Sunday, June 27, 2010

More thoughts on professional development

I keep playing around in my head with a definition of meaningful professional development.

This is what I've come up with:

Meaningful professional development happens when teachers leave a training/meeting/Internet session feeling ownership of what they just learned. They are able to take what they learned and feel comfortable immediately applying it in their classrooms OR they know where to go to get more information/resources so that they can then immediately apply it in their classrooms.

Teachers should leave professional development with a fundamental understanding of why something works so that when they take it into their classrooms they can change it/adjust it/improve upon it to make it work with their classroom routines and their learners without changing the theory/philosophy/science behind it.

For example, if my special ed teammates and I give an in-service on creating behavior plans we need to explain why behavior plans work and how we develop behavior plans for particular students so that teachers leave being able to understand why a behavior plan works. It would be easier to make a set of different behavior plans, give them out to each teacher and tell them to use them as is. At first everyone would be happy with this method. Our training was short, painless, and gave teachers something to use immediately in their own classrooms. Our administrators could walk into a classroom and immediately know whether or not a teacher is using the new information because they will recognize the sticker charts we gave out to everyone. Teachers will be able to put something into use without any extra work on their part.

But then, a few weeks will go by and the teachers will be wondering why the behavior plans don't work. They may stop using them, or change them in a way that is not productive. Maybe it's easier for them to wait until the end of the day to give students the stickers they earned. Since we haven't explained to them that some students need the immediate reinforcement there is no reason for the teachers to think that waiting until the end of the day would hurt the student. The child's behavior continues to drive the teacher crazy. The principals will be frustrated that the teachers are not doing what they were told, and will tell the teacher to just use the behavior plan. The teacher, who has been using the behavior plan, knows it is not working, but continues to use it because the principal told her to. The behavior does not get any better. The cycle continues, with everyone looking like they are doing what they are suppose to be doing, but nobody actually doing anything meaningful.

Instead, what we need to do is explain the theory behavior making a behavior plan. We need to talk about collecting data, making decisions, the motivation behind particular behaviors, intrinsic and external motivation, etc, etc. THEN we discuss taking that information and putting it into the form of a behavior plan. THEN we need to cover how to monitor a behavior plan to make sure it works.

That is a much more painful training session than merely giving teachers copies of behavior plans.

But, it allows teachers to understand what they are doing. Now they can take our behavior plans and apply them in their classrooms. When something does not work they have the theory behind the plan to be able to make the appropriate changes. They learned how to monitor behavior, and are able to actually improve the behavior plan to make it meaningful.

The principals, of course, have to be comfortable knowing that they can not go into a room and see the same behavior plan on the desk of every student with behavior problems. They have to trust their teachers to make intelligent decisions within their classroom.

The behaviors will improve, the teachers will feel empowered, and the principals wont have to think about it again. Of course, there's the scary part. If a principal wants to have full control over every classroom, then either the principal needs to have the same understanding of why something works, or needs to be comfortable knowing that although they do not understand it, they know their teachers are using their best judgement and that they understand it.

This holds true for all professional development, not just behavior plans. The most powerful reading in-services teach us how to understand our young readers so we can make decisions about how to teach them in our classes. Not how to turn the pages in a teachers manual. How do we recognize when a student is having difficulty with decoding verse comprehension? How do we know when to teach fluency and when a student is ready to learn about plurals?

Good teachers are student-watchers, and good professional development gives us more skills to understand what we see when we are watching our students. Good administrators recognize that their good teachers are student-watchers and not page-turners. They have to trust that what is happening in the classrooms is the result of well-thought-out lessons even if the classroom does not match a teacher's manual.

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