The Search for Meaning in Staff Development

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The Search for Meaning in Staff Development
© 2004 Mary Ann Johnson, M.Ed.,  www. nwconsult.com

 

 The care and feeding of a great teacher is a rich responsibility for staff development nationwide.   The developing enhancement of a great teacher can continue throughout a long and dynamic career.
     Teachers who are growing in skill and knowledge take some of their courses because of incentives such as salary advances and continuing certification.  Those incentives require the teacher to participate in learning events in the early stages of a career. Yet  inservice must amount to more than attendance at required district and state-mandated courses.  For those great teachers who hunger for cutting edge information, learning in a collaborative community with respected peers, and professional leadership development there is the need to be a player in the design of career continuing education.
      Greater requirements for teacher certification have resulted in staff development that can be planned, mandated and delivered with higher speed and generalization.  As the requirements of professional certification have been raised, and school boards have increasingly embraced business-like practices, the norming of staff development has changed from being the responsibility of teachers to being the responsibility of management. 
       Teachers are gulping for air.  Staff development could be the oxygen they need and deserve.  It could meet the needs of the beginner as well as the seasoned professional.  To move the profession in powerful ways, the process will need to return to some of the basics imbedded in the very models that are being put forth:  in particular, models of choice theory and intrinsic motivation.
      The most important change indicated is a return to the choices that individual teachers might make to meet their own interests, needs and readiness.  Career teachers must take control of their own continued learning, funded by resources provided in their contracts.    To make lifelong learning exciting and effective, teachers must probe for themselves what is interesting and new; they must have the resources and money to quest for what is essential in their careers. They need to enjoy the search, take individualized and self-selected teams through their routes of professional development, engage actively in the experience, and schedule it when they are motivated to take an active role in the process of their own learning. 
      As suggested in the recent book by Sonia Nieto, What Keeps Teachers Going (2003), teachers take their intellectual work seriously.  She says, “Good teachers think deeply and often about the craft of teaching and the process of learning.  They are not simply technicians who know how to write good lesson plans and use collaborative groups effectively, although this too is part of what they do.  Above all, excellent teachers are engaged every day in intellectual work, the kind of serious undertaking that demands considerable attention and thought.”   Nieto quotes Henry Giroux (Giroux, 1988)  defining teachers as intellectuals in this way, “ ‘(I)n order to function as intellectuals, teachers must create the ideology and structural conditions necessary for them to write, research, and work with each other in producing curricula and sharing power….As intellectuals, they will combine reflection and action in the interest of empowering students…’ ”   The energy that comes when teachers work out a plan,  choose times and places to commit to a learning event, and  use their own learning budgets for carefully selected offerings and collaborations would change the quality of the inservice experience. Some districts have promoted such opportunities as a norm;   many have not.
     The responsibility for career inservice needs to be shared between management and teachers themselves.   Research by Deci and Ryan, (1986) indicated that when teachers were under more stress to deliver content, they passed the stress along to students.  Over time this stress could change energy levels,  the levels of  thinking skills, and the class learning climate negatively.  Teachers seeking longer-range goals and desiring students to tap into their own energies for engagement need the modeling of staff development experiences that promote those wisdoms and permissions.  One must believe anything a teacher may learn will sooner or later come to enrich the repertoire of that teacher.  There must be confidence that teachers love to learn and would continue to seek out more information and best practices through a variety of learning opportunities, were they operating in the norm of personal responsibility for improvement, affirmation of their own best practices, and fellowship with other teachers of different ages and stages of teaching expertise.
     Too often teachers are denied the opportunity to explore things of their own interest or priorities for professional advancement.  Sometimes they can’t get district approval for courses they might personally choose.  There is the implication that if they were to choose a course, it might be a “soft course,” instead of one pre-selected to address the imminent district focus on raising test scores.
     While there is  value in district-approved courses, the approach of constricting teacher choice or denying teachers the responsibility for mapping a life of on-going professional development eventually results in an abrogation of teacher responsibility for career enrichment and remediation.  The responsibility, the message goes, is that of the boards of education, of administration, of the state, of “staff development.” The are the designers; teachers are the receptacles.
     Some of the resulting offerings in staff development may even be planned, mandated and/or delivered in contradiction of best practices. The irony of this dilemma has results that can discredit the emerging information that teachers need and deserve. The implications of the gap between messages and the delivery system can cause cynicism and resistance.
      Brain-compatible learning theories imply that someone can have trouble processing rational information when negative emotions and physical exhaustion are involved.  Teachers may arrive unready for the density of rational information, and face rigorous lecture-style presentations, and assignments that are trivial or barely tangent to their own professional needs or timeliness.  Choices in course content, course activities, and methods of follow-through for assessment are often not available to the participants, whose instructor has committed to an hour-by-hour outline in order to get the course approved, prior to meeting with the participants.  Change of the focus, handouts, or assessment strategies are difficult to do once the course has been pre-approved by colleges or clock hour committees.    Teachers have come to expect a ground-covering event, for better or for worse.  They often sit passively, unable to co-create a worthwhile mutual learning experience.
     If there is a new buzz-word for the staff development focus in a district, building or nationwide, teachers regard it as “Now what?”  They can hardly be blamed.  Since the 1970’s, methodologies like “ITIP” have come to mean that teachers are evaluated on the basis of a new framework that is perceived as top-down, rigid,  and temporary.  It will come in like a lion and go out as a sheared lamb.  Regardless of the merit or value of the new term,  teachers begin to discount it  as yet another annual slogan.
