The scene has been repeated over and over in many school districts. Staff members filter into a multi-purpose room and sit at benches to listen to the latest professional development (PD) offering from their district. Often, the presenter is brought in from outside the district to deliver a “one and done” session, with little emphasis placed on actual implementation or further development by the district. Sometimes, the topic may be relevant to all in attendance. Most of the time, it is not. I have sat through these types of sessions as a teacher. (Probably the best example I can talk about is when I sat through a year-long training on the district’s writing program when I was, in fact, a math teacher! Although I do have to commend the district for following through with so much PD on the writing program, and not just a one-time session.) Chances are, you too, have taken part in a session like this at some point in your career.
Providing professional development for the sake of meeting PD requirements is simply counterintuitive to the professional learning process. The needs and wants of teachers have changed. It is imperative to adjust our PD programs to accommodate these wants and needs. In order to meet the ISTE Standards for Teachers, teachers are asked to engage in professional growth and leadership opportunities. Furthermore, the high standards set by the ISTE Standards for both students and teachers demand that teachers be engaged, curious, and dynamic professionals. Teachers need and want new and valid approaches to PD. Teachers are also looking for approaches that meet and address the needs of the Common Core State Standards. And for those of us who are coaches, trainers, or administrators, it is imperative to support teachers in their learning in the most effective and efficient ways possible.
Based on some of my previous experiences with Professional Development, I vowed that when I became an administrator, I would attempt to engage teachers in meaningful and relevant work during our PD sessions. As a Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I am responsible for planning PD for just over 300 instructional staff members throughout the year. The two biggest issues that we run into are finding the necessary time to train staff, and finding topics that are relevant to everyone. In order to address these two issues, we have reconsidered how we approach PD. First, we began to think about the time structures that are available to us, and second, we began to think about what type of sessions could model the type of instruction, learning that infuses voice and choice, that we wanted our teachers to utilize with students.
Below are some of the ideas that have worked for us, as well as a few ideas that we are presently exploring as solutions for our professional development program:
Edcamp Style District PD
I had a chance to attend my first Edcamp in Philadelphia in 2013. The unconference model certainly inspired me as I thought about how to bring about meaningful sessions to our own staff. We held our first District Edcamp this year, and it was a resounding success!
The day focused on two key themes: Teacher Choice and Classroom Ready Strategies and Resources. We were able to offer 28 different topics presented during nearly 60 sessions throughout the day. Many of the sessions focused on technology integration, from utilizing Google Apps for Education to other apps such as Too Long Didn’t Read. Some of the most popular sessions featured discussions framed around behavior management to give teachers practical strategies to take back to their classrooms. Teachers also participated in hands-on sessions in Yoga and STEM, giving them engaging activities to use with students. At the end of the day, the event was successful because teachers were able to learn from each other while a choice of sessions served as a great motivator for educators!
Tech-Mex Tuesday or Tech Tuesday
Making time for professional learning can be difficult due to scheduling and contract issues. Our district looked at available times when we could engage teachers. Our teachers are required to stay 15 minutes after students in the afternoon. We decided to start a session on Tuesday afternoons to show staff members a relevant tech resource or website (taking advantage of the 15 minutes that were required of teachers). Teachers were welcomed to come learn about a tech resource such as Twitter or a website such as geoguessr.com. We discovered that some teachers often stay longer than the 15 minutes once they are engaged during the session. We also took advantage of the cardinal rule of professional development: feed the teachers and they will come. A few bags of chips and some jars of salsa were purchased and Tech-Mex Tuesday was born! These sessions can be offered on a weekly or monthly basis, providing an opportunity to share the latest website you’ve found or a new way to utilize existing technology in a less formal setting.
Lunch & Learn
Taking advantage of another timeframe when teachers are able to learn, the Lunch & Learn sessions were used successfully by one of our building principals to introduce different websites and resources. During this time, teachers can brown bag their lunch or pizza can be ordered for everyone. Teachers then spend about 30 minutes exploring a website such as Flippity.net or an instructional strategy such as Four Corners to improve questioning in the classroom. The key here is to keep sessions fun and informal, and give teachers something tangible that they can utilize in their classrooms immediately.
