Professional Development: More Than Just a Checkbox on a Form
I believe that most states require teachers to have a certain amount of professional development (PD) each year. I also believe that most states do not directly pay for this to happen, leaving the funding of any PD up to individual districts. At that point it comes down to budgetary priorities. Some schools have the means, but many others do not. Nevertheless, every school must check off a box on some form somewhere indicating that some degree of PD has been delivered. And so was born the idea of the full-day workshop at least once a year. The impact on the budget is minimal, all of the teachers receive a day of PD to carry them through the rest of the year, and most importantly, the box on the form can be checked. Does this sound familiar?
This process doesn't hold true for every school. There are many that have highly paid consultants come in to train their staff. Another common practice is having vendors include training on products at the time of purchase. These are limited meetings with little or no follow-up. In order to use any technology product effectively, teachers need to be trained and mentored in its use. I always point to the fact that too many teachers discovered interactive whiteboards in their classrooms without the training to use them. And without that element of PD, a very, very expensive piece of technology was relegated to being a very, very expensive video projector.
Another form of PD that administrators employ for the purpose of checking off the PD box on the form are professional conferences. Of course, the problem here that a vast majority of teachers are never approved for national or statewide conferences. These events are expensive propositions involving transportation and housing -- plus the expense of a substitute teacher. Additionally, teachers often feel that they shouldn't be away from their students for a prolonged period of time. On the other hand, conferences are usually in a budget line for some administrators. I'm not quite sure of the requirements for administrators to obtain continuing PD -- although I would support it.
Considering all of the drawbacks to supplying PD to teachers, it's really up to individual teachers to obtain -- and in most cases offer proof of -- their own personal development, since their required hours of PD usually exceed what their districts provide. In order for that PD checkbox on the form to be filled, however, documentation needs to be provided. Consequently, most PD for most teachers in America is probably do-it-yourself (DIY) PD.
The Proof-of-Concept Model
Maybe it is time to reconsider, or better still re-evaluate, our system of educating educators. Many teachers are finding their PD through connectedness. Many are finding mentors online to exchange ideas, locate sources and collaborate on projects. All of this connectedness is advancing professional development every day, but it cannot be quantified or validated by whatever proofs are necessary to check off the PD box on that form. Maybe we need to go to a proof-of-concept model.
Maybe it would be more beneficial if teachers, after their DIY PD, could point to evidence of successful PD in their lessons. A real-world application of learned PD is far better than a piece of paper verifying seat time in a workshop. It's actually a living portfolio of accomplishment, showing real results of what PD is theoretically designed for. It also turns PD from theoretical to authentic learning. In so doing, this would obtain the intended result by putting all sorts of PD into play. Teachers could point to a combination of online and face-to-face meetings that enabled them to accomplish a certain task with their class, and verify it by having an administrator observe the results. Additionally, teachers might gain more PD credit for modeling their newfound methods to their colleagues, having the school build and benefit on a single teacher's DIY PD. All of that would be worth a big fat check in the PD box on the form.
Of course, we need to consider failure as well. What if the DIY PD does not yield an effective improvement? This would be evident to the administrator observing the lesson. It would be up to that administrator to not just point out the flaws, but to counsel the teacher on improvements. The idea of learning from a mistake is a valuable concept. This turns an observation from a judgmental assessment into a learning experience.
Accomplishing this method of PD will require more time, but the alternative is the status quo. PD must be more than just a checked-off box on a form. If we are to better educate our students, we will need to better educate their educators.