Professional development days good for teachers, and students

April 14, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

You look at the district calendar and see a staff development day on the schedule – again. Why is there another day off? you wonder.

Before you get frustrated about how it will wreak havoc on your own schedule, it helps to understand why these days are part of every district’s yearly calendar.

School districts plan professional development days during the school year for two reasons:

  1. They are required by the New York State Education Department (NYSED); and,
  2. Ongoing professional development keeps teachers up-to-date on new research about how children learn, emerging technology tools for the classroom, new curriculum resources and more.

“We should all be lifelong learners,” said Stephen Tomlinson, superintendent of schools at Broadalbin-Perth Central School District. “Even as educators who devote our life to teaching others, we should continue to learn.”

Research shows that teacher quality is the single most powerful influence on a student’s achievement. According to NYSED, “it is essential to ensure that teachers are provided with ongoing, high quality professional development to sustain and enhance their practice.”

Educators agree professional development is an essential element in an ongoing, comprehensive school improvement plan.

The best professional development is collaborative, experiential and research- and data-based, said Stacia Snow, social studies teacher and lead outreach facilitator at Tech Valley High School. “We look at where the students are now and what research says is the best way to help them grow.”

Tomlinson said he understands parents may sometimes feel frustrated when their children have days off from school beyond typical vacation days. Yet, he said, “the world of education and the manner in which we educate our kids is evolving so rapidly that it’s really important for the teachers to stay on top of their game, especially with Common Core.”

Fayetteville-Manlius Superintendent Corliss Kaiser agreed.

“Professional development is one of the most important aspects of success in our district. Things are changing rapidly around us, and we help our staff to stay abreast of the changes,” she said via email.

Multiple purposes

Districts may use professional development days to review state-mandated material such as anti-bullying training or Hazard Communication (HazCom) training, which ensures that employees have access to information on the chemicals they use in the workplace. They may choose to use the time to share information on new technology rolling out in the district or to build staff culture and the culture of a school.

Most importantly, school officials say that, as in any profession, these work days enable staff to refine their skills and collaborate with colleagues.

“We find that project-based learning is a great hook for a lot of kids, so we spend time getting better at it. We look at how we can increase relevancy for students and engage disengaged learners,” said Snow.

Staff members at Fayetteville-Manlius are exploring differentiated learning and project-based learning. Kaiser said the district focuses on curriculum and instruction and how to include all children – regardless of learning style – in each lesson. “To do that, we must have current curriculum that provides rigor and differentiation, as well as providing lessons which engage students,” said Kaiser.

“Our teachers collaborate frequently and learn from each other. Teachers attend seminars and conferences and bring back ideas to share with their peers on a regular basis,” said Kaiser.

It’s the kind of work that is best done outside the classroom, rather than while teaching students, educators say.

“Just as you have to prepare before you go to a meeting, teachers need time without students to actually develop the work we need to do in the classroom,” said Snow. “It’s critical to have the time. Otherwise, it would be like trying to build the airplane while you’re flying it.”

Snow said professional development in the past has been less interactive. “Someone comes in and drops a new idea on teachers and they’re expected to implement with little support or follow-up.”

The model is changing, she said, as school districts are more inclined to identify a strategic plan and ask themselves: “What do we want a graduate to look like from this school, and how do we create a curriculum that builds that? That takes time and support.”

Professional development by design

At Burnt-Hills-Ballston Lake School District, staff development days fall into four different categories: building, departmental, district-wide, and “teacher design,” which includes teacher-proposed programs that improve professional practice and/or student learning.

“Hundreds of projects are submitted for teacher design day. It could be interdisciplinary, or across grade levels,” said Kate Gurley, K-12 department director for English and reading, and professional development coordinator. “Staff development days allow teachers time to improve their professional practice. It allows them to be learners, to grow and reflect on methodologies, and to make changes.”

Gurley said her district puts significant time into planning the professional development day schedule on the calendar. “We try to make sure we take into account all constituent groups,” she said.

For example, half days fall on different days of the week, taking into consideration working parents who have to juggle child care and to ensure elementary students don’t miss the same “special” (i.e., art, music, gym, etc.) each time.

Tomlinson said he understands that some parents believe teachers could take care of professional development during the summer months. However, he said, “Do I want my second grade daughter to wait six months for her teacher to get that training?”

Tomlinson said you wouldn’t want to take your car to a mechanic, only to learn after the fact that the mechanic wasn’t up to speed on new developments in auto technology.

“Like that person taking his car to the garage with confidence that the best work is being done on that car, it’s similar with school. We have one shot at educating our kids, and we want to do the best job we can for them,” said Tomlinson. “That’s the best investment we can make.”

Read more on state regulations regarding professional development on the NYSED website.

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