     Then there is the dilemma of trying to delve into the areas of learning styles, differentiating instruction, thinking skills, and other complex learning theories through ten hour, one-credit reductionist short inservice presentations.  Through courses focusing on large framework topics with wide-ranging implications for application, teachers have come to believe they can come into a class on the topic, get their card punched, learn what it is and how to do it in a recipe-book fashion, and end by saying, “I already do that,” or “Specifically, what do I have to do to pass this course?”
     The answer to such a phenomenon might be to authorize teachers to take a course more than once, or to revisit a topic repeatedly, if it is of continuing value. I once attended a lecture by Madeline Hunter at Seattle Pacific University entitled “What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do.”  In the lecture, she was addressing those difficult times when a teacher would have an opportunity to decide on a supplemental plan, (needed because of something like a cancelled assembly, a bad weather day with only a few students, or a class coverage for someone else’s class until a substitute could arrive.) One of the memorable ideas she presented was to return to a favorite lesson that students have already done.  The value was obvious: student decision-making and fun; student increased motivation; and review for long-term retention.  We all could benefit from returning to a topic we have loved, a favorite lesson Responsibility for learning needs to shift from short course coverage to long term and repeated exploration of the topic, with teachers customizing their own timeline for revisiting a study.  (A teacher friend recently confided that a rigorous NOAA course on weather was so rich and valuable, she would love to be able to take it again to get even more out of it.)  Present norms might block such a practice.
     Instead, teachers need courses to introduce resources and topics for on-going learning;  they need money for subscriptions to professional magazines;  they need stipends for substitutes and tuition for local all-day courses by outstanding and inspiring presenters, along with a fine unstructured lunch.  They need opportunities to spend a day exploring  bookstores to find supplemental resources or to visit other schools and have an uninterrupted conversation with peers they would like to consult.  Why are these kinds of inservice staff development to rare?
     Gradually the responsibility for “keeping up” has shifted from teachers to their district leaders.  As school boards created more long-term goals for their districts, the target inservice topics for the year derived from the district goals or sometimes from the books studies or speakers attending school board and administrator retreats or conferences.  Dissemination of new concepts was successfully reaching the district levels before teachers were aware of the value of the information.  And so the perception of both administrators and teachers changed; teachers were not responsible to find out “what was up.”  They would hear about the latest model from the principal at the first day meetings when the district or building goals were announced.  It might be expected that goal-setting at the annual pre-conference should address a commitment to the new model, which should be seen in the classroom observations during the year. In addition, the standards movement in public education has also had a strong effect on the content of staff development offerings. Offerings in staff development constrict in scope and balance.  They tend to center on board-mandated and state-mandated standards. Sometimes choices for inservice require that teachers must get “permission” to take only the courses which a district will validate for salary advancement, or that states will recognize for certification or endorsement. 
     One more factor in the constriction of staff development is the tendency for business to design fix-it courses and recommendations for teachers.  The courses often include access to upscale technological equipment or high level math or science content.  Sometimes the pace of these courses is designed to move teachers forward “at the speed of business.”  Sometimes the influence of the business community results in a change in the school’s curriculum toward skills demanded by business skill considerations , with the unintended consequence that the arts and electives are dropped or marginalized.  It follows that courses for teachers in the electives and the arts may not be available or approved for staff development credit in a building or district.
     The responsibility for career inservice, the message goes, was the purview of the boards of education, of administration, of the state, of “staff development.” If wage increases and certification were to result from inservice training, then control of the process, it followed, should come from the source of the pay or certification.  Yet      anything a teacher might choose to learn could enhance the repertoire of that teacher.  And some of the most seemingly unrelated topics might come to help a teacher make unexpected connections and gain deeper understandings and insights.  While many of the staff development requirements were universally of value and helped provide a common vocabulary of the profession, when teachers are not players in the selection of courses,   the inevitable result could come to mean a significant shift in their receptivity to on-going learning during their careers. 
     There is another aspect of staff development which needs to be subjected to a reality check.  It is the fact that the school year itself offers little quality time or integrative opportunity for deep processing of new information or immediate application to the classroom schedule. Teachers are perpetually exhausted after school, need their evenings and weekends for balance and adult/family responsibilities, and have shorter and shorter summers.  To answer the time crunch, some inservice providers schedule ten hour marathon sessions, or all weekend sessions which may start on Friday night, and go all day Saturday and Sunday.   The implied message is that the passing of continuous long periods of time will somehow produce engagement and focus.  The likelihood is that teachers will regard the arrangement cynically, assume they will get the credit if they have paid for it and signed in for the class.  The experience is like an endurance game, and flies in the face of best practices for any age of learner. 
     So how can staff development be re-normed?  How can the locus of control for a lifetime of intellectual work be re-centered in the professionals themselves, with staff development work derived from investments by the teachers choosing from their own career needs and hungers?
     So what might be on a list of potent models that might re-energize the process of on-going learning for nurturing great teachers? Some of these are based on personal best experiences; some come from colleagues, contributing their own thoughts about  best experiences of  their professional careers.

