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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Dogs Chasing Frisbees

That's only one of several cardinal sins of staff development. To safeguard yourself against the others, read on.

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Dogs chasing Frisbees." That's how a teacher I know of described professional development programs in his district. Administrators would periodically come out of their offices, he said, and toss a Frisbee that represented the most recent program designed to revolutionize teaching and learning. Teachers would dutifully scurry to catch it. Sometime later, the administrators would reemerge from their offices, toss another Frisbee, and, once again, teachers would scurry to catch this new "now we're really going to get it right!" Frisbee du jour.
Although those teachers chased and collected an impressive number of Frisbees, they had no real direction—and, thus, little understanding—regarding why they had the Frisbees or what they were supposed to do with them to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms. In districts like this, many teachers adopt a "this too shall pass" attitude that produces a lot of feet dragging, frustration, a return to the status quo, and teacher burnout.
The fact is, many professional development programs are held hostage by bandwagon leadership. In some cases, professional development "plans" are not planned at all but rather conceived and implemented with little thought to aligning them with long-term missions, goals, and objectives. Administrators should undertake the planning, preparation, and implementation of professional development opportunities with the same level of thought that goes into curriculum, unit, and lesson planning.
Then why don't they do so? One reason is the vast and ever-changing scope of directives, mandates, programs, fixes, and reforms that continually bombard them. The line between creating meaningful, thematic staff development and throwing Frisbees is easy to cross. Other challenges include a lack of key resources, such as time and funding, and a school culture that may be comfortable with the status quo and therefore reluctant to consider systemic changes. Let's also not forget the sheer magnitude of federal and state requirements imposed on schools. All of these factors conspire to create a perfect storm of Frisbee chasing.

Practice the Virtues

Administrators must plan and present a cohesive, thematic professional development curriculum. This starts by building consensus among teachers concerning where we want our school to go; why we want to go there; how we plan to get there; and what our students will know, do, and understand upon graduation.
We often fail to answer why before we address the how with our faculty (Maurer, 2012). Answering the why question helps reduce what psychologist Kurt Lewin called the restraining forces in an organization, those forces that tend to stand in the way of change. When we answer why from the start, teachers are more likely to participate in the desired change process because they've clearly established its connection to their life in the classroom.
Administrators, with teachers, must also evaluate the proposed change by asking broader questions, such as, Is our goal to increase test scores or to improve student learning? If we can clearly make our case on the basis of student needs and can establish how the proposed initiative will affect student performance, we can effectively answer the why question. We also need to seek out connections between current classroom practice and the desired change, identifying where current pedagogy may overlap the new strategies or where it may fall short, and demonstrate with evidence how the changes will improve teaching and learning. When we make a conscious effort to answer why, we can reduce, although not eliminate, the restraining forces that stand in the way of change.
We must also look for enduring understandings (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007)—big ideas that help teachers see the big picture and context in which the new behavior will occur. For example, an enduring understanding that might guide a literacy initiative could be, "Authentic literacy requires students to access, analyze, and synthesize information from multiple sources and then to communicate, transfer, and apply that information in meaningful ways."
Once we've established the broader contextual targets through enduring understandings, we must then determine the more specific objectives regarding the behaviors to look for in teachers. For example, in the literacy initiative mentioned, professional development might address the following questions: What instructional practices will we see when teachers have integrated the concepts of close, strategic reading and writing into their content-area classrooms? Are teachers using direct, interactive instruction that teaches students the habits and skills they need to become strategic readers, such as being able to make connections, ask good questions, visualize, infer, determine what's more and less important, summarize, and synthesize?
Student behaviors to look for might include students building their own knowledge through close, strategic reading; sharing ideas grounded in evidence from the text; and regularly engaging with complex text and academic language. When we identify specific, observable behaviors and targets and relate them to the broader context, we can improve the potential for teacher (and student) buy-in. Teachers and students are more likely to hit targets they can see.
At this point, principals can focus on the actual steps of implementing a professional development program. Success will be more likely if leaders practice the following virtues.

Virtue 1: Involve teachers in the planning process.

Remember to listen and consider what they want and need. Teacher involvement is not just a strategy to create the illusion of participative leadership—it's a pragmatic, effective leadership practice.

Virtue 2: Identify the experts.

Long term, you'll want to create and seek out experts within the school, build core teams to serve as facilitators, and provide follow-up to the initial training sessions. But initially, you might need to select experts from outside the school.

Virtue 3: Gather data.

Gather qualitative data from teachers during their meetings and informal observations. Have teachers share strategies, suggestions, and constructive feedback. As a group, have them review samples of student work. Ask them to point out what approaches did and didn't work and what additional information they might need to better support student learning. Administrators may find that they need to provide more content-specific training and, quite possibly, one-on-one support for given teachers.

Virtue 4: Promote patience.

Caution teachers that sometimes when making changes, things may get harder before they get easier. For example, when dealing with authentic literacy, teachers may initially find that they're spending more—rather than less—time preparing lessons. Be encouraging, provide release time when possible, brainstorm with teachers how to overcome deficits in the initiative, and don't be afraid to step up and coteach a class or two with a teacher needing guidance. This demonstration of support speaks volumes to the faculty.

Virtue 5: Be realistic.

Be realistic in making claims about what this initiative will produce. There are few silver bullets out there, and no one initiative is a panacea for everything we want to accomplish.

Virtue 6: Think collaboration.

Don't fall into the trap of believing that you alone should be responsible for developing, implementing, and presenting ongoing staff development initiatives in your school. Build professional learning communities. Identify teachers with similar pedagogical needs and interests and empower them to work together. Think of staff development in terms of differentiated supervision and instruction.

Virtue 7: Leave your ego at home.

Model the removal of ego from the conversation. Demonstrate that you're willing to open up what you do to scrutiny and reflection. For example, have teachers provide feedback regarding the quality and content of the training. This can be scary, but it sends a clear, collegial message that "we're in this together."
Have teachers complete an exit slip at the conclusion of the training. Ask questions like these:
  • What was the most important idea that you got from today's session?
  • What questions still remain?
  • If we were to do this presentation over again, what changes would you suggest?
  • What other adjustments can we make to help you improve student performance?
You might hear suggestions regarding such seemingly unrelated issues as the bell schedule or public address interruptions, but you've opened the door for a dialogue.
Regardless of the process selected, you need to communicate that you will listen and consider teacher input in framing staff development. If you do so, teachers will be more likely to invite you and others into their worlds as colleagues and not fear professional, collegial group reflection and evaluation (McConnell & Colantonio, 1992).

An Afterthought No Longer

If we consider that our success as administrators is directly linked to teacher success and that teacher success is directly linked to student success, the effect of our leadership on student learning becomes poignantly clear. We cannot allow planning for staff development to become something we scramble to put together one or two days before an upcoming inservice day.
Staff development is a core responsibility that lies at the heart of the decisions we make every day in school. In these dire economic and highly politicized times, we simply don't have that many Frisbees to throw.

Maurer, R. (2012, June 28). Resistance to change: Why it matters and what to do about it [blog post]. Retrieved from

McConnell, J. H., & Colantonio, J. N. (1992). In focus: Modeling behavior for effective empowerment. NASSP Bulletin, 76 (546), 107–111.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2007). Schooling by design: Mission, action, and achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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