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Teachers & Teaching        < Previous        Next >


Staff Development


Q. The world is changing so fast. How are we helping teachers cope with it all?


It's no surprise that in the education business, continuing education for the workers is a priority. Teachers are taking summer courses, online courses, going to workshops and conferences, watching videotapes of high-performance classrooms, reading (and writing!) books, and doing all kinds of things to promote their professional development as teachers.


It may not always get the money and attention that staff development professionals would like, but professional growth for school staffs is well-supported by the vast majority of school districts.


Here are some of the key concepts:


Learning communities. The "hot" new buzzword is "collaboration." We used to call this process "team teaching." But with a learning community, educators go beyond just sharing their lesson plans and talking over how to deal with classroom problems. Proponents say that the improvements that come out of these collaborations are much better than what individual teachers could come up with on their own; others are skeptical that group effort is not always as good as individual innovation. There's also a fear of the "lemmings" effect, of educators meeting in a group who fall for the "fad du jour" out of peer pressure. If you all stand together, after all, you all fall together, too. However, this trend is continuing. Some schools start classes a half-hour late one day a week so that teachers can meet in their learning communities.


Data-driven decision-making. The days of gut instincts and hunches in education are over. We gave educators all those computers; didn't we want them to use them? But staff development is getting a better reputation thanks to programs and workshops that are designed to directly affect student results. Evaluation of effectiveness is much more convincing when it comes in the form of measurable data, not just educator comments like "I think it works." This is good, because the old style of staff development centered on bringing in charismatic outside speakers to "fire up" the educators, driving new school practices which promptly peter out, because it was the energy of the speaker, not the effectiveness of the speaker's proposed changes, which caused the change. With hard data at the root of every change, teachers are far less likely to be swayed by charlatans or jump on the wrong bandwagon.


Learning to evaluate education research more critically. Not too long ago, teachers didn't often realize the difference between opinion in a "report" or "study," and bona fide empirical results based on solid research practices. Now they are learning to discern what is reliable and valid evidence vs. what is anecdotal or agenda-driven. Also in the olden days, teachers would read a magazine article and then spout pop psychology in their classrooms, changing the traditional methods of academic delivery because they "read somewhere" that children need self-esteem first, and academics second. Well, sometimes, those magazine articles are right, but lots and lots of times, they are dead wrong. If staff development can help teachers tell between schlock and scientifically-sound research, so much the better. Education research also has been subject to "hot-housing" in the past - setting up a control group of students who are likely to succeed, trying out a new educational practice with them, and spending lots of money and time on them - and then lo and behold! Great results! But these "hot-housed" results don't hold up in the real world. That's how many districts were hornswoggled into year-round education, multi-age grouping and other recent educational fads. When they fail or produce only so-so results, then parents and taxpayers get mad at the local educators. They could have avoided that loss of precious credibility by being savvier consumers of educational "advice." Thankfully, with better staff development these days, educators are learning to spot that kind of baloney before they throw it at our kids.


Homework: See the website of the National Staff Development Council,


By Susan Darst Williams Teachers 12 2008

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