Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

Buying Time for Teachers' Professional Development

Every other Thursday morning for the past two years, a group of middle school math teachers have battled rush-hour traffic to get to class on time—not to teach but to learn. They are participating in the Middle School Math Project at Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, Massachusetts.
Recognizing that traditional professional development programs require teachers to rush to workshops after a full day of teaching, or on weekends, this project allows teachers the “luxury” of learning during their regular workday. Teachers, like all professionals, need time to reflect on their work and acquire new knowledge and skills. Yet, what program or school district, especially in today's economic climate, could possibly afford to pay for substitutes every other Thursday morning throughout the school year? The answer is both surprising and exciting: no one paid a penny for substitutes while 32 teachers participated in an innovative professional development program at EDC. Instead, in a unique partnership with industry, this project borrowed not only the concept of “on-the-job” training, but also industry employees themselves.

The Idea Is Born

In 1988, on leave from teaching, one of us (the project director) worked at the Polaroid Corporation designing a teacher internship program. Employees within the company—particularly those with strong mathematics and science backgrounds—wanted to know more about schools and often expressed a desire to teach. Interestingly, some talked about teaching as a potential career when they neared retirement.
That same year, while at EDC designing a staff development program for middle school mathematics teachers, we examined the literature on successful staff development and teacher learning that pointed to the critical importance of frequent, intensive sessions (Stallings 1989). Treating teachers as professionals who are responsible for their own learning was also central to our vision of staff development (Joyce and Showers 1988, Loucks-Horsley et al. 1987). In our struggle to design an affordable program that reflected these tenets, the enthusiastic, talented Polaroid employees who were interested in teaching came to mind. Thus was born the central component of the project: bringing in industry personnel to serve as classroom substitutes while teachers participated in professional development during their regular workday.
Although buying time for teachers to attend seminars was the primary goal of the industry element of the project, there were secondary goals as well. Project planners hoped that the presence of industry volunteers in the classroom would (1) offer students tangible evidence of the importance of mathematics in the work world and (2) provide role models of women and people of color in mathematics careers. In addition, we hoped that by spending time in schools and teaching students, industry volunteers would gain a valuable perspective on the needs, demands, and rewards of teaching and learning in today's schools.

The Industry Program

The next step was to sell the plan to local industries. Project staff held an initial meeting with several area corporations, many of which had already established partnerships with schools. This project, however, requested a different type of funding from the usual capital outlay: we were asking for their employees' time. Industry representatives subsequently told us that two features of the project were particularly appealing. First, the venture responded to the pressing reality of industry downsizing by supporting potential employee transitions into teaching. By allowing employees to teach on a regular basis, the program would provide a valuable testing ground for those considering a career change. Second, employees would have an opportunity to develop the skills of speaking and teaching in front of large groups. Most of the managers we spoke with mentioned the importance of teaching skills in their jobs and recognized the benefits of these opportunities for their employees.
Three corporations—the Polaroid Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation, and New England Telephone—eventually adopted the project, which recently completed its second year. (A continuation of this project, involving math teachers of grades 4–12, is currently under way at EDC, using the same industry replacement model.) Each year the response to our request for volunteers was extremely positive. In the second year, this was due largely to the enthusiastic reports of the first-year participants.
During the summer, before each yearly seminar series, we advertise the project through employee newsletters, electronic mail, or magazines. At each prospective site, we explain the program's goals and needs at informational meetings and conduct interviews with interested candidates. We look for participants with degrees in mathematics, science, or engineering who have experience working with adolescents and who can give students examples of how they use mathematics and science in their jobs. In addition, we look for volunteers who will be supportive of teachers and who have a flexible working style, a sense of humor, and patience with students. To explore their ability to survive in middle school classrooms, we pose a classroom dilemma: “If you observed a student cheating in your class, how would you react?”
Once chosen, industry personnel are matched to schools. Some individuals wish to be placed in schools close to their work or home, and some of the industries request the placement of their employees in towns where they have facilities. We give a great deal of thought to placing minority volunteers, since they will be powerful role models for minority students.
During two days of orientation, industry participants learn about the historical development of middle schools, the importance of teachers in the lives of adolescents, and other issues, including discipline and positive expectations in the classroom. It is essential for participants to learn about the culture of schools, which proves to be a dramatic departure from their workplaces. In addition, volunteers have opportunities to observe their teacher partners in the classroom before they begin teaching on their own.

The Professional Development Program

The success of the industry classroom replacement model depends not only on the competence and preparation of the industry volunteers, but also on the quality of the actual program for teachers. Teachers, in general, are reluctant to leave their classrooms in the hands of strangers, especially strangers who have little teacher training. We also know that teachers will not give up a substantial amount of time with their students unless they feel the outside experience is worthwhile and meaningful to their teaching.
Twice a month, teachers meet for half-day workshops at EDC in a supportive context of professional sharing, risk-taking, and reflection. The focus is on improving the mathematics performance of low-achieving middle school students. Like their students, teachers need time to engage in new ideas and approaches, reflect on their own learning, systematically examine their practice, and explore applications of what they are learning (Schon 1983). Throughout the workshops, the teachers are active learners, examining exemplary materials, manipulatives, and learning tools. They acquire new knowledge of mathematics, explore the research on how students learn mathematics, and develop expertise with new instructional strategies and assessment techniques.
During the second half of the school year, as teachers are trying new approaches and materials in their classrooms, EDC staff members visit the classrooms to provide feedback and coaching. In addition, summer school classes provide a laboratory for teachers to try out new materials and strategies and to team-teach with colleagues from the project.

