About five years ago, two national-level gifted education experts were visiting my district to interview my students for some research they were doing. It so happened that we had a system-wide professional development day while they were here and, since the day’s topic was relevant to their research, they attended along with me.
“Your teachers here are so good,” one of them said to me halfway through the day.
“What do you mean, ‘good’?” I asked.
“Well, they actually listen and pay attention. They participate and ask questions. They’re all so respectful and curious!”
I was a bit baffled. “Well, that’s why we’re here today—to learn. Isn’t it like that everywhere?”
“Oh, no, I’ve seen many staff development sessions in other places where the teachers sit in the back—or even in the front row—and carry on conversations, text one another across the room, get up and walk out, sleep, eat, and are flat-out rude to the presenters.”
I was horrified. First of all, you can bet your next paycheck that those very same teachers would be as steamed as Old Faithful if their students were behaving that way in their classrooms. Secondly, our topic that day was interesting, relevant, and timely for everyone in attendance. The teachers’ curiosity and respectfulness was a natural outcome. “Don’t all teachers get professional development that’s interesting, relevant, and timely for them?” I wondered.
I guess not. And speaking as someone who has been involved in professional development on multiple levels, both as a presenter and an attendee, I know that making the experience successful can be tricky.
Effective professional development walks that fine line between satisfying the teachers and satisfying building-level, district-level, state-level, or national-level expectations of what teachers need to be learning. If we focus solely on what teachers request, some important topics could be overlooked. But if we focus solely on fulfilling bureaucratic expectations, the teachers can become a less-than-receptive audience.
As budgets grow tighter, districts are also tightening the reins on how far teachers can travel for conferences and how much schools can spend on professional development and resources. So how can we walk that fine line of satisfaction and keep the budget in mind, too?
My district has implemented a few strategies in recent years that have proven to be very effective. Perhaps some of these ideas could work in your location as well.
• Give teachers a role in planning
Include teachers on the building-level or district-level team that sets the professional development agenda for the year. This way, teachers feel like they have a voice in the process. Plus, it helps to break down barriers that might be perceived between administration and staff.
• Get feedback
Survey the staff to find out what needs and interests they have that could be nurtured with a great professional development opportunity. We know what we want to learn, what we need to learn, and what those burning questions are that a little training could help us explore and answer. Give us a chance to speak up for our own learning needs.
• Use your local resources
Rather than always bringing in someone from the outside (and forking over the fees that entails), tap the wealth of knowledge and experience right in your own district. We can learn a great deal from each other. Those of us in the trenches have a lot of knowledge and expertise that we can impart to one another!
• Make time
Build in time for teachers to figure out how to use what they’ve learned. Rather than expecting everyone to implement the new ideas, strategies, or information on their own time, include time within the professional development offering for teachers to create a plan for how they will use what they’ve learned. I love coming away from professional development with a list of great ideas, but—like most teachers—I rarely have enough time to actually figure out how to implement all of them. It’s OK to give teachers time during training for that purpose!
• Practice what you preach
If the day’s topic is differentiated instruction but it’s all presented in a lecture—a sit-and-spit form—then teachers aren’t getting to experience what differentiated instruction is like from a student’s perspective. We need to implement the same strategies we’re learning about into our professional development, not just into our classrooms. Teachers are students, too.
• Model good-learner strategies and protocol
I think it’s important for us as teachers to let our students know what we’re learning about. When I go to a conference, I bring back the program to show my students. All dog-eared and marked-up, it gives them a peek into what I was curious about and what I learned. By letting them witness my learning process, I give them an opportunity to know a life-long learner, to see what strategies I utilize as a learner, and to make connections between what we do in class and where I learned that information or strategy.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Staff Development That Sticks