected colleagues all on their own, without having to be asked, and on any and all days of the week. They quickly grow in effectiveness and they rediscover why they went into education in the first place. It’s survival, too: Participating in regular PD helps us cope with the inane, politicized, and sometimes harmful, education practices imposed upon us by those untrained in classroom instruction.

Borrowing and paraphrasing from a piece I wrote for the Association for Middle Level Education book, The Collected Writings (So Far), if we want our children to be intelligent and compassionate world citizens, we must provide exceptionally good instructional practices in our classrooms, and that takes vigilant commitment to teacher training. School districts cannot cloister teachers, preventing them from attending professional development experiences because they are afraid that a day out of the classroom equates to one less percentage point on a standardized test. In truth, ongoing professional development for teachers does more to improve student achievement than do state and provincial exams. Teachers who are given the tools to succeed with students are more committed and effective than those who feel unsupported in their learning and practice. Educators who have access to new knowledge, enriched professional roles, and ongoing collegial work, feel more efficacious in gaining and applying the knowledge they need to teach well.

As professionals, we have to ensure that we’re not left with just the information we were told when preparing to be teachers. As neophytes, did we fully understand the relevance of our professors’ wisdom? Could we put our learning in the context of being in the classroom full time? Does the information on learning, class management, and cognitive science from even just a few years ago enable us to teach students effectively today? Breakthroughs are happening all the time, and we are self-renewing experts on how the mind learns. (Wormeli, 2013)

While there are many elements to successful professional development, I’ve never found one that universally works with all teachers in all situations. We’ll have to think systemically about PD and not rely on one avenue for the PD thoroughfare. Let’s take a look at the possibilities, recognizing that we need to use at least five or six of these in the course of school year in order maintain healthy professional growth:

  • Follow-up Experiences: Effective professional development occurs best with follow-up support and interaction that follows the initial experience. This can come in many forms: a presentation or book study followed by classroom observation and analysis; peer observation of lessons followed by peer analysis; a study group such as Professional Learning Communities, Teacher Action Research Teams, Critical Friends groups; on-line community interaction regarding a particular topic or study; ongoing e-mail correspondence with the presenter/author; an initial presentation followed by a return of the presenter to the school a week or month later to answer questions and focus on the first steps of a concept’s implementation.

  • Stand Alone Presentations: These are still worth doing. We may not have time or money to invite a presenter back for 10 follow-up sessions, but one day with him or her can yield great catalysts for those professional processing and application experiences down the road. We can listen and watch the compelling presentation, then read his or her book or simply try the ideas and analyze their merits with colleagues. Thousands of teachers each day are persuaded to stop ineffective practices, then inspired to use highly effective practices -- and given the practical tools to use them -- by sitting in 75-minute concurrent sessions at conferences or attending a stand-alone seminar provided by their school district. Some school divisions prohibit teachers from attending one-day presentations or larger conferences, however, because there are no specific follow-up experiences provided by the speaker or conference organizers. This is short-sighted: Won’t some new knowledge be better than no knowledge at all? Will the school division pay for all that follow-up training? What if the speaker is quite good and his schedule is already filled for the year ahead - Isn’t one day with the dynamic thinking worth it, if we can create our own follow-up interactions ourselves? If we can read one article and get five new ideas that work, imagine what a whole day with that author might yield! Follow-up experiences are powerful, but this doesn’t mean stand-alone presentations are feeble.

  • Go for National Board Certification. If you’re in the United States, this is the best PD experience most of us will ever have. It was for me. To hold our practice up to the scrutiny of esteemed colleagues from multiple education groups is an amazing experience. ‘Want to be a highly accomplished, reflective practitioner with a strong voice in education decisions and considered a true professional? Then visit www.nbpts.org today and start the process.

  • Build Moral Imperative. Charts, graphs, and longitudinal, empirical data are food for the intellect, but rarely do teachers change philosophy and practice unless there is a moral imperative to do so. Doug Reeves got me thinking about this decades ago, and he’s right: Most principals and teachers do not drop ineffective practices and embrace effective ones unless there is an element of morality or ethics at play. It gives a personal/professional cause that helps us confront what we swept under the rug or with which we grew complacent. We see with new eyes: Is it ethical to count homework 25% of the academic grade? What morality is involved in testing English Language Learners who know the content well but can’t express it in English accurately, and thereby, they fail the English version exam? Is it proper to prevent a student from being on the basketball team because he’s making D’s on the grade-level curriculum, but when working with developmentally appropriate curriculum for him, he’s making straight A’s and maintaining strong work habits? What are the ethics of giving the most challenging students in the school to the brand new teacher who has the least perspective and the smallest repertoire?

Thanks to Rick for his contribution! Look for his many additional recommendations in Part Two.

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation

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Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

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Instructional Strategies


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Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

Professional Development

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for Part Two in a few days...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.