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Do Professional Development 'With' Teachers, Not 'to' Them

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    April Hattori

In Larry Ferlazzo's Classroom Q&A, EL Education's Dina Strasser discusses four "moves" that are embedded in EL's professional development.  Her full comments are below:

Dina Strasser was a public school ELA and ELL teacher for 14 years, and wrote an award-winning blog on education for eight years. She is an author of the book Management in the Active Classroom. Currently Dina serves as the Manager of the Curriculum Implementation Team at EL Education:

For me, the biggest problems with common teacher professional development practices can be summarized--and solved--in three sentences: 

  • Take a look at best teaching practices for students.
  • If it doesn’t work for students, it’s not going to work for teachers.
  • If it works for students, it will work for teachers too.

The amount we have learned about best teacher practices in the classroom over the decades I have worked in education is truly thrilling. Our advances in brain science, our knowledge of how memory and retention works, a more expansive and accurate definition of what student achievement means: these things make for some of the most effective and exciting teaching I have ever seen. Yet in my own professional development and others’, I am consistently struck by how our knowledge of best practice continues to be applied to students in the classroom, but rarely--if ever--makes its way over to the teaching of the teachers themselves.

I often remember a story a colleague told me of taking a class on student differentiation--in which my colleague sat in a chair silently and was lectured to for hours. What teacher hasn’t experienced irony like this? We have to do better, and I contend it is far easier than many people think.

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Below are four “moves” that EL Education, my professional home, regularly employs in its professional development with teachers. To any experienced educator the moves will look suspiciously familiar. That’s because good professional development for teachers doesn’t have to be rocket science, or especially tweaked for the adult brain. It’s a simple approach: if it works for students, it will work for teachers too.

1) Meet the teachers’ needs.

My favorite example of the need for this seemingly obvious, but all too rare move is the following: few educational researchers or teacher preparation programs in the United States address effective classroom management (Emmer, Sabornie, Evertson, and Weinstein, 2013). We’ve done our bit to address this through writing a book on the essentials of good classroom management and creating PD that walks teachers through this oh-so-critical, but chronically overlooked component of teacher development. It is consistently one of our best received programs. You wouldn’t think PD could make you cry, but that’s exactly what I did in Memphis recently when a novice teacher came up to us after our classroom management PD and stated bluntly that she would have quit that year if she hadn’t come to our training.

It’s important to give teachers what they need so that they can be the best teachers they can be. In your setting, classroom management may not be the top need for teachers--perhaps it’s reading instruction or meeting the needs of English language learners. What’s important is learning from teachers what it is, and providing it.

2) Make the students present.

“Wait--you have STUDENTS run teacher PD?” I can hear you hollering. In fact, yes. We believe firmly that student ownership is critical to learning, and perhaps their presence is even more critical in teacher training. Where students cannot be physically present, we approximate as much as we can by examining oodles of genuine student work, watching videos of kids in real classrooms, and demonstrating lessons for teachers by asking them to act as students (”putting on the student hat”).

3) Assess, and help teachers self-assess.

A critical challenge of many classrooms is providing clear guidance on what is being taught, and whether what is being taught has been mastered. We structure our PD in exactly the same way we ask teachers to structure their lessons: by providing clear learning targets and self-reflecting on them actively and often through journals, note-catchers, and checks for understanding. In this way, teachers never leave us feeling confused or doubtful about what we’ve been teaching them and whether they’ve grasped it.

4) Perfect the “double dip.”

Teachers’ time is precious. We make sure every minute of our PD not only teaches teachers the content, but also immerses them in tips and techniques they can bring back into their classrooms the very next day.  When we introduce a learning target (see #3), we do it in the way we would want teachers to do it with students. When we run an activity, we use activities that work well with students. When we ask questions, check for understanding, or assess our audience’s work, we use strategies that students respond to and enjoy.

Writing about this topic gives me great joy: not only because I believe so strongly in the approach I’ve outlined here, but also because I have seen with my own eyes over many years how effective it is.

Take a look at best teaching practices for students.

If it doesn’t work for students, it’s not going to work for teachers.

If it works for students, it will work for teachers too.