This week we had a much energized #Edchat. #Edchat is an online discussion involving over 1,000 educators on a specific topic each week. This week’s Topic dealt with Professional Development being relevant for educators. This seems to be one subject that rivals in popularity the opposition to standardized, high-stakes testing. It seems that most educators have an opinion on PD. There are so many aspects of this subject that one post will not cover it all. It may however, be able to at least frame a discussion.
The best first change for Professional Development would be to rename it. PD has become a hot button issue amongst many educators. Since each district develops its own policy, there are some districts that do a fine job. Based on comments by many educators on social media sites however, these districts seem to be few, and far between. In addition to district mandates, there are also different PD requirements enforced by individual states. Before the movement to change the name takes hold, let’s talk about PD as we know it today.
The most recent statements supported by Secretary Duncan tell us that a teacher with Master’s degree has little effect on students’ learning. Following this line of reasoning through, it would seem that the government would want our teachers to begin and end with a bachelor’s degree. Of course that would be a less expensive way to go, but the burden on PD would be that much greater in the future.
Demanding that any labor force spend time beyond that which is established by the job description requires that the employer pay the employee additional compensation. Since PD requires a time commitment in addition to an educator’s work week, this is what is done in most districts. Of course, if the school district is paying for additional hours, it has a right to make requirements for what it expects. Those requirements often become a point of contention. This seems to create an “Us vs. Them” dynamic and the beginning of the PD problems.
Regardless of how far any educator travels in his or her academic career, information does not stop flowing when the degree is conferred. Although teachers are expected to be content experts, the content itself continues to develop and evolve. Of course that may not be as true for Math as other subjects, but most content for most academic areas continues to accumulate and evolve. Experts cannot be experts if they do not keep up with the evolving content. A writing teacher who knows nothing of blogging is a questionable expert. A social studies teacher without an understanding of social media can hardly explain the revolution taking place in the Middle East.
Aside from the continuing development in content areas, the methods used to teach and learn also continue to evolve. Methods are also affected by the culture of our society and that continues to change. The Huck Finn controversy certainly underscores this. The culture of the community, or the school itself, has an incredible effect on the school’s approach to learning. Sharing and reflecting on the ways we teach is the best way to change and evolve. The introduction of Social Media to PD gives it a new dimension. Ning sites creating collaborative learning communities; Twitter and Facebook connecting educators locally and globally; YouTube enabling creation of content to be shared and commented upon, are all influences of social media that affect culture.
With the rapid advancement of technology, the tools for learning are changing continually. Whatever tools teachers used in their methods classes in years past, would be hard pressed to be found today. Of course, Overheads and PowerPoint are still around. The concepts of Social networks, mobile learning devices, web 2.0, webinars, podcasts, blended learning, and cloud computing are new to all. They will have a huge impact on learning, but unless educators are up to speed, they will not have an effect in education. That is when education becomes irrelevant because our educators are technology illiterate.
Approaching PD as an extra item in a labor contract may not be the best approach. PD is something that should be part of the work week. It needs to be there in order to maintain relevance for all educators. It cannot be a one size fits all approach. Different educators have different needs. We insist on this for our students, why not for our educators.
The best hope we have for real reform may lie in reforming PD first. IT directors are tech content experts, and may not know what educators need to know in order to teach their respective subjects. Educators are content experts in their respective areas, and technology is not necessarily their strength. Educators need to learn what to ask, and IT managers need to learn how to answer to meet the needs of the educators. IT people seem to view many problems as insurmountable obstacles and are quick to deliver edicts and bans to stop the problems from occurring, rather than trying to solve the problem. IT staff are educators of educators. The same approach of guidance and patience to analyze and problem-solve should be employed by IT people when working with educators.
Administrators have a big role in PD as well. Too often when it comes to PD, administrators use the “do as I say, not as I do” method. They need to be a part of the PD as well. They are the leaders in education, and that requires that they must be out front. Being out front requires some idea of what is going on. Too often, too many administrators have no clue. If PD can lead education to reform our leaders must be there as well. Sitting in an office having IT directors develop PowerPoint presentations for board meetings does not make for cutting edge educational leadership. I know not all Administrators fall in this category, but what is an acceptable percentage of those who do?
If we want reform in education, we better start paying attention to how educators learn and teach to enable that learning. They are not yet teachers when they leave their college classrooms with a degree. Great teachers come from what they learn in their own classrooms as a teacher. They need guidance and support to maintain relevance in the ever-changing world for which they are preparing kids. To be better teachers and better leaders, we need to first be better learners. Without a thoughtful system in place to enable that, the results will be limited at best.
Instead of forcing a merit pay model in education, which will not work, let’s consider using that money differently. Why not use it to compensate teachers who are being successful with their methods and are willing to share their methods with colleagues. Teacher to teacher sharing is a great way to professionally develop teachers. It also supports innovation and excellence in learning. When asked how to reform education, we should consider reforming how we educate our educators, and our educational leaders. We need to reform Professional Development in order to reform education.