Sunday, October 23, 2011

Crafting Quality Teacher Professional Development

Photo by catspyjamasnz 
Used with permission under a Creative Commons license
I've been thinking a lot lately about educator professional development. As an instructional technology specialist, I have the privilege of helping my colleagues grow in their knowledge and implementation of technology in the classroom. This happens in a myriad of ways. In just the last few weeks, I have taught planned sessions to groups of teachers, I have made one-on-one appointments to assist individuals with specific needs, and I've even helped to design and facilitate my district's first completely online PD experience.

As I design these learning opportunities, I am constantly thinking about how to make them meaningful for teachers so that in turn the information shared will make an impact on student learning. Regardless of the topic, I've found that there are some consistent practices on my part that seem to contribute to making the sessions successful.

Before I delve into what I think those consistent practices are, I have to share what started my wheels turning on this topic. It goes all the way back to this year's summer staff development in my school district, where a colleague and I who often plan and teach PD together received some of the highest compliments either us could remember receiving. We received these comments from several teachers who took time to speak to us face-to-face, rather than just leaving their thoughts on the end-of-class surveys, which is why they made such a profound impact on me. I will have to paraphrase a bit because I've slept some since then, but the gist of the comments was that my colleague and I were greatly appreciated because we were knowledgeable in the topics we were covering, organized in our delivery of the content, and we were not arrogant in our manner of presenting the material to the teachers.

I distinctly remember one teacher telling me, "You haven't forgotten what it's like to be in the classroom." That last comment touched me deeply because of a personal/professional commitment I made when I moved out of the classroom into a full-time instructional technology position in 2001: For as long as I held a position supporting instruction, I would never forget the perspective of the classroom teacher and the realities of the environments they work in every day. I worry sometimes that despite my resolve, the longer I'm out of the classroom, and especially the longer I am not stationed on a campus, I will lose touch with reality as teachers know it. The colleague who made this comment to me this summer has no idea what he did for my own professional morale.

So now you know what got my wheels turning. Although it is important to seek continuous improvement in our professional practices, I think it is equally important to reflect on what you already do well so you don't throw out the good stuff when seeking improvement. Here are the things, based on my own observations and participant feedback, that I think contribute to impactful professional development experiences for teachers. They are not listed in order of importance, because I think they are all equally important.

  • Begin with the end in mind when planning a PD session/experience. Ask yourself, "At the end of this session, what should teachers be able to accomplish back in their classrooms?" Then work backwards in planning the content and activities for the session. A valuable skill I've learned from my colleague is to make an agenda for myself with allotted time frames for each section of the presentation. This helps me keep focused on sharing just what is needed to accomplish the goal.

  • It is highly unlikely that in one face-to-face session anyone is going to become a total expert with a tool. I try to keep in mind the goal of helping the participants become comfortable enough with the tool to be able to start using it and be able to explore further from there. Whenever possible, I provide additional resources for them to use in further exploration, and one of those resources is always contacting me. The mantra is "Comfort, not expertise," and I often share this goal with the participants to set their expectations as well.

  • Participants need time to practice with or process whatever we are learning, especially if it is a brand-new-to-them technology tool/concept. When at all possible, I try to plan a session as 50% "show-and-tell" and 50% "hands-on." The longer the session is, the easier this is to do. When I have the flexibility, I plan for a longer session to build in more "hands-on" time. For example, last summer we offered a session on digital storytelling using Microsoft PhotoStory. I knew from experience that an overview of digital storytelling (at a high level) and the basics of the software could be covered in three hours. So I asked if we could have an all day session - six hours. The entire afternoon was left for the teachers to create their own stories, something they could use back in their classrooms if they wanted to. This was one of our most highly rated sessions of the summer because of the time we gave teachers to create a product.

  • No matter what tool/topic/concept I am presenting or how convinced I am of its value, I never present it as "the silver bullet" or "the most amazing tool ever" or "if you don't learn this and use it with your students you are a bad teacher." I will not hold back on my enthusiasm for the topic or the benefits I believe it will have, but I also do not make promises about the effectiveness of its use. There are variables in each classroom, including the teacher's style/strengths and the educational needs of the students, which can render an otherwise effective strategy completely useless, so promises of efficacy/outcomes are highly risky. I think this is an area where PD presenters can be perceived as arrogant if they are not careful.

  • Instead of planning a chunk of my presentation to be "How this should be implemented in the classroom," I trust the teachers to figure a lot of that out for themselves. I do interweave suggestions for use with students throughout my presentation, and at points I will stop and ask for feedback on when/where/how they might use a certain approach with their students. I don't, however, proscribe exact implementation plans. The teachers know themselves and their students needs/learning styles intimately; I do not. I will serve as an "idea bouncing board" if they want me to, though.

  • Remember that regardless of their ability or confidence level with technology, everyone in the room is an intelligent, capable person. The fact that they are professional educators with college degrees is evidence of this.

  • Everyone has something valuable to contribute. We love it when PD participants contribute new knowledge, insights, or enthusiasm over something learned. But even complaints, frustration, or other "negative" contributions can create learning opportunities for all involved. Especially me!

  • At least one person in the room is smarter or more technology capable than I am in one way or another. And that is ok! If they can share something with the rest of the group that I couldn't have, we are all now a little smarter. Corollary: If the smart person starts to overwhelm others because they are way ahead of the group in certain aspects, it is ok and necessary for me to redirect the flow of the learning so the majority does not become discouraged. I usually offer to pursue the "advanced" track with this person one-on-one at another time.

As I've been ruminating about what I do that contributes to quality professional development experiences for teachers, these are the things that came out on the top of the list. I hope these are helpful to you if you are in a position to plan professional development. I also hope you will share your own insights in the comments below so we can continue to develop our professional practices together!