Focus on Process
It's spring, and that means schools and school districts are planning their professional development trainings for next year. It is easy to schedule a workshop and hire a presenter. It is far more difficult to have that workshop serve as a vital part of a long-term process of professional development.
Long-term success depends on decisions made by administrators before the workshop occurs. Administrators that get results focus on process from the outset.
Here are some considerations that have proved to be critical during 40 years of collaboration with school districts across the country. They may help to shape your thinking.
Reducing the Risk of Change
Effective professional development produces personal growth. Yet, personal growth can be challenging – particularly when it involves changing old and familiar patterns of behavior. It requires continuing effort and support over time. When beginning a program of professional growth, it is helpful to view the process through the trainee's eyes.
Professional Growth is Intimate and Personal. Most people will not risk change unless someone they know and trust is already succeeding and will help them as they try to master new skills.
Change is Risk. You cannot trust some innovation that you have not yet mastered. Old and familiar ways of doing things are safe. The willingness to risk trying something new will rest largely upon a person’s trust in the network of support that accompanies his or her attempts to change.
Change is Difficult. Learning any new skill requires effort. It happens neither quickly nor easily. Nor, does it always go right the first time.
Change is Disruptive. Things usually get worse before they get better. As old ways of doing things are altered, there is predictable awkwardness and loss of both comfort and confidence.
Change Must Survive the Critical Period. If, with help from a support network, a colleague persists in using a new skill, integration and comfort will be achieved at a higher level of functioning. Without adequate support, however, that teacher may well attribute the loss of comfort to the new skill and conclude that “It doesn't work for me.”
To put it simply, training is the easy part of effective professional development, even though it takes more time than we have traditionally given it. The hard part of professional development is follow-through. Follow-through requires organizational change to support personal change.
The Principal’s Role
The principal is the key decision maker for training and follow-through at the school site. Tactical decisions that are made before training begins often determine it's ultimate success or failure. Here are some key tactical decisions:
Principal Participation: The principal determines whether professional development will be on the front burner or the back burner. If professional development is not on the principal's front burner, it will not happen. Principals, therefore, must be advocates. Giving permission is not enough. They must provide time for training, protect it from being cross-scheduled, and participate so they are as knowledgeable as their teachers.
School Site Focus: Training is best done by a team of mentor quality teachers at each school site. Not only will they draw colleagues into training by word-of-mouth as they use the program in their classrooms, but they will also be close at hand to problem solve with trainees. If a trainee has difficulty with a new procedure, they either get help quickly from a friend, or they are likely to dump it. Consequently, school site training teams serve one of their most important functions during follow-through.
Build on Strength: The most willing and able teachers should be trained first. Often they become co-trainers, thereby expanding the school site training team. In addition, their success should be shared with the faculty so that more hesitant colleagues say, "Well, if it can help them, I guess it can help me too." While well intentioned, the decision to train the most needy teachers first can reduce faculty buy-in by stigmatizing the program as remedial.
Make Training Voluntary: Changing habits is never easy. Teachers must want to change. They must focus on new ways of doing things every day, and this requires a high degree of motivation. Mandating that teachers participate usually backfires. It is better to create a critical mass of success with strong teachers, and then wait for colleagues to be drawn to the program. Occasionally, however, especially at a fairly small school site, the faculty as a whole may vote to do the program which sweeps nay-sayers along with little resistance.
Start Slow, Go Slow: One of the hardest things for administrators and school board members to do once an effective program demonstrates its merit is to slow down. "Let's train everyone in the district" is usually a call to disaster with volunteerism being the first casualty. Successful training requires patience. Haste preempts the systematic process of training and team building that allows a program to gain strength as teachers achieve genuine mastery.
Train and Retrain: Our tradition in professional development is to train teachers in one program and then move on to the next program never looking back. Yet, we know that skills are built slowly and incrementally. Teachers pass through predictable stages on the road to mastery which might be characterized as, 1) What is it? 2) How does it work? and 3) How do the pieces fit together? Genuine mastery requires that teachers be trained repeatedly.
Focus on Follow-Through: Think of successful professional development at a school site as being a 3-5 year process. While some teachers succeed beautifully from the beginning, most will need more time to internalize new skills, break old habits and iron out wrinkles in classroom application. Build a process of growth and change, and let that process provide integration of new learning over time. Structure for that process is described below.
The Study Group Activity Guide
The process of growth and change can seem daunting to an administrator whose time is already overcommitted. You need some help.
Tools for Teaching is more than a plan for classroom management. It is also a plan for school site and district implementation. The resources needed to make it happen are ready to go.
This plan is laid out in the Study Group Activity Guide – a free download here. It structures the organization of Professional Learning Communities at each school site and provides a coaching process for skill mastery and problem solving that can stay vital for years with a minimum of administrative input.