Leading by Example: Teacher-Led Professional Development

Teachers from several rural school districts were meeting together for some sort of in-service day, and I vividly remember returning to the auditorium with several hundred teachers and sitting down for the next hour-long session. A heavy-set man in an ill-fitting suit walked to the podium, glanced down at the table next to him laden with a pile of textbooks, smiled a bit nervously, and spent the next forty-five minutes discussing, in excruciating detail, the best methods for covering the various sizes of publicly-funded textbooks issued to students in our schools, complete with a diatribe on the sundry evils of glue and tape. Within ten minutes, nearly everyone there was either fast asleep or sporting the vacant look of the terminally bored. Over the ensuing twenty-five or so years, those forty-five minutes of my life (that I’ll never get back) have come to embody everything that can go horribly awry with professional development.

Teaching English in the wilds of West Texas (and instructing students in the finer points of book covering) is a long way from directing Instructional Technology at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. It’s the distance from a very young teacher to someone well past the middle of her career, from a small lab full of those old Texas Instruments computers to a Jewish day school leading the charge toward technology integration in Jewish education.

A Brief History of Technology at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School

When I came to CESJDS to teach English in 2003, there was technology—more precisely, desktops in standing labs and one in each classroom around both our Lower and Upper School campuses. Teachers used the classroom desktops almost exclusively to check attendance, and one computer lab, wired as a language lab, was the home of the school’s only digital projector. None of our labs were used for much other than typing, and the ceiling-mounted projector was turned on four or five times a year (usually for a small staff training of one kind or another—never in the presence of students).

In the spring of 2006, something wonderful happened. The school received a sizable gift from a long-time benefactor who wanted to do something “transformative” at the school. Faced with a new landscape of possibilities, the administration made a crucial choice. They formed a Technology Task Force of teachers from both the Upper and Lower Schools that began working together to test equipment and to advise the school as to which of the many options would work best in our classrooms. The eleven Task Force members, of which I was one, tested various laptops and tablets, a variety of projectors, interactive whiteboards, and document cameras. We met several times over the coming months to compare our findings and share the lessons we’d developed, and we visited other schools. Soon, a Tanakh teacher was teaching a fourth grade General Studies teacher how students could collaboratively ink annotations on text; an Upper School history teacher showed a fifth grade Judaics teacher how to move seamlessly among a graphic organizer, a website, clips from a video, and a primary text within the same lesson. By the end of that school year, CESJDS put a wireless projector in every classroom and began to make tablet laptops available for classroom use.

What’s striking about this process—and about the professional development that it quickly required and engendered—is the prominent role of teachers. During the first year of introducing new technologies, the Technology Task Force took the lead. For our first whole-school training day, we borrowed an idea called the Dart-n-Dash from the Cincinnati Country Day School, where a number of members of the Task Force had visited the previous year. Teachers moved sequentially through several classrooms of colleagues and gave the same five-to-ten minute demo of a particularly successful lesson to each group. By the end, each class had seen six lessons they could adapt for their own classes. A one-hour session followed, led by the Dart-n-Dash presenters, where teachers chose to explore one of the tools or strategies hands-on. Teachers left that first Dart-n-Dash eager to try what they’d seen.

Our subsequent professional development sessions have taken a variety of forms, but all have been led by teachers who often got the germ of the idea they’re showing from an earlier session led by a colleague. We’ve offered longer workshops focused on particular kinds of software or projects in which teachers explain and show samples of student work, followed by time for participating teachers to discuss using the lesson or project in their own classrooms. We’ve offered lab-style sessions where teachers familiar with a particular technique or tool help colleagues who come interested in learning or with a project already in mind. One of our teachers discovered SpeedGeeking at a conference. Two or three teachers move from one five-minute presentation to another around a large room, learning about technology that’s worked in a colleague’s classroom. After our first SpeedGeeking, Judaics teachers asked General Studies teachers about the blogging project or the chat tool they’d shown, and General Studies teachers began asking Judaics teachers about Ning and Drop.io.

Arguably, in fact, this is the most crucial byproduct of teacher-led professional development. When I first arrived at CESJDS, Judaics teachers and General Studies teachers had little contact, and our Lower and Upper School campuses might as well have been in different states. But the model that first took hold in the Technology Task Force, and then spread out to the faculty, prized community and rewarded collaboration. As teachers began to learn about technology from each other across what had historically been hard and fast separations, a remarkable thing happened—we began as a faculty to collaborate in other ways and to become a closer and more collegial community.

