My colleagues and I are still seeking one of the Holy Grails of education: I call it PDGPD.
Translation? Pretty Damned Good Professional Development
What did we used to call professional development (PD) in the good old days? This is my 40th year in the Ed Biz, so my good old days are long ago and far away. The old days themselves may seem good from this later in life perspective, but, I can guarantee that the training and in-service programs were rarely good. The really sad thing is that in many ways, the PD offerings today are no better–and in many cases they are genuinely worse–in the experience of contemporary teachers.
[For example, PowerPoint presentations reign in the local world of PD. I actually like PowerPoint; I think it is clever and potentially useful. I have used it occasionally in science class and with parent presentations at Open House. However, in the hands of mindless, less than creative, insecure educrats, it can be deadly. In the past three years, the staff at my school, and I guess all of the other schools in my home district, have been forced to sit through dozens of mandated PowerPoint presentations in meeting after meeting. PP is used relentlessly at School Board meetings.
The worst PP offenses: way too many slides; too many words per slide; a font too small to be discerned by the audience; presenters who do little more than read every damned slide aloud to a crowd that has been dumbed into a collective stupor; the total lack of graphic relief–let alone comic relief; and the belief that information can no longer be shared with a group without the accompaniment of one more deadly PowerPoint presentation.]
Here’s what the intro to a post from EdWeek Teacher–Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable has to say about Professional Development:
“Professional development is a phrase that’s used within many careers, but it seems to hold special weight for the teaching community. PD can take many different forms, from expert-led workshops to professional learning communities to one-on-one instructional coaching to participation in Twitter chats.
When tailored to meet individual teachers’ needs, PD can have an overwhelmingly positive impact on teacher satisfaction, student achievement, and school culture. However, when ill-conceived or delivered poorly, professional development can seem like nothing more than a frustrating requirement, and a waste of precious time.”
WOW! That pretty much sums up how many, many teachers feel about the professional development they receive. And that verb, receive, is pretty much part of the problem, IMHO. PD is almost universally designed for, arranged for, delivered to, and presented to teachers.
The intro continues with the following appropriate questions:
“How should districts, schools, and/or teachers themselves determine what professional learning is necessary? What is the best professional development you’ve experienced, and why? How has technology changed professional learning? What’s your vision for professional learning—and how could schools change to achieve it?”
What then follows are some top-notch responses by eight teachers. Among them, they cover all of the angles regarding the current state of professional development for teachers and other educators. Check out the link to the posts.
What we all want and need is worthwhile, valid, useful, and cherished professional development. Here are my comments about what has been wrong lately about the PD offerings through which I have sat:
> One size does not fit all. No matter what some admin in a cozy office thinks, it is not right to have the nurse and P.E. teachers sit through yet another hour-long session on reading instruction data. Yes, it takes a village to raise a child, but this is absurd, insulting, and a waste of their time.
> Train-the-Trainer has got to be one of the most ineffective and worthless concepts invented. Remember the old childhood occupation called variously “Ghost” or “Whisper Down the Lane”, depending on where you grew up. Well, that explains T-T-T. The message tends to get lost in translation—trust me. It also promulgates the idea that anyone can be brought in for one or two expert training sessions, and then be sent out to replicate whatever they saw and heard.
Nuh-uh. Expert trainers have to live it, breathe it, believe it, and have experienced it for themselves. T-T-T may appear to be a cost-saving practice, but any savings are lost in the potentially lackluster, inexpert, ill-informed, and sometimes self-defeatist delivery. I have more than once heard these kinds of local presenters express their lack of confidence in the message or sheepishly admit that they are ill-prepared to correctly convey the information.
> Every meeting for PD. In the desire to fulfill every federal, state, and district directive and in recognition of the fact that PD is vitally important, I have not attended a single faculty meeting in the last two years of my teaching career that was not given over almost entirely to PD. I want as much good PD as I can get, but there comes a time when the school staff needs a good, old-fashioned faculty meeting—like the ones we used to bemoan but now recall longingly. Any group needs a time to recognize and identify the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of their organization, and deal with them all. This cannot be accomplished by relying on the leadership team or resorting to another meeting of the BLT (building leadership committee). Sometimes, people just need to talk and others just need to listen. Even the best PD efforts cannot trump organizational dysfunction. Really.
