Using Best Practice to Teach Teachers

As the 2015-2016 school year drew to a close, I found myself considering professional development quite frequently. It came to mind as I discussed the possibility of my district adopting Chromebooks as teacher devices, and I considered my colleagues that would need significant professional development to be successful with that level of technology. I considered it as my PLC chose to move forward with adopting a new textbook series that is bountiful with resources but could lead to unnecessary stress and frustration without proper training. I considered it, a lot, as I sat through a district-funded workshop that was packaged as being something new and revolutionary but had very little to offer aside from a somewhat unimpressive, self-published book.

There are very few moments I can point to as moments when the professional development I experienced was truly effective and beneficial to my growth as a teacher, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the same idea echoed from teachers across the state.

And this, I feel, is one of the biggest flaws in Education. There are times when teachers are treated as if they are clueless, being forced to sit through yet another afternoon of Professional Development hearing about what exactly formative assessment is, and there are other times when we are expected to be magicians and mind readers simultaneously.

Research in best practice has proven that students don’t learn from being told to do something. As educators, we would never say to a student, “A fraction is a numerical quantity that is not a whole number, now multiply them.” We would model for them and show them exactly what it was they were expected to do. Yet, that is how teachers are expected to learn about their profession. Explaining the philosophy behind a technology-rich educational environment help teachers understand how to implement technology into their classroom, or teach them to be comfortable with it themselves; hearing the definition of formative assessment does not show me how to implement formative assessments effectively.

Just as we assume that students are not performing to expectation because they do not understand the material, it is time the world starts assuming the same of teachers and using best practice to help us meet expectations.

In order for teachers to truly improve, we need explicit instruction, we need modeling, we need to observe experts implementing the practice that we are trying to learn. In a perfect world, teacher professional development would involve differentiation, and closely working with a peer or an instructional coach or an administrator who could model best practice in the targeted area before guiding the teacher through implementing it themselves.

But how do we differentiate professional development for teachers while still honoring their skills as a professional? What would that process look like? Would administrators need to observe said teacher and identify a weak area for them to work on? Would this only happen during “on cycle” years when the teacher is up for review? Or would individual teachers be responsible for reflecting on their practice and identifying an area of weakness to focus on improving? What would happen when teachers that were known to struggle with a certain essential aspect, such as formative assessment, didn’t choose that as their area of focus?

Beyond differentiation, how would the limited number of instructional coaches manage to work, theoretically, with every teacher in the building? How would educators find time to co-teach or work in others classrooms to see models of the practice they are trying to improve?

While the logistics of a more focused and personalized professional development are hard to fathom, a third year of meetings about formative assessment indicates that the lecture-style professional development isn’t working to truly help teachers improve their craft; In a world where fingers are constantly being pointed at the flaws in our Education system, it seems imperative that we invest in us, the teachers, who have the ability to change that narrative.