As teachers we all know that we could be doing things differently, maybe better or more efficiently. We know this because we listen to trainers and other teachers at our wonderful professional development sessions explain what they are doing and we think “Wow I would love to try that with my kids”… but we don’t. If it’s such a great idea why don’t we use it in our own classroom? Every teacher right now is thinking the same thing: time! We have no time to learn how to implement, plan and experiment. We have to stay with what is tried and true because there is simply too much on our plates to play around with new ideas. I hear you.
Some teachers I know challenge themselves to implement one new method, strategy or technology item a year. That can be a great personal challenge because it isn’t too overwhelming and yet we continue to grow and evolve in our teaching even if it is ever so slowly. But what if professional development actually helped us to make changes in the classroom instead of just dangling the shiny carrot in front of us? What if professional development provided something of real tangible value?
According to Allison Gulamhussein in Teaching the teachers it is possible, and there are five principles that will help to create professional development that would bring about effective classroom change. I’ll unpack them here briefly for your reading pleasure:
Principle 1: Longer duration. Research shows that teachers who received over 50 hours of professional development were much more likely to implement the new strategies in the classroom and make a change, and they all saw an improvement in student achievement thanks to that. I can’t speak for others but I know that my professional developments last a matter of five to six hours and that’s it. If I want 50 hours of in depth “professional development” I will need to go get it by heading back to college and educating myself – but that is definitely not something that is provided. Nor does my school reimburse any classes I take beyond a certain point. Since I am maxed out with the credits, it’s all on me, and I’m not sure if anyone has looked at a tuition bill lately, but they’re pretty scary. Consider that in light of my educator salary and it doesn’t take a math expect to see the issue. Having your place of employment actually invest to train you to be better at your job is a beautiful idea which warms my heart but it also seems as unlikely as snow in the Sahara (says the jaded teacher).
Principle 2: Ongoing support and coaching for the implementation phase. This idea here is completely novel to me and I have never seen this happen in my school. Maybe it happens in other schools, but to receive support in the classroom once we have started making changes and we are dealing with the issues that come along with that – that’s a foreign concept where I work. I have to hunt people down to help me. And they do not do it willingly. I suppose I can only speak for myself but I would say that I would absolutely be much more open and eager to implement new strategies in the classroom if I knew that I had a safety net to catch me when I fall and some scaffolding to help me get it done. Teaching is such a trial and error profession and so much of what we learn we learn hands-on in the classroom by trying it with our kids. Having that extra support would be a game changer. Coaches would have worked out all the bugs, seen all the questions, they could anticipate problems, walk us through solutions and let us know what to expect… it would be a priceless aid that would boost teachers confidence to branch out and try something new. We can be coached!
Principle 3: This principle has more to do with the delivery of the professional development, stating that it should not be a passive event that the teacher sits through but rather a more active PD environment where they can try and experience the actual training. Just as our students do not learn by sitting and passively listening to someone else, neither do teachers. We also need active learning environments with meaningful collaborative and engaging teaching.
Principle 4: Modeling helps! Show me how this works instead of just telling me about it! If I could sit in a classroom and just be a fly on the wall, observing how you implement that amazing strategy with your students, I will be able to go back to my group and do the same. Research has shown that this is a particularly powerful way to help teachers begin using a new teaching strategy. They need to see it live, in-use, in a real-life context.
Principle 5: Professional development needs to be specifically tailored to what you teach. If I sit through a professional development about technology I can use in the classroom but it is taught by a statistics teacher, it’s very hard for me to visualize how I might use this in a foreign language class. I’ve been in technological training before where we break into smaller groups by subject and try to come up with ways of using the new skill in our specialized subject areas. That’s nice, but how amazing and helpful would it be if the training we received was truly specifically for our area of expertise? Right away it would become relevant and I would be much more likely to use it in the classroom.
Apparently there are very few pedagogical principles that can be applied to every single discipline taught. A social studies class looks very different from a biology class, and a secondary French class looks very different from a second grade class. Training needs to take that into consideration, be aware of the differences and cater to the specific needs of the level or discipline in question. With the time shortage that teachers already experience it is a crime to waste our time sitting in a professional development that does not apply to what we do. Asking us to make the effort to translate our training into something we can use is a lot to ask for people who are already overworked. Know what we teach and show us that you do by the training you provide.
So with these five principles there is hope for meaningful PD which will actually help teachers to improve their game and give them confidence to bring new methods into the classroom.
Gulamhussein, A. (2013). Teaching the Teachers Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability. Center for Public Education. Retrieved from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Staffingstudents/Teaching-the-Teachers-Effective-Professional-Development-in-an-Era-of-High-Stakes-Accountability/Teaching-the-Teachers-Full-Report.pdf