Let’s Personalize Professional Development

November 18th, 2016

Category: News, Policy and Practice, Student-Centered Learning

kate-bowskiAs a 25-year veteran teacher, I believe I’ve just about seen it all when it comes to education. When I started my career, everything was neatly packaged. Students sat in neatly organized rows and my day ranged from honors to basic skills classes. I was the sole determinant of what would be taught and how it would be assessed.

Today, I have highly integrated classes where students collaborate to create new knowledge, and demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways that reach beyond the old paper-and-pencil tests. Technology has opened doors for my students so they use different mediums to access and process vast amounts of new information and produce evidence of their learning. To an outsider, my classroom may appear messy. In actuality, the processes in place are highly tailored to the needs of each of my students. The ability to pull this off in a room of 20+ students did not happen by accident. It is the result of pursuing learning experiences—on my own time and my own dollar—that I knew I would need to move my teaching forward in an ever-changing world.

Reflecting on the vast amount of learning I’ve done over the years, one question continues to plague me. Why do we still educate our teacher workforce through a neatly packaged, one-size-fits-all model of professional development? We know that active and engaged learning ignites passion and excitement in our students. It increases their desire to learn, their motivation to produce work, and extends their capabilities as a learner. Why aren’t we using that same philosophy with our teaching force? Why are we forgetting the development in professional development?

Read: Rodel Teacher Council Policy Brief—Personalized Professional Development

Research over the last few decades has been clear. According to Heather C. Hill, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “The professional development ‘system’ for teachers is, by all accounts, broken.” Heavy hitters in educational research such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Ken Zeichner, Michael Fullan, and Charlotte Danielson have found professional development must be structured much like how we teach our students to be effective. Personalized learning plans (PLPs) for teachers can help sustain methods, change the practice, and build capacity through a focus on context, content, and design.

Know Where to Start
Determining where we are now must be the first step. In Delaware alone, the experiences, backgrounds, and educational levels of teachers varies widely. Conducting a needs assessment to determine teachers’ strengths and areas of need is imperative to developing a personalized approach to professional development. Such information will provide valuable insights to teachers and school leaders alike so coherent learning progressions may be achieved.

An assessment would also benefit state officials since it would provide an overview of the needs of teachers across the state as well as a pool of potential teacher leaders to be utilized in implementing a personalized PD program or influencing education policy.

Shift the Mindset
If we are to embrace the vision of a personalized PD process, we must shift our mindset from one of time to one of proficiency. No longer can we accept short term, episodic PD for our teachers where everyone learns the same thing at the same time. According to the research, these types of sessions often have little impact if any on increasing student capabilities. Student achievement will only increase if educators continue to enhance their skills, strategies, and content knowledge. Moving toward a proficiency model will require acceptance that PD may look different among districts, schools, and between classrooms. It may not always take place during school hours; it may involve online learning or scholarly research, and it may include coaching or peer collaboration.

School leaders must be willing to allow teachers to embed their new learning into their classrooms, to discover what works and what doesn’t without fear of reprisals. Embedding PD into the job of teaching is key to achieving success. Equally important is providing time for follow up. Offering time for Q&A, reflection, discussion, and evaluation are necessary if teachers are to adapt and incorporate newfound skills or information into their classrooms.

Build Capacity at Home
The need among Delaware teachers to engage in worthwhile PD has caused many to go outside their school or district to acquire new knowledge. The result is a corps of teachers across the state with impressive credentials in many different educational arenas. We have homegrown talent lying among us. In a state the size of Delaware, accessibility to these teacher leaders is incredibly easy given adequate PD structures.

The state has the opportunity to set up these PD structures with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Within ESSA, state and local leaders can allocate Title II funds for professional development to support teachers in preparing for student centered approaches to practice, such as blended learning, competency – based learning, and personalized learning models. Incentivizing the use of these funds to support local entities in providing personalized, ongoing, and job embedded support for all educators would be one leg of support in a personalized professional development process.

Read: ESSA Principles for Educators

The Time is Now
Moving from the current PD model to a more personalized process will not be fast, easy, or smooth, but it is necessary and we cannot afford to wait any longer. Each passing day of a sit and get PD system means one more day of stifled teaching, one more day of inhibited student learning, one more day of stagnation in our classrooms. The time is now to break free of the neatly packaged one-size-fits-all PD system we currently have. The time is now to support educators through a personalized professional development process so they may in turn support in the best way possible one of our most valuable future assets – our children. Can we afford one more day without progress for the thousands of students across Delaware?

Hill, H. C. (2009). Fixing teacher professional development. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(7), 470-476.

Kate Bowski is a National Board Certified Elementary Teacher at Milton Elementary School in Milton, Delaware. She is also a member of the Rodel Teacher Council.

Rodel Foundation of Delaware




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