Teacher Voices: Ann Walker Kennedy

Ann Walker Kennedy, Lois T. Murray Elementary/Middle School (previously taught at Harford Heights Elementary), Baltimore, Age: 50, Years of teaching: 3
They were nice people, but a little bit out of touch with what the school system wanted from teachers at that point.

In her first three years of teaching, Ann Walker Kennedy saw both lows and highs of teacher professional development. But by the end of her third year in the Baltimore schools, the highs were beginning to predominate.

Segueing into teaching from a career in advocacy and casework for people with disabilities, Ms. Kennedy started work as a special education teacher after five weeks of intensive training and a short stint in a summer school classroom.

A last-minute change of assignment put her in charge of her own classroom of 2nd graders with disabilities at Harford Heights Elementary School, and she had never taught reading on her own.

"I did feel like, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know what I'm doing,' " said Ms. Kennedy, who since this past summer has been teaching at a special education school run for the district by the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Back in her first year, a specialist in the reading curriculum stopped in to model a lesson for 15 minutes or so, but it wasn't until the first districtwide professional-development day that Ms. Kennedy got her first big dose of the approach. That was helpful, she said, but somehow in the next two years, she was sent to virtually the same workshop two more times.

In another case of redundancy, all special education teachers were required to retake a workshop on using a new online form, even though Ms. Kennedy had mastered the form the first time.

Mentors, provided to teachers in their first and second years, were not as much help as they might have been. Retired special education teachers, they knew Ms. Kennedy's field but not her school, her curriculum, or the new stress points. "They were nice people," Ms. Kennedy recalled, "but a little bit out of touch with what the school system wanted from teachers at that point."

By her third year—also Chief Executive Officer Andrés A. Alonso's third year leading the district—Ms. Kennedy had noticed marked improvements in professional development. For one, the district was making use of online professional-development schedules and learning modules. The latter meant that some required learning and testing for teachers—such as mastery of the use of a new report card—could be completed anytime, anywhere online.

At least as good, the in-person workshops seemed different. "The people teaching the workshops I went to were crisper, the content was more relevant to my classroom, and I came back with resources, such as a CD, that helped me use the content," Ms. Kennedy said.

At the same time, Harford Heights Elementary, which had not been meeting federal and state standards, got money for collaborative planning some afternoons and Saturdays for grade-level teams of teachers.

"If it's Thursday, I'd know what's going on in Ms. Nelson's room, and I could check with her at the end of the day to see how it went," Ms. Kennedy said, explaining that the common planning magnified the teachers' ability to learn from one another's experience.

"Being with my peers and getting information and being able to synthesize it with minds I know: If I could combine those things," she mulled, "that would be the best PD."

— Bess Keller

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A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week