The Power of the Twitterverse
Educators utilize every last minute of the day to continue their learning. We wanted to expand beyond our school day to give some of our teachers a chance at meaningful PD. While getting ready to offer a study group of the book Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess, we decided to take the study to Twitter. Our #tlapSTSD book study took place every Monday night at 8pm EST on Twitter. Teachers were able to join in from their living rooms, the soccer fields, and even a few times from the grocery store! About 20 educators participated in our first Twitter venture, joining each week to share strategies and ideas. Overall, many of the teachers were inspired to become more of a risk-taker in the classroom. What I quickly realized is that Twitter helps to build a sense of community among those who participate, and we continued this practice with a Summer PD Series on Twitter. Many of the teachers who joined in our book study continued on throughout the summer, and we even had regulars participate from outside of our district. The lesson here is that teachers are seeking and will engage in on-demand relevant professional learning.
Expanding to Voxer
Recently, I was able to learn about Voxer at Edcamp Leadership. I listened to educators explain the Walkie-Talkie like app, and how it expanded the power of Twitter by allowing for actual discussions to take place. I tried it out, and was instantly hooked. This year, we will take our book study to Voxer, eliminating the need for teachers to gather online at the same time. Now, with Voxer, teachers can leave voice responses to questions and generate discussion on their own time, a way for asynchronous communication. For our book study, I will record a voice message for each question, and teachers will be able to respond at their own convenience, again providing an on-demand solution.
5 Minute PD or 15 Minute PD
Another idea that we have experimented with is finding even shorter timeframes to expand teacher knowledge. With even 5 extra minutes, teachers can learn about a new resource or strategy in order to incorporate it into their classrooms. As we started implementing Google Apps for Education last year, we wanted to provide teachers with a quick resource to help guide them. We sent out 5 minute videos that explained how to use a particular feature or perform a certain function. What was great about the videos was that staff members could go back to the video again and again until they were able to utilize the tool. The 15 minutes that teachers were required to be present before and after school also helped with regard to teacher training. When installing interactive projectors last year, we offered 15 minute PD, when teachers could quickly learn how to utilize a particular function of the interactive projector software, or even take a few minutes to explore a new website. Every little minute counts, and these informal sessions provided teachers with the support they needed in order to be successful.
Redefining Professional Learning Communities
As we have embarked upon redesigning our professional learning program, I have come to appreciate the power of teacher voice and choice. An idea that I am still processing is to redesign how teachers take advantage of their professional learning time. In our district, teachers are provided with two monthly periods that include professional development topics. I would love to see this time utilized for teachers to choose topics that are relevant to their everyday roles. I envision teachers being able to choose from a list of topics (or adding their own), discussing and sharing (possibly through Twitter and Voxer), and earning a digital badge based on the content that they are able to master, demonstrated with a learning or performance task. Teachers might also be able to utilize the time to create something that they can use with students. Again, we must capitalize on the time that teachers have to learn and provide engaging learning activities.
In order to address time constraints and relevancy issues within our own professional development, we had to change our concept of PD. With the integration of technology, our PD sessions are no longer limited by time and space. By providing choice, we have engaged teachers in sessions that they consider to be meaningful and relevant to what they do on a daily basis. We have started the process of changing instructional practices within our classrooms. While these models for PD serve as an introductory method for transforming teaching and learning, we have started teachers down the path of meeting the high level cognitive needs of the Common Core Standards, and supporting teachers in meeting those standards.
We will continue to expand our definition of professional learning, giving teachers more choices and options, incorporating various learning styles, modeling the type of learning that should be happening with our students, and providing continuous learning sessions, so that teachers can learn in great depth. In order for professional development to be effective, it must be designed to engage teachers on relevant topics that meet their various needs. It must be continuous, causing teachers to transform their practices in the classroom. Educators must take advantage of every opportunity to continue their professional learning, using non-traditional timeframes to develop their craft and practice. Share your ideas for professional development in the dedicated discussion thread.
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Rich Czyz is Director of Curriculum & Instruction for the Stafford Township School District in New Jersey. As part of his job duties, he plans and oversees the professional development program for the district. He is passionate about engaging all stakeholders in meaningful learning. Rich is co-founder of the Four O'Clock Faculty blog, for educators looking to improve instruction and learning for themselves and their students. Connect with and follow Rich on Twitter (@RACzyz) or visit fouroclockfaculty.com. You can also email Rich at firstname.lastname@example.org.