1- Increase grants modeled on the National Defense Education format from the Lyndon Johnson years.  Teachers were awarded summer institutes with time out for several weeks of study on college campuses in a cohort model to study content and process issues of complex models.  Participants had to apply for the programs, and were reimbursed for travel to the site, paid for room, board, and materials, received a modest summer pay to participate, and sometimes were offered a follow-up visit in a year or two with instructors or cohort partners.
     2-  Presentations by authors, Teachers of the Year, true heroes of education or other fields, visiting in a comfortable setting without requirements of the participants except to meet and talk with the presenter.  (Teachers enjoy insider status with famous and admired people.)
     3- Learning in an International Baccalaureate format with travel to an off-site location (particularly a culturally interesting site), with a collegial group; with school visits a possibility during the conference; with lightly structured dialogue with other practitioners; and sharing the debrief with interested colleagues.
     4- “Insider” looks at business and community resources in which the hosts are not in an advisory or “fix-it” relationship to educators, perhaps with attendance at a business conference with new products and motivating speakers.
     5- All-day workshops with menus of choices within time periods. Adequate breaks for talking with presenters, transitions between sessions; seeing interesting peers and materials; lunches that are not stressful by overloading the podium with many speakers.

     6- After school theater events, with popcorn and screening of interesting educational videos, perhaps selected by rotating volunteer attendees.  
     7- Customized Work Plans to allow independent study with experienced practitioners for mentors.  These courses designed by individuals, teams or whole staff groups, might include topics revolving around classroom action research.
     8- Retaking courses for further review and processing (“It was very hard, but a wonderful course;  I got a lot out of it, but I wish I could take it again.”  Or, “I took it a long time ago, and wish I could see what I would get out of it now.”)
     9- Courses involving trips outside an academic setting (into the “real world”) for new perspectives, for community awareness.  (An opening day staff development workshop once involved loading the faculty onto a school bus around the residential and commercial area and to all the elementary feeder schools of  a junior high.  It was an eye-opener to see the contrasts within the concentric residency area.)
     10- A budget allowance for each teacher to spend on his/her own choice for staff development opportunities each year.  If unused, the money might disappear OR might be accumulated for a sabbatical or more extensive and expensive larger experience.  A return of the opportunity for a sabbatical within one’s career or several times during one’s career might be the ultimate meaningful inservice learning experience.
     To convince teachers that all learners come with their own needs and readiness, we need to model the same through staff development experiences. Teachers who have had an excellent learning experience tell others and encourage one another to spend their own precious resources of time and money in similar ways.  The results of revitalizing the norms of staff development can bring a return of energy, enthusiasm and professionalism to those whose life work is dedicated to the intellectual arts. 

References
Deci, Edward L. with Richard Flaste, (1995). Why We Do What We Do:  Understanding
     Self-Motivation. New York: Penguin Books.
Deci, Edward L. (1986, March). Motivating Children to Learn:  What You Can Do.
     Learning86, 14 (7), 42-44                                   
Glasser, William, M.D. (1999). Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom.                                                     
     New York: HarperPerennial.
Hunter, Madeline (19xx). Speech presented at Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA.
Nieto, Sonia. (2003). What Keeps Teachers Going? New York: Teachers College,
  Columbia University, 76