When seeing “Teacher In-Service Day” on the calendar, a typical first reaction for a teacher is, “Well, there goes a day of instruction and getting any work done.” Why is this? There are probably many reasons, but I think the biggest is because many in-services are typically a wolf in sheep’s clothing (and everyone knows it’s still a wolf). In-services should not be repetitive and boring, one-size-fits-all, and just something to check off because it ends in a printable certificate. Nor should professional development (PD) occur in a drive-by, one-and-done, passive “sit and get” atmosphere. At best, these experiences might fuel teachers for a day, but none truly develops teachers or provides long-term value in their growth as professionals, which ultimately would translate into improved student outcomes.
Characteristics of Powerful PD Experiences
In high school, I took a field trip with my biology class to a local beach area. I was distracted by the visual stimulation all around me and was staring at the sand beneath my toes, so very thankful to not be back in the classroom at school. Suddenly, my foot landed right next to a creature I had only ever heard about and never seen in person: a seahorse! I interrupted the teacher’s talk and he had our class circle up and stand amazed at this find, which we knew was a rarity. As the day continued, I held that little thing so carefully in my hands to protect it, knowing how special it was. Now, many years later, every time I go to the beach with my own kids, we comb it with the hopes of finding another seahorse, or something equally uncommon. I now am hooked—I experienced something rare that has left me wanting more.
I would suggest that when it comes to PD, the rare experience that truly grows teachers does much the same thing. It leaves them not only wanting more of the same but also hungry to put what they’re learning into practice to benefit their students. Along these lines, and in remembrance of my experience on the beach so many years ago, I use the acronym R.A.R.E to describe the characteristics of powerful PD experiences.
“R” is for Relevant
According to Jack Zenger, CEO of Zenger Folkman, one of the eight specific competencies effective leaders carry is that of developing people. Odds are, the overwhelming majority of us are in education because we believe in the process of living life-on-life with others in a way that develops, influences, and molds them. Charged with managing a group of like-minded individuals, each of whom is passionate about education, isn’t the best way to develop each one of them individually (as we expect our teachers do with students)? Caring for our faculty and staff emotionally with love is, of course, necessary, but we must be following through on our responsibility to truly develop them in a way relevant to the reason they have been hired.
What is Relevant to Each Teacher?
Certainly, teachers desire to find success with each of their students. Creating professional development workshops that provide discovery of instructional strategies, how to use data to inform instruction, nurturing critical thinking, questioning techniques, short-medium-long range planning, cross-curricular integration, and experiential learning (just to name a few) serve to meet teachers where they are and immediately impact their pedagogy.
But relevant PD experiences do more than just provide relevant content for teachers. At Delmarva Christian, we always incorporate three things in every experience to ensure its relevance for teachers:
- A focus on pedagogical technique;
- A focus on an element of school culture; and
- Providing a takeaway that teachers can immediately apply to their classrooms.
Within PD workshops, we use a variety of effective instructional strategies, or teacher pedagogy, to model and communicate information. This helps teachers to not only think about their own teaching, but also how mentorship could shape the school culture in positive ways. Finally, we use activities like placemats (Seven Minute Scientist) and protocols adapted from National School Reform to help teachers engage commentary and readings, which then inform their developing the takeaways for their own classrooms.
“A” is for Assessed
Just as teachers gather feedback on student learning (through formal and informal assessments, resources, and student/parent input) to improve their instruction, so too must leaders responsible for PD. At Delmarva Christian, we believe there are two principles for effective assessment of PD:
- Good decisions about PD are based in data. Before, during, and after PD, leaders have many opportunities to gather data for each employee. Formal and informal observations provide glimpses into specific pedagogical strengths and weaknesses. With the conclusion of each course, parents and students can be offered a survey to complete to submit feedback about the teacher and course material. At the end of each school year, teachers can complete self-evaluations that ask them to reflect upon their own strengths, weaknesses, and growth. Lastly, establishing personal and professional goals via conferences in the beginning of each year is strategic. Each of these will produce data that will reveal patterns of strengths and weaknesses, both of which can be utilized to formulate your PD topics and pedagogy.
