Sunday, November 6, 2016

Professional Development: Committing to Continuous Improvement

My life outside of my home and my family is animated by three passions: teaching, writing, and acting. I have been pursuing each of these passions for more than 50 years. Despite this long pursuit, I will freely confess that I have never taught the perfect lesson, written the perfect book, article, or blog post, or given the perfect stage performance. Perhaps this is because I am a slow learner, but perhaps it is also because my three passions are my three passions precisely because they require a constant pursuit of a perfection that remains tantalizingly beyond my reach.

The one thing I have done is continuously strive to get better. In writing this has meant seeking feedback from other writers, reading what other writers have written, and practicing daily in search of that "just right" sentence that rarely comes. In acting that means seeking opportunities to act, participating in acting workshops, and attending as many shows as possible to watch great actors. As for teaching, trying to get better has meant continuously reading the books and journals of my profession, listening and sharing with colleagues, attending conferences, and seeking out professional development opportunities.

I have always disputed the common assertion that teachers tend to peak in their proficiency after about 4-7 years. It certainly took me four years to become any semblance of a good teacher, but since that time I feel I have only gotten better, if also grayer and more weary. I started professional life as a secondary school history teacher and twenty years later became an elementary teacher. I often say that it took me 20 years to get good enough to teach elementary school. See - slow learner.

This continuous improvement is not easy, however. It requires a commitment to professional growth that can be hard to maintain at the same time as we are working full time in a classroom full of children, all with their own needs and demands and while trying to meet the often changing and confusing demands of administrators, state overseers, parents and the public. It is difficult, but it is necessary and if there is any place for a "no excuses" policy in schools, it is in the area of our professional commitment to get better at what we do.

Like you, I have often been required to attend professional development trainings that were mind numbingly dull and which had little apparent relevance to my immediate needs as a teacher. Like you, I have witnessed colleagues talking in the back of the room, texting on their phones, grading papers, or sleeping, while some hapless presenter in the front of the room tried to share some information. I have also been that hapless presenter in the front of the room watching teachers doing everything but attending to what I was trying to say. When this happens, I take it as a sign that my presentation needs to be more engaging, but I also take it as a sign that some teachers are not as committed to continuous improvement as I would hope.

I can tell you honestly that over a 45 year career I have attended more professional development presentations than most people reading this blog and I have never walked away from a session without learning something useful. Bold statement? Not really. Any professional development opportunity is a two way street. Much depends on the presenter, but just as much depends on the attendee. Teachers who commit to finding the laudable nuggets in any presentation will find them. I know; I have. At any rate, common courtesy dictates that we don't subject a guest presenter to behavior we would not allow from our own students.

How does a teacher make a commitment to continuous improvement? Here are three ways I would suggest.

Professional Reading: One of the things I like about my cardiologist is that whenever I have a question about my treatment, he begins his answer with, "You know I was just reading in my medical journals about recent research on this medication...." The guy is current; he is a reader; his continuous learning inspires confidence. Just as we would not want to go to a doctor who has not read a medical journal in 20 years, we would not want to have children in a classroom where the teacher is not up to date on the latest research. This means that teachers must be avid readers of the professional journals. For me the go to journals are The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Reading Research Quarterly. These journals along with The Marshall Memo (a digest of current publications), the multiple blogs that I follow, and the latest releases from Heinemann and the International Literacy Association keep me hopping, thinking, and informed.

Collegial Sharing: One of the more heartening developments that I have seen coming out of reform efforts in the past few years is the Professional Learning Community (PLCs). I know that many teachers have had bad experiences with these when they are poorly implemented, but I do believe that rightly done, these PLCs offer a good opportunity for teachers to take control of their own professional learning. And that is as it should be. Professional learning is best when it is rooted in the reality of the classroom. One of the problems that I see with PLCs is that they have been co-opted by the accountability movement. When the standard for excellence in teaching is tied to standardized test scores and spurious schemes like student growth objectives, it is going to be difficult to get teachers to buy in.

Ideally, PLCs are driven by teacher's agendas rather than national, state, or education reform agendas. What would this look like? In my mind a high functioning PLC would have the following characteristics.
  • Teachers gathering together to look closely and critically at a common "problem of practice."
  • Teachers sharing the research and their own ideas around this problem of practice.
  • Teachers deciding on a few approaches to instruction that would address that problem of practice.
  • Teachers observing each other implementing the instruction and giving feedback to each other on what they have seen.
  • Teachers examining each approach to the problem of practice by looking at student work across classrooms.
  • Teachers deciding to adopt instructional practice that seems to be most effective for the particular problem.
  • Teachers continuing to look at student work to ensure that the newly adopted practice is working.
This type of PLC requires committed teachers and cooperative administration. It requires time and resources. It will be difficult, but it is our best hope for continuous improvement of practice. My thinking here is based in part on the concept of instructional rounds, but in this case, put in use by classroom teachers, not administrators. You can read more about instructional rounds here


Professional Development Opportunities: While fully embedded professional development such as that described above is the best model for professional learning, it is often necessary to seek the advice of outside experts as well. Again, these models work best when teachers have a voice in the professional development and some choice in what professional learning opportunities they receive. One way to ensure choice is by attending local, state, and national conferences. Attending these professional conferences was critical to my own development as a professional. Attendance allowed me to increase my understanding on a broad array of literacy instruction issues, to hear the most up to date research delivered by the researchers themselves and to network with people with similar interests and concerns. A truly committed professional attends professional conferences when possible and a truly committed school district administration makes sure that such attendance is encouraged and supported financially.

Sometimes it is more efficient, financially and practically, to bring the outside expert into the building to share expertise with the entire staff. This type of professional development has rightly been criticized as being ineffective "one shot" experiences that do little to change instruction or improve the outcomes for children. But there are better models to follow. In my own consulting over the past twenty years, I have recommended the following model for professional development.
  • Administration and staff decide on a goal for professional development for the school year. For illustration purposes let's say the school decides to work on improving guided reading instruction in grades K-3.
  • The teachers and administrators put out a Request for Proposals to consultants who are invited to submit proposals on how best to help the school meet its goal.
  • The Request for Proposals requires the consultant to follow a protocol for delivery of the professional development. The protocol includes the following:
    • One or two days of training in guided reading
    • Opportunities for every teacher to observe the consultants doing guided reading in the classrooms with the students and then to discuss what they have observed with the consultants.
    • The consultant observes every teacher implementing the guided reading instruction and provides individual constructive and non-evaluative feedback to the teacher.
    • A few weeks aftrer providing initial feedback, the consultant observes the teacher again to see how well suggestions have been implemented
    • A final full-day workshop brings all teachers together to discuss progress and continuing concerns and to set goals for the following year.
  • The teachers and administrators determine which proposal to accept and schedule the professional development.
This model follows what we know about good instruction. A goal is identified and clearly articulated; information on how to achieve the goal is provided; methods for achieving the goal are modeled by an expert; guided practice is facilitated by the expert and then independent practice is initiated and assessed.

Part of being a professional is a commitment to continuing growth. As teachers we need to be constantly working to improve our practice. This work can be facilitated by thoughtful and supportive school and school district policies and practices, but ultimately it is up to the teacher to push for and participate fully in the kinds of professional development that will be most productive. 

And when the professional development we are offered falls short of these optimal practices? Then common courtesy and professional behavior demand that we try to make the most of it and find that one nugget of knowledge that is waiting for us in every professional development session.