A few weekends ago, I was playing music with some friends and we tried out the old standard, “Teach the Children Well” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Singing the lyrics reminded me that the teaching mandate goes two ways; the parents need a little guidance along the way as well as the children. The same applies, I believe, to education. Teachers need good teaching, and the basic principles of educational practice are essential for effective professional development (PD).
My first PD was a stellar example of this principle in practice. As a student teacher, I was invited to attend the opening day PD with Harry Wong. As most educators know, Harry Wong is one of the gurus of education. I was just embarking on my in-service when I heard Mr. Wong, and I soaked up his lessons like a disciple at the feet of a sage. The training was especially effective because Wong is a good teacher. He began with an outline of his specific goals for us that day. He proceeded to provide solid research for effective teaching along with concrete ways to put that research into practice. He then gave us time to grapple with our new knowledge. We collaborated in small groups and sketched out exactly how we were going to put our new strategies to work in the upcoming school year. I walked away from that training with a toolbox that I could put to use immediately.
Contrast that experience with one I had just a few years later. Our district brought in a famous athlete to “pump us up” before the school year began. He spent an entire day sharing his grueling experience as a professional competitor. He told us that we were “pros” and “winners” and encouraged us to “give 110%” percent” and “be our best.” All that was missing was the traditional smack on the fanny on our way out of the locker room. Unfortunately, I was no more prepared to “score a goal” in the classroom after that training than I had been before.
Considering these opposing experiences, I can make some obvious inferences about PD. PD needs to be relevant, readily applicable, and educators need time to implement.
Although we all like to be affirmed, that doesn’t make us better teachers. Training should be data-driven and focused, and everyone involved needs to have some buy-in. In our district, we have teachers and community members involved in leadership. School and district goals are determined by our identified needs and aims, and those goals drive our training. For example, our math scores aren’t where we want them to be. To rectify that weakness, we set specific achievement goals, and then found research-based training that can help us achieve our goals. We also have a student population that is increasingly lower-socioeconomic and often victims of trauma. It’s easy for those students to slip through the cracks. We need specific training to help us effectively meet those students’ needs. By first identifying needs, then identifying effective tools and explicitly sharing those tools with staff, our chances of meeting our goals are greatly increased, and our staff knows why we’re making the effort.
It's great to have powerful tools, but they have to be applicable. Some PD requires a radical shift in all facets of education. While that might be required in a district in severe trouble, it’s not a sustainable structure for ongoing training. Regular PD should provide strategies and tools that teachers can readily integrate in their current teaching, and the strategies need to be effective.
A few years ago, a woman trained us in the newly emerging Google Drive. I was entranced and walked out with several great ways to incorporate my new tools right away. I began using Google Docs to organize assignments, collaborate with students, allow students to collaborate with each other, and communicate with families. That PD helped me achieve some of my most pertinent goals that year. The next year, the same woman came back and presented the very same training. Not only did I already have those tools, but her presentation was out of date. She had left the classroom to train teachers full time, and she didn’t have access to the newly launched Google Classroom. Her old way of creating and organizing files was painfully cumbersome compared to the new system. PD has to be current in order to remain applicable.
New tools and strategies also have to be available. I’ve been to workshops where presenters share a plethora of Internet tools that look fantastic. I’m like a kid in a toy shop and I want one of each. The catch comes when I try to utilize some of these new tools and find that the cost to really use them with students is high, and my district has no funds budgeted. If tools are shared in a PD, the district needs to be willing to fund their implementation. Otherwise, the kid in most teachers will be unwilling to explore the new “toys” if they believe that they can’t take them home.
Time to Practice
Finally, teachers need time to implement their new learning. Many new trainings are like drinking from a fire hose. The quantity and intensity is so great that most of us get blown away and we’re still thirsty. We really are much like our students. Teachers need designated time to put our new ideas into practice. Along with the time, we also need clearly identified expectations. If a district wants teachers to be using new software in class, they should provide explicit instruction, time to implement, and then follow up with some form of accountability.
In our district, we are using Professional Learning Communities (PLC) to support accountability. After a training, we are given time to prepare a lesson or unit that integrates our new strategies. We are then expected to try it out in the classroom by a specific date. Next, we meet with our PLCs and reflect on our experiences during regularly scheduled work hours. Not only does it “make” teachers apply the training, but the entire experience has been collaborative and productive. We learn from each other in a non-evaluative environment. It’s a win-win for all of us.
And so, most of us that are on the road and need a code to live and teach by, need to have relevant, applicable professional development that we can implement successfully. We would love it if all districts would teach their teachers well.
LETRS Professional Development prepares educators for the challenging work of teaching literacy.