- The participation levels of those involved in PD should be assessed. When students know that content will be tested, their engagement increases. It is part of our nature. Something about an assessment pronounces the level of attached importance. I am, of course, not suggesting PD participants receive an assessment at the completion of a series of workshops, but I am suggesting it is our responsibility to find ways to measure the impact that series had not only on your teachers, but most importantly, also on your students and the school culture. At Delmarva Christian, we build assessment into our ongoing PD experiences. One example of creative assessment is during each of my workshops, I place participants in a group in which they will stay for the remainder of the semester. At the completion of the series, each group must give a presentation that summarizes the series. A rubric is distributed and time throughout the series is offered for them to work on their presentations. A second example happens during collaborative group discussions; the remaining 20 minutes of each workshop is reserved for the collaborative group to meet, not just to discuss their impending presentations, but also to reflect on the content shared for that day. These discussions move the content from theory to practicality and serve as collegial time that builds relationships and relevancy.
“R” is for Responsive
Over the course of time, an educator witnesses firsthand the ever-changing nature of our society. As the family structure is threatened, technological innovations occur, and priorities seem to shift, our schools are directly impacted. The culture of the school is tempted to mimic that of the society and the learning process itself is altered.
For example, one cannot possibly be in education and not realize that the very existence of truth is being second-guessed by this current generation. The postmodern movement suggests there is neither absolute truth nor definite terms or boundaries (All About GOD Ministries). But at the heart of education is the very idea that truth exists in math, literature, and science, and history reveals this. In response to this, Delmarva chose “Awakened by Truth” as our annual theme. This theme then becomes the cotter pin for our chapels, classrooms, PD experiences, and major events. In response to this philosophical mindset, our fall PD workshops that year looked at the concept of critical thinking and its role in the awakening process. The spring brought questioning techniques and the art of drawing and supporting conclusions.
Building a series of workshops that are not only relevant to the teachers through a variety of assessments, but also that respond to the needs of our students, is one of the most important aspects that maintain the alignment between PD and the overall mission of the school.
“E” is for Engaging
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupér
The high school biology teacher who took me on that field trip was my favorite teacher in all of my years being schooled. Dr. Bartley knew that it was about the experience he created, not necessarily the content. In fact, creating just the right experience can often lead to the discovery of bigger ideas and the retention and/or application of knowledge. How we choose to engage students either opens or closes the mind to learning.
So, why do we treat adults any differently? To step onto my soapbox for a minute, I have been to way too many lectures about the power of cooperative or collaborative learning, differentiation, or discovery-based education. Adhering to the same expectations we have of our teachers, we must build experiences in our workshops that engage. We should be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage. Using the very strategies proven to increase student engagement in our own PD is a great way to capitalize on the knowledge and wisdom already in the room. While some may debate this, I believe that the collective intelligence gained through the total years of teachers’ experience is greater than the individual’s intelligence presenting at the workshop. To engage each participant and take advantage of that collective intelligence, collaborative experiences—rather than lecture formats—are more effective.
In addition to engaged PD experiences, natural engagement will happen when an overall school culture of ongoing learning—not just for students, but employees as well—is established. Experiences that are relevant, assessment-driven, responsive to student and cultural needs, and engaging will not just set an expectation of what working in your school will be like, but more importantly, set afire a desire for personal growth.
The rarity of that seahorse is what made me cherish it and pass on the journey of discovering to others. May we seek to provide R.A.R.E. experiences for our teachers and staff, and may your professional development be something others cherish.
[Editor’s Note: Matt Kwiatkowski served on the design team for ACSI’s upcoming Flourishing Schools Institute, a dynamic and collaborative PD experience for leadership teams, coming up on June 16-18, 2021 in Dallas and November 1-3, 2021 in Orlando].
About the Author
Matt Kwiatkowski is the Head of School at Delmarva Christian Schools (K-12) in Georgetown, DE. Matt has spent 25 years in both public and private education teaching and leading in elementary, middle, and high schools in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Matt is passionate about professional development and curriculum alignment that seeks to directly impact students. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: This article was originally posted in February 2018 and republished in March 2021 to continue this important conversation.