Rachel Beerman teaches 7th grade American History at a middle school in Brooklyn. Previously she taught at an Expeditionary Learning K-8 school in Buffalo, New York. This will be her 8th year as a classroom teacher.
One of the most important and innovative movements in education right now is differentiation. Teachers, administrators, and the larger community are coming to recognize that, lo and behold, not everyone is the same, nor do they learn the same way. By using differentiation, students are able to access their learning in a way that maximizes their individual strengths and focuses on their specific areas of need. One area of education, however, that has yet to embrace differentiation is in the professional development of its teachers.
I have been in the classroom for 7 years, teaching American history for the last three at a middle school in Brooklyn, NY. I firmly believe, based on my own experiences as an educator, that professional development is inherently a good thing, and having all school participants share and learn from a common experience can be valuable. Unfortunately, I have found that PD sessions can also become either a throw away requirement for both teachers and schools or something that is lacking in true innovation. Listening to an expert lecture for an hour and a half after a long school day isn’t fair, either to the lecturer or to the teachers. Too often teachers feel like they would rather be in their rooms grading papers, rather than actively or, more often than not, passively participating in a professional development “PD” session they feel doesn’t match their needs or interests.
My experiences have taught me that professional development should include opportunities where teachers can gather with colleagues and other professionals to develop the areas where they are excited to grow. I imagine an education world where professional development is a combination of selections of sessions based on personal interest and workshop time to implement and try out what we are learning. Choice and workshop time exist in education, but it is often only at the larger regional and national conferences. These models for professional development should be replicated at the individual school level. Individual teachers of a school are just as varied in their interests and needs for growth as are larger groups of educators. For example, I would love PD time to work with collegues around creating an interdisciplinary unit, while my collegue is interested in learning how to teach debate. A professional development culture that embraces teachers' inherent interest in personal growth would be ideal.
I believe there are two factors that have impeded true differentiation for teachers at the individual school level.
Problem 1: Time
It is easier to have one PD session for the whole faculty than to put together a series of evolving and changing sessions that match a variety of needs and interests.
Solution: The time needed to create more comprehensive and personalized professional development will, in actuality, promote educational institutions where teachers feel like respected professionals. It is hard to imagine that this shift won’t have a positive impact on student learning and teacher retention, both critical issues in education which take increasing amounts of time. In other words, there's no trick to cut down on the time, but it’s worth the investment, because the benefits will be so much greater than in the current approach.
Problem 2: Fear
The trend in education is to show that we are all in lock step, following one educational initiative that we assume will solve a problem such as low student achievement.
Solution: Not having a single answer is not to be feared, because in reality there are multiple ways to achieve our larger goals in education. Accepting this truth about the way humans learn will minimize the need for a lock step mentality and suggests a vital and dynamic approach where educators come together to address education’s successes and struggles and make purposeful change in their own classrooms and schools.
In the end, we have to provide for our teachers what we seek to provide for our students: a learning environment where we are respected for our differences and our interest in self improvement. A shift away from simply meeting professional development quotas and toward small, varied collaborative professional development opportunities will allow not only for personal growth for our educators but also for the growth of those around them, including, most importantly, our students.
Note: This is the second in a series of guests post I hope to continue, highlighting the voices of some of my favorite teacher friends. The first one was Interview with Kita Grinberg on Teaching Yoga To High School Students.