There’s one professional development day that I’ll never forget.
I woke up early that Friday morning and drove to school, where my colleagues and I piled into the school van. The ripe and still detectable odour of the previous night’s victorious senior boys’ basketball team only added to the dubious appeal of a 50-minute drive sitting on the bench seat of a 15-passenger van. When we arrived at the high school where the PD day was being held, I exited the van, peeled off the chocolate bar wrapper that was stuck to the back of my pants and headed into the gym.
About 300 teachers from a wide range of schools and with varied teaching assignments were gathered there. Because there were so many of us, some of us had to sit on folding metal chairs—at least that was a step up from the van seat’s loose spring, which I had dubbed Mr Pokey.
The PD workshop was about how to integrate literacy instruction into all our classes. A keynote speaker presented and led us through group activities before lunch. The afternoon would feature a wrap-up session with the keynote speaker and a Q&A session with the division leadership team.
The speaker, aware of the effectiveness of hands-on activities first thing in the morning, started the day off by teaching us how to make origami frogs (for which I would later be eternally grateful).
Assembling a divisionwide PD day for hundreds of teachers is difficult. The keynote speaker must appeal to an eclectic group and must be a compelling presenter who can speak about a subject in a way that is both general and specific enough to be of interest to everyone.
Unfortunately, sometimes, regardless of how riveting the keynote speaker is, the relevance of the speech to the immediate learning needs of individual audience members is low. And as the relevance of a presentation wanes, minds turn to more pressing and prominent PD needs. In this case, no single speaker could help my colleague effectively introduce technology into a Grade 2 social studies lesson on the Inuit and help me improve Math 30 lessons on dissecting conic sections through differentiated instruction. So I found myself thinking about dissecting cones while the speaker was putting up an overhead slide related to literacy (some might be appalled at the use of overheads in a 21st-century keynote presentation).
Every year, every teacher in Alberta produces an individualized professional growth plan (PGP) that identifies the teacher’s learning needs, strengths and weaknesses, as well as the area of practice the teacher wishes to improve. Professional development must be focused on the stated goals of the teacher’s PGP to be effective.
Some teachers attend conferences, seminars or an ATA teachers’ convention to meet personalized goals. Other forms of individualized PD include online courses, professional reading or real-time webinars that offer flexibility in time and place of learning. Also, teacher-led committees at the school or division level sometimes implement institutional days that feature guest speakers and workshops. But it is the teacher-directed nature of these activities that make them valuable.
So, back to my keynote speaker, with her overhead slides, who on that particularly memorable PD day almost got my attention when she started to show a video. But, much to my horror, it was a video of her presenting overhead slides. In order to keep my sanity, I returned to folding frogs.
As we think about creating a 21st-century education system and enhancing individualized learning for students, we should strive to ensure that individualized professional learning for teachers is a big part of the equation. Failing that, today’s teachers risk being subjected to yet more sessions involving paper frogs and outdated overheads.
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