Professional development often fails to help teachers prepare to succeed with new teaching strategies. A risk of failure creates anxiety, and resistance is a by-product of this anxiety. Time constraints make it difficult for professional development (PD) to help teachers meet a readiness threshold for trying something new. Nevertheless, professional development should offer a reasonable assurance of success.
While trying to find more time and resources for PD, we must find ways to be more effective within the system we have. In the brief time available, we have to solve the problem of failing to transfer new teacher learning to the classroom. Then we can focus on building a system that supports this transfer.
There is always risk trying new strategies, so there will always be a need for a little push. But we need teacher buy-in. You cannot force the best of our creative spirit, and our best ideas are needed to continually adapt and solve problems of teaching and learning. Risk has to be reduced to a level sufficient to create individual willingness, which will become a collective willingness.
There are very specific PD activities that increase the impact on teacher readiness and new strategy implementation:
1. Get the creative ink flowing: Teachers must be able to design and adapt their way to increased achievement. Exacerbated by time constraints, micro-level design feels creepy to teachers because, while being imperfect and ambiguous, it demands specificity and clarity. But like the imperfect experience of learning to ride a bike, teachers need to experience the imperfect ride of the creative process. The status quo hides in the shadow of ambiguity - process cycles from ambiguity to clarity, from shadow to light, are the cycles of improvement.
2. Coaching: A critical moment in improvement happens when the creative ink begins to flow for the first time. New questions arise from a new level of specificity. You need adequate shoulder-to-shoulder coaching to respond to the demand for answers from an initial spike in questions. This support is needed to maintain a sense of achievability. If teachers stay stuck and unsupported too long, they can naturally decide it is unachievable and not worth the effort. The cost of losing teachers here is greater than the cost of keeping them in the first place.
3. Collaboration: Coaching transitions to collaboration. Teachers must be able to share rich ideas and experience as they create and learn from each other. This collaborative wisdom is required to meet time demands as ideas and materials move through revisions more quickly compared to ideas processed in isolation. These groups must be more than just PLC’s; they have to quickly produce quality classroom-ready materials that increase a teacher’s belief that they are doing the right thing to teach their content to students, and that they are ready to succeed when they try.
4. Creating materials of practice: Teachers must quickly modify and adapt materials to increase achievement for mainstream, ELL, and SPED students. During design and planning, both materials and the process by which they are created influence a teacher’s readiness for reform. As teachers brainstorm and share ideas about materials, they individually test and fit new ideas. As materials take form and begin to define instruction, teachers develop a sense of predictability and control for trying new strategies. Teachers begin to feel ready. Failing to provide this opportunity to plan and adapt is failing to create a sense of readiness and stability for new teaching. Design helps clarify instruction and separate important from unimportant content. Research-based strategies look like something during moments of instruction in the classroom. These moments need planned. During instruction, materials help facilitate research-based, reading, and writing strategies, often simultaneously; and materials provide data for clear and immediate student feedback. In classrooms, written materials provide students opportunity to clarify and align ideas to objectives, and help students develop and articulate learning. After instruction, students have an historical record of their learning to study, build, and revise. Teachers have powerful evidence of teaching and learning to share with all stakeholders, and they have evidence for analysis.
5. Designing for analysis: A new level of clarity and purpose is achieved in the design phase if teachers know they are preparing to analyze student work samples after materials are used. During instruction, teachers observe with a more critical eye what is working and what isn’t. After instruction, the stage is set for a collaborative analysis of student work. More is reveled, revisions are made, and reform continues as teachers learn from practice around materials of practice.
6. Designing quality beginnings: It is easy to become overwhelmed with the many ideas and demands about school improvement. To make things more manageable, we need to focus on teaching leverage points. One leverage point for improving teaching is improving the beginning of a lesson or reading assignment. Small changes here can produce big results. By connecting new information immediately to the student, and injecting rich ideas at the very beginning of a lesson, all remaining time and effort spent on the topic are positively affected.
Another way to view quality beginnings is choosing how you are going to begin with people. We make choices about the actions we take based in part on whether or not something looks and feels achievable. We should look for more time to prepare teachers for change; meanwhile, we can begin classroom-focused PD activities that help teachers prepare and produce classroom results. Better teaching has a definite look in the classroom.
Achievement: We need to design it, use it, and analyze it within the system we have.