> The coach gets to sit this one out. And the next one; and the ones next month. And,… Get the picture? You could file this under “if I have to endure this, so should the basketball coach.” On the other hand, it is damned impossible for the 6th grade team to review data, analyze student needs, or plan for the team’s next integrated unit of study with one or two of the five of us MIA season after season. And, if the district’s PD is so darned important that all meeting time is given up to it, how can the coaching staff (who in their day jobs are core subject teachers—math, English, science, or social studies) be continually absent? Sorry, but the rest of us are tired of being the ones carrying this ball. Take a knee.
> Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Oh, my. I am treading on thin ice here. Leadership means that one l-e-a-d-s. This requires action and decision-making. Taking the lead; showing the way; moving things forward; making things happen; JUST DO IT. However, here’s the rub. A school does not need to have just a single leader. Leadership can be shared—and not just with the Assistant Principal or the Academic Dean. I would bet that there are a handful of genuine teacher leaders or emerging leaders in almost every school. Professional development for teachers could be and probably should be led by the teachers themselves.
> Use technology as part of PD? Yes. Create an only on-line PD “program”? NO!!! Since when does sitting alone in front of a computer in my classroom or at home in my jammies constitute a good and viable PD program? Being given a set of required PD viewings from an on-line system does not come close to meeting the basic recommendations for PD for educators. PD needs to be discussed, debated, reflected upon. It is important for PD to be shared by a group–even a small group counts. One can never be a group.
Let me finish on a personal note or two:
Some of the best PD programs I have experienced include:
> Red Clay School District’s Professional Development cadre. I got involved about ten years ago. At the time I was a cadre member, Faith Newton was in charge. Faith did a great job in managing and promoting excellent PD. The district paid the tidy sum of $2000 each for one cadre member from each school to work together with the other 25 members to jointly plan and conduct what they and the various school faculties determined would be worthwhile topics and presenters. There was a jointly maintained calendar, regular cadre meetings, and a guarantee of at least seven locally-determined PD offerings. These were in addition to the eight regular district in-service days. I thought that it was pretty creative and far more effective.
> Penn Literacy Network: I worked for five years as a co-facilitator with Penn Literacy Network (PLN), an off-shoot of the Graduate School of Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Participation in PLN had been a joint project between the Colonial and Red Clay school districts. During each summer’s planning academy, Linda Poorman (a Colonial reading specialist) and I put together, and then updated, a 10-week course that integrated ELA literacy skills and strategies with science instruction. PLN had similar literacy-based courses for reading, writing, math, technology, etc.
This turned out to be really effective and well-received PD. It was long-term, on-going, relevant, and delivered by expert practitioners. Each three-hour session was structured to provide proven literacy skills and strategies that were thoroughly modeled by Linda and me. Each session included time for attendees to discuss and process the new ideas and plan how they might be adapted for classroom implementation in the next week back at their schools. Each session built in time for individuals to reflect upon each previous implementation experience and for the group to trouble-shoot problems and challenges. Coursework included guided weekly journal reflections, as well as formative and summative projects. Class participation was required—no spectators. Plus, in the end, successful participants earned three graduate school credits from Penn.
> I served as a full-time Coalition Science Specialist for five years (1997-2002) for Red Clay elementary and middle schools. During that time, I was also allowed to participate in Delaware’s Teacher-to-Teacher cadre training sessions. I had some outstanding professional development on training science teachers how to teach science and assess science learning, and additional training on working with teachers and education professionals. I was a highly trained and experienced trainer. I returned to classroom teaching in the fall of 2002. (Long story. I was happy to be back teaching science in my old school with my old team—as luck would have it.)
Not once since my self-initiated stint as a PD cadre member did my school district call upon me to share my expertise in any way.
Is it possible that we have overlooked other highly-trained, highly motivated teacher leaders as PD developers, providers, and consultants? I know that we have. I know these people. They are my colleagues.