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Monroe Township’s Lew Stonaker isn’t a fan of “drive-by” professional development.

Typical scenario: An outside expert drops in, lectures on a topic that may or may not be relevant to a roomful of teachers, “and then they leave and there’s no follow-up,” says Stonaker, who started teaching in 1986.

It’s not terribly useful, or unusual. New teachers get training through mentoring and the tenure process, but rigorous professional development tends to drop off once they reach the five- or six-year point. Good teachers survive, though they’re often stuck in neutral.

Stonaker, who taught TV production, found the problem particularly frustrating. He needed fresh ideas and strategies, but he was getting things like a PD session in music mapping.

He decided to fix the problem by becoming part of the solution, and he’s now staff development coordinator for New Jersey’s Monroe Township School District, which is taking a different approach to professional development.

“What we’ve done is design a ‘train the trainers’ program so we can improve capacity. We have about 80 teachers in our district who are trained to lead professional learning communities [PLCs] and workshops,” Stonaker says.

When a problem arises—students not turning in homework, for example—instead of bringing in visiting experts, the district has veteran teachers get together and come up with a strategy that they then share with other teachers. To test its efficacy, teachers will observe one another and give feedback and coaching, and they will collect data at year’s end to see how the strategy panned out.

This “proof” is a key step, says Stonaker. “If we’re learning and we’re not using what we learn, that’s not very effective,” he explains. In this model, professional development runs year-round instead of being crammed into a handful of in-service days.

PD should be ongoing for all teachers, say Stonaker and others. There’s no “seven-year itch” in teaching—no specific point where interest starts to flag or expertise to buckle. The need for support can range from learning how to teach seventh graders after teaching fifth graders for years to grappling with the new Common Core standards.

Step 1: Determine Needs
In a way, what happens in schools—or rather, what doesn’t happen—isn’t so different from what occurs in other lines of work, points out Ann Cunningham-Morris, director of professional development for ASCD, a leading provider of K–12 PD support. “There is targeted and very focused professional learning support for beginning teachers. That’s probably in line with most professions.”

But new models of professional development tend to involve teacher-led PLCs and/or a system in which a coach helps to draft and monitor the program. The key, says Cunningham-Morris, is to “focus on building local capacity and expertise so that you have a cadre of teacher-experts.” Instead of viewing professional learning as a course or a workshop, the support should be embedded to make it part of what happens each teaching day.

The first step in developing a good support program is to look at the data and put together a picture of what’s going on in the district, Cunningham-Morris says. From that comes a needs assessment and a proposed framework for improvement. It’s important, she says, to nest ongoing initiatives within the framework so that teachers don’t get overwhelmed. Then, it’s time to find experts within the district, and invite teachers to become part of the process.

Taking ownership of professional development means breaking with traditional ways of doing things, says Glenda Horner, staff development coordinator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Houston. Three years ago, when Cypress-Fairbanks began working with ASCD, the initial visits from the coach were “kind of an odd experience, because I expected her to come in and lay out a plan,” says Horner.

Instead, the process began with discussions that uncovered what administrators, teachers, and students needed, leading to a plan that wasn’t so much a blueprint as a work in progress. Horner, who was an administrator at one of the district campuses at the time, was in charge of scheduling the coach’s workday. “I kept her busy,” Horner says with a laugh.

A big challenge was not letting attention wane between visits. “You kind of have your game on when the coach is there,” explains Horner, who spent the second year of the program observing classrooms as part of her dissertation. She found that one teacher made good progress, while another struggled and needed additional help. “I learned from that experience that there’s no magic fix, and that each teacher’s learning trajectory is different.”  

Now that the systems are in place, the coach visits every other month or so, but the backbone of the program is Cypress-Fairbanks’ multiyear commitment to the initiative. “At the core,” Horner says, “I believe schools and districts that change to improve have an obligation to provide staff with PD that is concentrated, targeted, ongoing, and embedded in day-to-day work.”

Step 2: Dig Deep
Ensuring that all programs are tailored to what teachers need is key, says Maryann Marrapodi, chief learning officer at Teachscape, which provides Web-based tools and expert services for professional development.

It’s not enough to put five teachers in a room and call it a PLC. “You really have to dig in and find out what it is that works, what it is they care about, and give them the opportunity to exercise some degree of choice around these learning opportunities,” says Marrapodi. What does work is finding out where teachers are having problems and then exploring new strategies to address them. For instance, veteran teachers might have to “unlearn” old techniques to keep up with new mandates like Common Core.

“The constant issue for us is, ‘How do you make it relevant?’” Marrapodi says. “It’s really, ‘How do you engage them authentically?’ And it’s not going to be through a manufactured, off-the-shelf program—any program, I don’t care who puts it out there, including us—but rather contextualizing the chosen programs by tapping into and understanding [teachers’] problems of practice.”

Creating good professional development isn’t free—although finding expertise among your own teachers saves a lot. But neglecting professional development is costly, too. “You’re either going to pay the costs for good planning and rolling out an effective program, or you’re going to pay in the cost of ineffective instruction that results in decreased student learning and the cost associated with transitioning the old teacher out and bringing a new teacher in,” says Marrapodi.

With the increased scrutiny on teacher performance, professional development has been getting more attention these days—but there’s room for improvement, says Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward. “We see signs of educators understanding that it needs to occur, and yet they also need help in making it effective.”

Part of the trick is to organize your resources more efficiently. Administrators should explore how they allocate and plan professional development time. It’s also important to avoid what Hirsh calls “PLC lite,” where teachers look at a problem, like poor math performance, and come up with peripheral tactics such as making parents more accountable or changing the way homework is assigned instead of tackling what may be the real issue—that teachers need to brush up on their math-teaching skills.

For people who entered the profession years ago, it can be frightening to share vulnerabilities in teaching. But teachers who get involved in PLCs tend to like it, says Hirsh. “I have heard teachers say, ‘I never thought work could be so rewarding, that I could learn so much from my colleagues.’”

Stonaker has found that to be true at Monroe Township. When he started working on professional development a few years ago, surveys indicated that 60 percent of teachers thought PD was worthwhile. It’s now near 90 percent.

“The big thing is you have to give teachers professional development that’s meaningful to them, that has an effect on their classroom,” he says. “You have to give them choices.”

—Late Fall 2012—

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