by James (Jim) Thompson, consolidated by Stefanie Whitney
Towards the end of my 20th and final year of being an elementary principal, my Superintendent of Schools, Dave DeLoria, was also the guy with whom I played in a rock band in the mid ‘60s (our band was The Morticians). Dave was the lead guitar player and would often say something after a certain song: “Our plan for that song was good in theory but somehow didn’t work out when we played it... Somethin’ ain’t right...”
It was also during that 20th year of my career that Dave would say, “Jimmy, how come we don’t have more state funding for teachers coaching teachers? That would really make an impact… somethin’ ain’t right that we can’t make that happen more.”
Dave’s question touched on a topic I had been thinking about for quite some time.
In my humble opinion, I believe there are two essential questions that require our responsiveness as educators:
This article takes a deep dive into this second question. I channel Dave DeLoria in my candid response to how we’re doing:
“Somethin’ ain’t right…Somethin’ ain’t right.”
First, let’s take a look at the current reality of responding to the question:
How are we improving our practice to more significantly impact learning for each and every child?
The following include current common approaches to improving our practice:
Let’s talk more about each approach to professional development.
Traditional Teacher Evaluation Systems
[Disclaimer: I was an elementary principal for 20 years.]
In my first year as principal, I had to conduct over 80 ‘observations’; plus, address all disciplinary issues, coordinate all curriculum implementation, and facilitate all staff development for a school with over 700 students and over 100 staff reporting ‘directly to me.’ (This experience is akin to being a secondary educator, often responsible for building relationships with, facilitating differentiated learning for, and providing feedback and assessment on work from over 150 students. In all directions, educators are overwhelmed with responsibility regarding continuous, impactful learning.)
I really loved my kids and really loved my staff. So much so that when it was time to do a post- observation conference with a teacher, I made coffee or tea for them, I gave them a warm welcome and thanks, I worked hard to affirm their great work with kids and offer some ‘stretchers’ to advance learning. And regardless of the care with which I took in providing post-observation feedback, inevitably, at the end of most of those post-observation conferences, the teacher smiled, shook my hand, and said something like: “Whew, glad that’s over until next year.” (Leaving me with a Neil Simon “Same Time, Next Year” feel.) Darn if I never heard a teacher say, “Gee, this was so beneficial I’d like to do a few more of these this year.”
I knew then, as I know now…that somethin’ ain’t right with this process. In fact, in 1998, I wrote an article for the School Administrators Association of NY Schools’ Journal (SAANYS) entitled “Supervision of Instruction: The Long and Winding Road from the ‘Kodak Moment’ to Collegiality.”
I began that article with a report card asking such questions as:
Twenty-three years ago, I gave myself failing grades in all three categories.
In New York State, the process to supervise instruction done by principals and administrators is called the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Several years ago, superintendents from Monroe County, NY were asked: “What was the one state mandate they would like to repeal?” Their unanimous response: “Repeal APPR.” A sign that perhaps the answers to these 3 important questions indicate no real improvement.
Doug Reeves, in an article in the February issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership acknowledges this:
“I have never seen anyone evaluated into better performance.”
A Closer Look at Professional Development with Little or No Follow-Up Coaching
Often, professional development occurs through ‘one and done’ workshops.
Back in the winter of 2003, I taught a graduate course on Staff Development. In this class of 30, the majority of participants were directors of staff development. I asked each participant to make a list of all professional development they have endeavored in the last decade and then to put three stars next to each professional development event that included follow-up coaching, two stars for each event that did not include follow-up coaching but did include time to share practice with other colleagues in the days and weeks after the event, and zero stars if there was essentially no follow up coaching nor support with collaboration after the initial event.
In this activity, well beyond 90% of the events had NO STARS, indicating no follow up coaching, and little or no chance for reflection or sharing afterwards among staff members. Further, participants acknowledged that much of the actual professional development was in the form of a workshop. This was true in the 1990s and remains true today.
Jim Knight writes in the February 2021 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership,
“In my experience, it takes about three days to forget most of what we learned in a workshop.”
A Closer Look at Professional Development by Way of "Insert Big Name Speaker Here"
During my many years in education, I have experienced a lot of “big names” giving an opening day address. Folks were flown in from the West Coast, some were even flown in from abroad, some were funny, some were serious, and some looked like the cast of Baywatch (I specifically remember folks asking how the presenter ‘got such a great tan’) .
And a few—a few—were inspiring.
Doug Reeves addresses this approach to professional development:
“...it would be impossible to find evidence that three-hour workshops or 90 minute keynotes, on their own, however popular and entertaining, result in learning or changes in professional practice.”
One year a speaker from the Midwest was brought into my district as a keynote speaker. He spoke for three hours in the morning and several hours in the afternoon. I saw the invoice for the presentation: $8000, plus expenses.
Folks kept asking me during his presentation, “Who is this guy and who made the decision to bring him in?”
In a 2013 synthesis of research on professional learning, Allison Gulamhussein concluded that,
“most professional development today is ineffective. It neither changes teacher practice nor improves student learning” (p. 3).
When we look at how we are still conducting most professional development in 2021, it is hard to deny that, “Somethin’ ain’t right…Somethin’ ain’t right.”
Watch for future articles on these topics in the coming months!
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