Building a Stronger Faculty
New and improving technologies can enhance professional development practices.
New technologies can build the strength of your staff.
B.J. Berquist didn't even own a computer until her 50th birthday. But in the same year she became eligible for AARP membership, she opened the door to improving her current career as well as starting a new one. "When you boil it down," says Berquist, an art teacher at the Loysville Youth Development Center in Loysville, Pennsylvania, and now an associate educator for the online professional development "workplace" and teacher support community Tapped In, "teachers are isolated from each other and from professional development. We go to a conference, leave, and never have the opportunity to try what we've learned and get feedback." But as Berquist has discovered, professional development is assuming a decidedly high-tech flavor that bridges these communication gaps.
Barbara Treacy agrees-she wouldn't have a job otherwise. Treacy is the managing project director of EdTech Leaders Online, a project of the nonprofit Education Development Center (EDC), which has been researching policy and practice in K-12 education, learning technologies, and professional development for more than 40 years. Treacy says districts are looking for professional development in two "strands": training that helps teachers to meet gaps in student achievement in special populations and training that provides teachers with opportunities to help meet their recertification needs. Treacy believes that administrators are increasingly looking for combined online-onsite programs to get teachers the professional development they need. "Online programs work best when they are integrated into a comprehensive plan and are one component that complements the other programs that are in place," Treacy believes.
Of course, not all online professional development is alike, even when you're talking about high-tech solutions. Districts across the country are pulling together a wide array of programs: from comprehensive web portals that help teachers track their recertification efforts to 60-second "just in time" solutions that help teachers integrate media into classroom presentations. Other programs are meant to help ease the isolation that many educators feel as they make their way through the curriculum, creating a web of virtual "best teacher friends" who can call on one another for strategies and tips in real time.
And some technology is meant to create that elusive higher echelon of master teachers who will lead the rest of us out of the wilderness of NCLB into a world where all the teachers are good-looking and all the children are above average. So if you're looking for easier, faster, more efficient ways to approach your district's professional development, read on to find out how technology can help.
Build Teacher Collaboration
Kim Van Drese is in her first year as principal of Gwinn Middle School in Gwinn, Michigan. Van Drese is no stranger to the teachers at her school, however-she was a special ed teacher there not too long ago. Even so, she says, "I am the third administrator they've had in as many years, and I knew it was going to be pretty hard to get buy-in on any new programs I introduced." She was determined to use technology to help the staff move forward. She insisted that all teachers post their weekly lesson plans on their Student Center Announcement page on the web rather than handing them to her directly. That encouraged parents, students, and other teachers to look at what was happening on a daily basis in Gwinn's classrooms. Then Van Drese decided to reexamine the peer evaluations that were a large part of the school's professional development program. "It tended to be 'you check off your list, I'll check off mine,'" she notes. Instead, the school moved to what she calls lesson studies, headed up by a design team that went through the online lesson plans and talked through what was being done in class, how it worked, and what could be done differently. The school also uses Co-nect as an online resource, incorporating elements of its Instructional Quality Toolkit.
The move online changed the dynamic at Gwinn. "It opened up a line of communication that never happened before," Van Drese explains, noting that evaluation rapidly turned to collaboration. Teachers were able to see all the cool things their colleagues were doing behind closed doors. When math teacher Brian Rice discovered that science teacher Kristy Glockner was doing a unit on liquid nitrogen, for instance, he offered to help Glockner's students graph the freezing temperatures of various items. "One of the state's goals is that all students demonstrate their ability to read and interpret statistical information," Van Drese says. "Co-nect helps our teachers work smarter, not harder." And, she says almost as an afterthought, "I have some really, really excited teachers and students."
Meet State Standards
"For me, one of the harder things to teach is construction math," says Anthony Phillips, construction technology teacher at Anderson County Career and Technical Center in Anderson County School District (ACSD) in Tennessee. "So I team teach with an algebra teacher at one of our high schools-50 yards away." The problem isn't Phillips's math skills-it's that the curriculum of industrial arts is so aggressive today, incorporating advanced math, science, and language arts in unprecedented ways. And all of them require certification.
"There are (subjects) I need to be upgraded in continually," Phillips explains. Recently he took a two-week pre-engineering drafting program in order to continue teaching his drafting classes. But Phillips is lucky. ACSD has an advanced educational portal, which includes a critical section called My Professional Development Catalogue. Here Phillips can review state requirements for certification and schedule ongoing professional development months in advance. Through the home page, he can also look up standards he must meet for every grade and every subject he teaches and even access relevant lesson plans and online web sites and other resources. "Everything is teacher friendly," Phillips notes enthusiastically, "and it would take a day to go through all we have on this site."
Arizona has a similar portal, but that one is maintained at the state level. It's called ASSET, or Arizona School Services Through Educational Technology. ASSET is a nonprofit membership department at Arizona State University and KAET-Channel 8, its PBS affiliate. It uses iAssessment technology, which allows teachers to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. "Everything on the site is aligned to the Arizona academic standards," explains Mark Becker, one of two managers of instructional technology. Becker notes that because Arizona is so large and includes quite a few rural districts, it's tough for many teachers to get the continuing education they need. "Every six years, Arizona teachers must acquire 180 hours of professional development," he explains.
Becker says the group has gotten inquiries from many states about ASSET. According to him, it won't be long before more states start offering their own versions to assist teachers with ongoing professional improvement.
Improve Student Achievement
Anyone trying to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) these days has heard the term differentiated instruction. Begun as a way to help gifted students, the concept has made its way into regular, remedial, and special needs programs because it is centered on the best way to teach individual students most effectively. Now teachers can get an in-depth online lesson on differentiated instruction absolutely free. It's one of a series of professional development tutorials that include case studies, lesson plans, and even live help for teachers. The courses are being developed by Curriculum Associates, with new courses on a variety of topics showing up continually.
