By Sarah White
I recently sat with a group of fifth grade teachers making gooey slime, tearing apart diapers to test absorbency, and creating endothermic and exothermic reactions. The workshop was interactive, with hands-on activities that we could take back to our classrooms. Had this short snippet been followed up with additional workshops where we related these experiments to current standards, created higher-level thinking questions to get at the “why” of the outcomes, or discovered more activities for other units of study, this professional development could have been truly helpful. Instead, I was left with many questions and an inability to effectively implement anything new as the next set of workshops during our PD was on entirely different topics.
What type of training would allow you to grow in your profession? A “one-and-done” approach, or one that allows you to implement what you have learned, return to ask questions, and continue acquiring new ideas? Without a doubt, the latter is the most effective. As a teacher, I know how imperative it is to put in place these types of professional development opportunities for educators.
With the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), districts have an opportunity to reinvent their professional development practices. Just as effective teaching does not follow a one-size-fits-all model, effective professional development should not either. The needs of an elementary teacher do not match those of a junior high mathematics teacher and are certainly quite different from those of a fine arts educator. ESSA recognizes this, requiring that professional development be “...sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom focused.”
ESSA’s Title II funds are earmarked for recruiting and preparing highly effective educators. While this includes a wide variety of practices, districts should focus on developing and implementing long-term, teacher-led, and selected opportunities for professional development. In doing so, teachers will be allowed to receive training based on their specific areas of need as determined by personal reflection and classroom observation feedback. These trainings should then be expanded upon from session to session, allowing teachers the opportunity to learn, implement, ask questions, receive additional training, and further grow their practices.
Districts should rely on teacher leaders within each district as the experts available to teachers for questioning and feedback. The first step is to recognize educators’ areas of great strength and encourage them to share their knowledge through presentations on PD days. As this happens, more educators will realize they have knowledge and practices worth sharing and the climate of collaboration will grow. A more progressive step is the practice of utilizing teacher leaders as mentors who spend regular periods breaking down curriculum and teaching strategies, and observing teachers in action in order to provide constructive feedback. These teacher leaders might teach for half a day, then spend the other half working in this mentoring role. This is particularly effective, as the teacher leader maintains his or her current teaching practices and continues to grow and learn while also sharing expertise with other teachers.
These changes are starting to happen and they’re really exciting. My district, Minooka CCSD 201, is implementing professional development in five areas teachers have designated as their areas of need. Within these, teacher leaders have stepped up to share their experiences and training. Not only do we get to select the trainings we attend, but we also have access to these experts on a regular basis. We can ask questions to clarify before and after trying new strategies, we can observe one another for feedback, and we can continue to learn through future trainings. I recently attended a session presented by a colleague about methods for implementing Google Classroom. As I incorporated the new features I learned, I was able to ask clarifying questions which encouraged me to actually implement what this teacher had shared. For my next PD session, I attended a Google Classroom Advanced presentation, where I learned even more applications for implementing this engaging technology tool. As my PD opportunities continued to grow, so did my ability to use my new knowledge effectively.
I look forward to seeing the gains our district makes as we work to implement PD as outlined in ESSA. Perhaps one day I will attend another session where I complete hands-on science activities, but this time I’ll have an opportunity to learn from and observe a colleague, implement the activities, and immediately follow-up and build on my results. Now is the time to make these changes and reap the good outcomes.
Sarah White teaches 5th grade at Minooka Intermediate School in Minooka Community Consolidated School District 201 in Illinois. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow.