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Starting to Dance: A Professional Development Turning Point

Updated on
Modified on June 5, 2023
  • General Education
  • Professional Development

On my desk, in my second grade classroom in an elementary school in rural Wyoming, is a coffee cup that reads, “If you stumble, make it part of the dance.”

For me, that dance began more than a decade ago as I walked into a classroom that was soon filled with tiny first grade students. I put my heart and every ounce of my energy into teaching those 23 children. I had passion, but I lacked knowledge. I knew then and I know now that no matter how much time I spent creating and crafting lessons, many of my students were capable of more.

The following year, a little girl sat in my classroom—a girl I will never forget. I won’t forget her because I failed her. I tried everything I could think of that year, and while she made moderate growth, I always had a feeling I was missing something.

There have been others throughout the years as I have grown and learned as an educator, but thankfully that number seems to get smaller. My dear friend and fellow LETRS® trainer always reminds me, “You only know what you know when you know it.” There isn’t much use in trying to go back and change those years when I was doing the very best I knew how to do.

That brings me to the professional development that determined my course as an educator, allowing me to be part of a successful professional learning community that is constantly improving the instruction for students in this rural Wyoming town.

The Turning Point

While I was struggling through my first year of teaching, I was unaware that scientists around the world were discovering information about the brain that would have a major impact on my teaching. I didn’t know Dr. Carol Tolman would stand before me a year later and open the floodgates of curiosity, while introducing a bit of healthy panic into my world. The day Dr. Tolman presented LETRS Module 1 was a turning point in my journey. I started to find my feet and step surely. I started to dance.

This isn’t the kind of thing you can do on your own. It takes the entire team to really make a difference. Instead of sending a few teachers to conferences and having them report back, the LETRS presenter visited our district. The magic exists in the fact that each member of our team has had access to the highest quality professional development available. This has allowed us to witness the rippling effects LETRS professional development can have in a district.

As new staff members have been added to our professional learning community, we have struggled with the question about how to provide the training the original team received. I believe this was the “make or break” point in this pursuit of professional development. Thankfully, LETRS has a built-in model to assist districts when they reach this crossroads. This is when I began my journey to become a LETRS trainer for our district. This took our efforts to a new level and allowed us to provide LETRS professional development for new staff members and refreshers for those who were with us during the initial training.

In fall 2016, our school was used as a site to film segments for some upcoming revisions to LETRS Module 3. I stood at the front of the room with Dr. Tolman and the film crew watching as I taught phoneme/grapheme mapping to my second grade students and thinking, “How did I get here?”

Truthfully, I know exactly how I got to that point. Our administrators made great decisions that allowed us to get the professional development we needed. The administrators also chose to train all teachers in our district so we are able to grow and learn from one another on a daily basis.

Then, last spring, I received an email from Dr. Louisa Moats asking me to consider presenting at the Voyager Sopris Learning® Literacy Symposium.

Sharing the Educational Journey

I knew I didn’t fit in with the researchers who would be presenting. After giving it some thought, though, I realized what my team is doing is the product of those researchers and the knowledge they, along with the LETRS community, have been working to share. Ten years ago, I would have loved to hear about someone else’s educational journey. I decided to use the opportunity to tell others about the profound changes our team has made, based on our LETRS training.

The Literacy Symposium is an affordable (administrators like that word) professional development event hard to find elsewhere. It is beneficial for educators currently involved in LETRS professional development and those who are striving to meet the needs of their students. This year, we heard from researchers, as well as educators who have implemented effective literacy changes within their classrooms. I found both to be very helpful in arming me with the latest information from experts, and ideas from other high-achieving school districts.

Today, my teaching looks very different from those first days I spent in the classroom. Each week during PLC meetings, I sit at a table surrounded by great minds interested in providing the very best education for our students.

We are all committed to using the top research to meet the needs of our students. We continue to adapt and change as we learn and set ambitious goals for our students. We were very successful last year and are making changes based on what we have learned about phonemic awareness to be even more successful this year.

I would like to take the time to dive into all the changes we have made in the past five years, but that is for another post. In the meantime, I will keep on dancing, stumbling and learning.

Erin Pzinski was a presenter at the Literacy Symposium in 2017. The Voyager Sopris Learning Literacy Symposium is the premier professional development event for educators from pre-K to higher education interested in improving student success in reading and writing.


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