The differentiated instruction course is written by Sylvia G. Lewis, assistant principal at North Topsail Elementary School, a Title I school in Hampstead, North Carolina. In the late '90s, when North Topsail failed to show growth on the state's end-of-grade assessments for third through fifth graders, the administration began introducing differentiated learning, among other changes. Since then, the school has offered continuous staff development to teach the concept, and students' proficiency rate has increased 15 percent. The key, Lewis says, is to start with a student assessment program so that you have a clear view of what they need. Then it's a matter of incorporating a variety of instructional and classroom management techniques. "Any teacher, anywhere, can pull up real lesson plans that were used in our classrooms," Lewis explains. "I've been in education a long, long time, and I really believe this is one of the best free products for teachers I've ever seen."
Correct Teaching Shortages
A critical shortage of teachers who could teach online advanced placement (AP) courses led the Los Angeles Unified School District to develop a series of six-week online instructional courses that are now making their way down to the remedial level, according to Sharon V. Robinson, administrator of the instructional branch of the district. Robinson says L.A. Virtual Academy (LAVA) came about because state equity rules mandated that every school offer students the opportunity to take AP courses-and many just weren't equipped for it. To fill the gap, Robinson found herself turning to teachers outside the state. If men are from Mars, teachers from cold climates seem as if they're from Pluto to L.A. teens. "I had one student whose online teacher complained of the 30-degree weather. Her student told her it was 90 in L.A., and he planned to go surfing when he finished his lesson," she laughs.
More seriously, Robinson found that because standards and even terminology differ from state to state, she worried about miscommunication that could affect student achievement. So the district came up with a six-week online program that taught district teachers the pedagogy and essentials of online teaching and learning. Soon Robinson was branching out, offering credit recovery and remedial classes in mathematics to district students. "The teachers referred to us for LAVA are outstanding teachers," she explains, "but online teaching requires different skills, which this training addresses." What's interesting, Robinson notes, is that teachers who are learning the skills of online teaching are changing the way they work in their regular classrooms. "Our virtual-staff meetings have become a form of professional development in themselves," Robinson notes, with teachers who might never have met in the large district sharing strategies and lesson ideas. "It's really dynamic."
Offer Real-Life Models
Being a fly on the wall has its advantages. You get to see what others are doing and learn from their choices. That's one reason that law students and MBA candidates study real-life cases in order to understand what they will face once they become professionals, and that's the idea behind online professional development from CaseNEX. Teachers read about specific situations online, look at relevant data, peruse the online library, and participate in live chat with national experts. The case-based approach uses streaming video of real teachers in the classroom using specific strategies and methodologies.
Carmen Dillard, Oak Grove Elementary School principal at DeKalb County Schools in Atlanta, says that while she likes the multimedia aspect, she particularly enjoys the opportunity to talk with national experts. "It's the best of all worlds, almost like going to a teachers' conference," Dillard notes. And she has seen significant growth in the abilities of her teachers. "What it comes down to is that four heads are better than one."
With as many as 50 percent of teachers ditching the profession within the first five years on the job, mentor support has become a key component of professional development in districts across the country. Is it possible to build a master teacher online? Treacy of EdTech Leaders Online thinks so. "Even a very good teacher needs to think about some very specific things when designing for teachers online," she reasons. "We're making a new group of master teachers."
Donna Boivin, director of technology at Springfield Public Schools in Springfield, Massachusetts, and an EdTech Leaders Online user, says that given the right situation, great teachers can raise the skills of a whole district. When it became clear that Springfield students were reaching the upper grades without a strong enough set of math skills, for example, a Springfield high school math teacher was asked to create an online course to teach algebra to elementary school teachers. And Mike Thun, an online course coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Education, says that recent staff cuts have forced him to train his trainers online. His approach may have started as a survival tactic, but it has proved useful in the long run. He says, "The model can be replicated easily."
Just as technology has changed the dynamic for classroom teachers from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side," giving more responsibility to students, professional development technology is placing more responsibility into the hands of these "learners," too. Teachers can now track, manage, and design their own professional development plans. And increasingly, they may have to. Districts are beginning to use management systems that put the onus on teachers to take charge of their own training needs. Terri Kay Myers, software coordinator for Claremore Independent School District in Claremore, Oklahoma, uses STI's professional development external package to move the "administrivia" out of the administration department and back into the hands of the professional development office. "They've always agreed that it should be handled by their department," Myers says. "Now teachers have their own file, and they're responsible for entering their own information."
Paul Fletcher, director of instructional technology and planning at Marcus Whitman School District in Rushville, New York, has begun offering mini-lessons that teachers can take on their own, rather than waiting for a course to be offered by the district. "We've created a bunch of tiny video applets, narrated by our staff, walking teachers through a process," Fletcher notes. The applets run for about 60 seconds and can be looked at right on a desktop as kids are in the middle of a lesson. For instance, Fletcher says seniors have to produce a PowerPoint presentation in order to graduate. Teachers can open an applet for a quick course on how to add video or a chart to the project. "Nowadays, the amount of pressure teachers are under with standardized testing is enormous. The more I can do to help teachers do their job effectively and easily, the better teachers they are," says Fletcher.
By all accounts, the highly qualified teacher provisions of NCLB are here to stay. But with technology-based professional development, they don't have to be so overwhelming. In fact, the whole world of online learning offers opportunities that many teachers had never before considered. "I stumbled into it," concludes buddy-mentor-teacher Berquist about her humble birthday beginnings. "But I just love it."
Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.