Project Participants Speak

As part of the project, Education Matters, Inc., conducted an independent evaluation study. To assess the project's industry component, we interviewed teachers and gave questionnaires to industry volunteers and students. According to our data analysis, most of the teachers believe that their students are benefiting from the learning experiences provided by their industry partners. They also believe that their students will profit in the future from what their teachers are learning in the seminars.
Nonetheless, the use of industry volunteers as teachers is not without problems. Some volunteers reported that their managers, while initially supportive, were not enthusiastic about their continued absences as the year progressed. New job assignments sometimes moved people out of the area and forced them to leave the project. Others asked to leave because of time demands or discipline problems. Fortunately, we had chosen alternate volunteers who were able to take over classes when necessary.
During the project's second year, we assigned two volunteers to each classroom to minimize discipline problems and increase classroom coverage. We also invited veteran industry participants to talk to new volunteers about their experiences, especially about classroom discipline.
Problems aside, our research shows that most students do indeed benefit from their experiences with the industry volunteers. Although they generally followed lesson plans left by the teachers, many of the industry volunteers, with encouragement from their teacher partners, taught lessons based on their own work. For example, a volunteer from Polaroid demonstrated how the color process in film works. One of her students wrote, “I never really thought math had much to do with real-life situations. Now I realize it does!” Another wrote, “The thing that stands out most is that I knew whatever she taught me she was really using in real life. This helped me become more interested in learning math.”
One of the students of a New England Telephone volunteer who taught about fiber optics wrote, “I learned that he works with different people, that math helped him in his work, and that a lot of heads are better than one.”
Two engineers from Digital who team-taught took apart a computer, revealing for many students a connection between mathematics and computers. As one student said, “I never realized how much you need to be able to solve problems mathematically if you want to work in computers and industry.” Another spoke of the engineers' patience when “they explained how they use math to design parts of computers. I learned some things I didn't know before.”
Clearly, when the industry volunteers talk about their work, show materials, or do demonstrations, they make a significant impression on their students. Teachers can and do relate the importance of math knowledge in the work world, but having industry volunteers bring their work into the classroom lends powerful support for teachers' customary exhortations.
Finally, benefits accrue not only to teachers and students, but also to the industry volunteers themselves. To a person, they wrote about gaining greater appreciation for the complexity and demands of teaching. For example: The teaching profession requires an extremely high level of dedication—more than I had originally envisioned.I have a tremendous amount of respect for teachers. They not only deal with academic issues but students' personal lives too.It takes a unique individual to maintain the positive attitude and patience to teach. I now understand the concept of teacher burnout! For a few volunteers, the experience was so positive that they have begun to explore the possibility of leaving industry to become teachers.
Volunteers also wrote about their enhanced awareness of the needs of education, the scarcity of resources in many schools, and the complexities of inner-city schools. As one engineer told us: I couldn't believe what schools and teachers do without—especially in the area of technology. My sensitivity to the needs of kids and teachers has really been heightened, and I can no longer view education with the same naiveté I had before. The issues and problems are serious, and they must be addressed.
An increased awareness of the problems facing schools and an appreciation for the complexity of teaching cannot help but make these volunteers more informed, vocal advocates for education in their communities and workplaces.
At a midyear gathering of teachers and their industry partners, one teacher gave a moving testimony to the contribution of the volunteers and their employers: The luxury of arriving at EDC on Thursday mornings fresh and ready to learn is a gift I treasure. Most people don't realize that teachers almost never get to talk to one another about their work, to learn from one another, to be professionals together. Because of you and this project, I now have colleagues I'm not afraid to ask for help, colleagues who will cheer me on to try new things even when I fail. I wanted you industry people to know what you have done for us. We thank you.
The industry component of the Middle School Math Project is no magic bullet for achieving professionalism for teachers, but this innovative method buys time for educators and policymakers as well, until the day when teachers' job descriptions include ample opportunity for professional development during the school day.
References

Joyce, B., and B. Showers. (1988). Student Achievement Through Staff Development. New York: Longman.

Loucks-Horsley, S., C. Harding, M. Arbuckle, L. Murray, C. Dubea, and M. Williams. (1987). Continuing to Learn: A Guidebook for Teacher Development. Andover, Mass.: Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands and National Staff Development Council.

Schon, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Stallings, J. A. (1989). “School Achievement Effects and Staff Development: What Are Some Critical Factors?” Paper presented at American Educational Research Association annual meeting, San Francisco.

Ada Beth Cutler has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Leadership
Responding to Intolerance: Leadership for a Multiracial Democracy
John Rogers
4 days ago

Related Articles

From our issue
Product cover image 61193017.jpg
The Professional Teacher
Go To Publication