A professional courtesy

In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Twitter. That once blurry, unfamiliar space for sharing ideas has flourished into a terrific resource for information – especially for teachers.

I have worked in my current school district for 11 years, since before Twitter existed. In that time, the district-driven professional development for teachers has changed only slightly. The state still decides the number of PD days districts need and officials have allotted time for individual buildings to decide how to use predetermined time increments. Still, this “sit and get” approach fails to put growth in the hands of the teachers. What makes memes so funny? They speak truth.

With major advancements in technology and communication methods, it’s time districts look to reevaluate professional development strategies. There is always talk about “elevating the teaching profession” or “respect for teachers”, but the current model of professional development falls well short of those sentiments. District leaders should trust that teachers want to improve their instructional practices. To show that trust, leaders should look at self-directed professional development.

Self-directed PD would be a pretty big shift from our current paradigm, where attendance is taken at all events and strict accountability strategies are in place. However, I always go back to the phrase I heard about academic rigor in the classroom “If a student can simply copy answers, is the skill being assessed really valuable?” So I ask, “If a teacher can gain the information through other means (email, media, etc.) is the PD really valuable?” The most successful PD has been described as continual and content-specific, with time for implementation and support. This model could be achieved by allowing teachers to search out their own growth via any number of sources, while still providing district support for the teacher when necessary. Again, this requires trusting that teachers are intrinsically motivated to improve in their professional practice.

Let’s use technology integration strategies as an example. In a survey by Samsung, 90 percent of teachers believe technology integration has a strong impact on student achievement. However, two-thirds of these teachers think they are not adequately trained to effectively implement new technology. My district, West Fargo Schools, has tinkered with alternative methods for improving teaching effectiveness and varying professional development experiences. We have allowed master teachers in our buildings to share best practices, incorporated walkthroughs to see other environments, visited community businesses and collaborated through Professional Learning Communities. Those are great strides from the large blocks of meetings we would sit in a decade ago. However, these strategies are still restrictive in the fact that they assume professional learning only takes place on those designated days with those activities.

In this Freakanomics podcast, Dave Levin, a former teacher and co-founder of the KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) says  “…we are not training teachers right now to meet the challenges of our kids today. Right? So to this extent we are sort of still training teachers for classrooms of the past. So we’re not teaching teachers well enough how to effectively differentiate for the vast range of skills the kids have. We’re not teaching teachers effectively enough how to use technology to further teaching, and we’re not teaching teachers how to make school relevant for what kids are really needing to succeed in the colleges they may go to or the careers they may pursue 20 years from now.” My district prides itself on the varied learning opportunities provided to students (AP, dual credit, STEM, AVID, intervention, etc.) and rightfully so, these are great programs to help achieve academic growth. It’s interesting that the same avenue has not been provided to teachers. The “one size fits all” model restricts growth.

Self-direct PD would also be more cost effective for school districts. Professional development is an expensive line item for most districts. The 50 largest districts in the country spend $8 billion annually on PD. Eric Schulzke (@eschulzkeexplains how the current model of PD is widely excepted nationwide, but shows little improvement in student achievement. The lack of results would be why my district has tried multiple PD methods in the last decade, all different variations of the “sit and get” approach. It’s time to let teachers drive their own learning. Authors @Myers_Berkowicz provide a variety of resources for teachers who are seeking to independently continue their professional growth. It’s time districts allow teachers to seek out their own learning opportunities instead of continuing the “one size fits all” approach. Growth would be driven by teachers’ instructional needs rather than district initiatives.

Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us.

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