The Professional Development Lessons of Book Covering for Dummies

So in what ways might Book Covering for Dummies be a primer for what not to do in planning professional development? Most of the lessons for successful professional development are obvious: excite teachers, privilege process over content, emphasize practice rather than theory, focus on the audience more than the speaker. Nothing surprising there. But what might surprise some is the real lesson of that experience, a lesson crucial to our professional development strategy at CESJDS—that what doomed Book Covering for Dummies is what dooms many of our classrooms. Put another way, teacher-led training works because successful 21st-century professional development looks exactly like a successful 21st-century classroom.

Excite teachers

Teachers, like students, are bored by useless talk and by that which is universally required. So a first principle: at every opportunity, offer teachers choice about what they spend their professional development time doing. That said, it’s not enough to make professional development opportunities informative or even useful. Success has to be fun. During our visits to the Cincinnati Country Day School, our hosts repeatedly emphasized the idea that professional development needs to be an event. Give the professional time a theme, create a logo, make the snacks more interesting and varied—mark the time teachers are being asked to spend as special. These small things matter in making the statement that we value the teachers and the technology we’re teaching them.

Privilege process over content

That substantive professional development is not so much about content might seem counterintuitive. But beyond an hour on any one subject, most people begin to lose focus, and few technology tools can be explained, much less mastered, in that amount of time. Teachers are much more likely to see the potential of technology in their classrooms by seeing the success of others rather than the details of a particular tool. It’s much more effective to create excitement and an appetite for further study (tasks, to be fair, that my old friend the bookcover whisperer probably could never have accomplished), and then provide later opportunities for supported play and continued work with other teachers to master what’s been introduced.

Think of it this way: I can explain how to use a tool or strategy and only scratch the surface. Or I can show a teacher how that tool has already succeeded, provide support when needed, and soon get out of their way. A crucial move at CESJDS has been the transformation of three teachers, who taught pullout technology classes in the Lower School, into Instructional Technology Specialists. They meet regularly with teachers throughout our Upper and Lower School to help plan lessons and coach technology integration, and they visit classes both to model and to mentor. This means we’re about the job of professional development every moment of every day throughout the year.

Emphasize practice rather than theory

Despite the barrier of time, the aim of every professional development opportunity we provide is that teachers walk away with something they can use in their own classroom. We show as wide and differentiated a sampling as possible of lesson/project ideas and the student work created, and emphasize ways a tool or strategy can provide opportunity for differentiated learning or creative problem-solving. We push our teachers to think like teachers—to make connections or find alternate applications. We include supported hands-on practice as part of every session we offer. And we ask our teachers to be practical. It’s unrealistic to suggest to teachers, or for a teacher to expect, that they can spend one session in September learning how they might use Ning in the classroom and then wake up on November 16th and decide to introduce Ning to their students that afternoon.

Focus on the audience more than the speaker

Ah, the much-lamented demise of the “sage on the stage”—nowhere is that model more dead than in professional development. We chose the wireless tablet/projector model in part because it frees the teacher from the front of the classroom and makes the classroom a collaborative space, where peers work together and learn from each other, where success results from the harnessing of different skills. It’s the perfect model for professional development; teachers are more likely to buy in to learning that they help plan and for which they are in some measure responsible. This is not to say that speaking from the stage, or the front of the classroom, has no place. But the purpose of such speech is to inspire rather than teach. Put another way, professional development is not about being led. Teaching is what happens once we leave center stage and step out among the desks—a truth as much in teacher training as in the classroom. As with students, nothing is as powerful as teachers speaking to and learning from other teachers.

In these ways, we’ve begun to change the way we educate at CESJDS. Not that it’s been as fast or as seamless as we’d like. But we have learned important lessons. If the goal of your professional development is to have teachers simply learn to be better with the technology or use more technology in their classrooms—if, in other words, you’re satisfied to use technology to do the same old things in new ways—you’ll win the battle and lose the war. The goal of teacher-led training is both to model and to create opportunities to transform the way we teach, to make classrooms more innovative, more student-centered, more collaborative and learning more project-based and problem-solving. Do this and we become better teachers. Do this and we become better schools.

Ginger Thornton, a twenty-five year veteran of the classroom, is now Director of Instructional Technology at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. She can be reached at GThornton@cesjds.org.

Ginger Thornton
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Spring 2010