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Raising the Bar on Professional Development

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I blogged earlier this week about the potential for collaborative technologies to have a significant impact on the way we deliver professional development in our schools. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that we are right on the precipice of some really powerful transformations in the ways that schools have traditionally handled staff development.

The PD Spiral

Think about professional development and you'll often think of what I've heard described as "drive by staff development." We've all been there. We talk about something (or we bring in a highly-paid consultant to talk about something), we spend a day or two on it, and then it's forgotten; vaporized into the ether like the opaque projector and the mimeograph. No one knows how it will be implemented or even whether it will be implemented. There was little or no discussion on how it will look in practice. It's just gone.

Worse, we meet after the students have gone home for the day. Everyone is exhausted and time is limited. But before the actual PD can begin, we have 87 announcements and a mess of administrivia to get through. That leaves roughly 11 minutes for the planned inservice session, by which time everyone is transfixed by the clock on the wall and ready to go home.

The Perfect Storm

I can't help but think that everything is coming together. Online tools available for free or cheap are sufficient in features and quality to deliver a powerful learning experience for teachers and administrators. Further, in our current economy, it's safe to say that districts will be scaling back on bringing in high-paid consultants to "teach us" something. Finally, the trend toward building-level instructional coaches means there are dedicated teacher leaders on campus who can support classroom teachers in implementing new teaching strategies.

Vox Populi

At my school we're not just talking the talk. When our new administrative team came to the building last year we heard the complaints loud and clear. Rather than talk about making PD meaningful, we put together a simple, online survey that took teachers less than 5 minutes to complete. We asked them rate themselves on a 1-5 scale of proficiency in several different areas that were part of the district's initiatives. We also asked them to give the top three PD topics they'd like to see as well as the one (or two) that they hoped they'd never see again.

While it now sounds forehead-smackingly obvious, how often have we as administrators taken the time to ask the teachers what they wanted? OK, maybe we've asked, but have we listened? Have we delivered? Or did we ask because that's what some seminar on shared decision-making told us we should do and then just do whatever we thought was best anyway?

No More Secrets

Using the data we gathered from our faculty, at our next pre-determined PD time, we didn't jump right in. As the resident presentation guru (gratuitous link), I prepared for the faculty a brief but comprehensive overview of the survey results so that everyone was on the same page. This way, when we announced that we would be doing a session on a particular topic, it was obvious that it wasn't just The Suits pushing their agenda, it was what people wanted.

For example, if 85% of our staff felt comfortable with accessing our district's data warehouse, we knew we didn't need to spend 4 hours on it. We offered an optional session for our new teachers or for those who wanted to refresh their memories about the site.

Bringing it Together

So now we have the data on what people want and it's pretty clear that one-size-fits-all is not going to work all the time. Sure, sometimes there are initiatives and mandates and new software that make an all-staff meeting necessary, but more often teachers' and administrators' staff development needs are pretty individual.

This is where virtual PD fits perfectly. If four people have a desire to learn best practices for digital storytelling and ten are jonesing for more info about Lexiles, you can meet those needs without subjecting every single staff member to some one-size-fits-all inservice activity that may not even make sense to them.

If we put the pieces together, it's simple. We need to honor what our teachers already know and find out what they want to learn. Collecting data, aggregating the results, sharing the results with the faculty, and using them to build a comprehensive PD plan can not only change the culture of the school, but it can raise the level of quality and engagement in your school's professional development.

Scott Elias
[Cross-posted]

1 Comment

Thank you for this topic and for spurring my thinking about it. It does sound amazingly logical to approach PD this way, but clearly there are obstacles to getting it done. One you don't mention, is financial. Most of the poor rural districts in which I have taught have no budget for PD and rely on money from grants for that purpose. Therefore, the focus of the grants, not the needs of the students or teachers, drives the PD. That we don't see PD as important enough to fund it consistently and substantially as part of our education systems is itself a telling indictment.

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