Risk and Professional Development

Teacher Professional Development
Is this your teacher professional development?

I recently found some time to reconnect with a few teachers that I haven’t talked to in a while.  A group of us were able to meet up and discuss our lives during the past school year.  As the conversation extended beyond pleasantries a few common themes emerged:  high-stakes testing, new teacher/administration evaluations and district professional development (PD).  The last topic took up most of the time and reminded me of how important it is to connect with fellow educators.

Some stories about PD were positive and some negative.  I listened to a few less than stellar stories of districts that dictate all PD needs. These top-down, one-size-fits-all PD sessions help certain staff members, but not all.   One of the teachers at our table insisted that school districts need to be able to differentiate their PD opportunities .  Just as teachers differentiate for their students, districts should also differentiate their PD for their staff.  I’m encouraged to hear that other educators like Ellen (@sneakyfritz) have similar thoughts about PD being more aligned to teachers’ needs.  Teachers learn at different paces and have a variety of strengths, therefore different opportunities should exist for them.  I find that the second model in the image below is used frequently in some districts.

photo credit: superkimbo via photopin cc
photo credit: superkimbo via photopin cc

Another teacher in our group thought that educators should be able to choose their own PD sessions, even if they’re located out of the district.  By not mentioning PD opportunities outside of the district (Edcamp, Twitter chats, conferences, workshops, MOOCS) teachers’ professional growth can be limited. Administrators that aren’t connected may not be aware of the PD options that are available online and outside of their school.  Discouraging teachers or omitting opportunities outside of the district also infers that a district doesn’t trust the professional judgement of its teachers.  Obviously, not all districts are like this.  I believe that teacher ownership plays a role in increasing the effectiveness of PD.  This terrific post by Dean (shareski) sheds some light on some of the important issues of PD and teacher ownership.

When teachers share what they’ve learned with each other the district often benefits.  I applaud districts that encourage teachers to be part of the PD process by having them lead district training sessions, similar to an edcamp model.  That seems like one way to encourage teacher ownership and solidify a mutual trust between teachers and administration

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 8.15.20 PM

Sometimes the one-size-fits-all model of traditional PD is mandatory, as regulated by the state.  I’ve found that districts that have total control (top-down) of the PD often informally discourage sharing and innovation.  Not all sessions have to be this way. Districts can encourage teachers to grow professionally by taking a risk and trusting their teachers to pick and choose the PD that meets their specific needs.  Districts should advocate for their employees to attend the most effective PD sessions.  Many of the teachers in our discussion stated that some of their best professional development came from outside of their school district boundaries.

Another teacher in our group stated that many educators are already taking ownership of their professional growth through a Personal Learning Network (PLN).  In many cases, they take ownership because the district might not providing opportunities for the growth that they need.  Regardless of a districts financial situation, many beneficial PD opportunities exist and are found through Twitter and other social networking sites.  These sites are generally free to join.  It’s truly unfortunate that some districts decide to rely on traditional PD and expect it to dramatically change teachers’ skills.  By omitting the use of technology for PD opportunities, districts are actually limiting their effectiveness and devaluing the educators that are already utilizing these outlets for PD.

Despite the lackluster view on the process of PD in some locations, the group that I sat with agreed that there’s good news.  The good news is that teachers aren’t depending on school districts to provide adequate PD.  They’re seeking out their own PD and bringing back innovative ideas to the classroom.  Teachers can bring these ideas to other connected educators around the world.  Teachers are connecting with other educators across the world through Twitter and other social media avenues.  This connection has many benefits.  Being a connected educator often gives teachers opportunities to learn more from other educators and bring back practical ideas to the classroom.  These teachers are using ideas found through their PLN to better their students’ learning experiences.  Often times they are enhancing their students’ learning experience without the district even knowing.  Districts need to be able to identify and celebrate theses succeses. I’m optimistic that school districts will adapt their current PD practices.   My optimism is rooted in the fact school districts  are listening to the staff and increasingly adopting non-traditional PD approaches to meet the professional needs of their teachers. These teachers are taking risks to better their own classroom/school and I believe school districts have the opportunity to do the same.  I’m going to end this post with a Tweet that assisted in inspiring this post:

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photo credit: mikecogh via photopincc


Standardize This

Bubble Test?

Education reform continues to make headlines as US student achievement is compared to the achievement of other countries.  An overall increasing focus on standardized assessments has been at the forefront of many of these reform discussions.  Teachers and school districts often get caught in the middle of these types of discussions   From what I’ve observed, what seems to agitate some educators is the notion that one high-stakes standardized assessment can validate/invalidate the success of a school year.  Even though educators have been critical of this notion, federal, state, and local school boards continue to look at standardized assessments as the go-to for quality control/accountability purposes.  I truly feel as though these boards have good intentions, but I would like to encourage them to look at alternative ways to measure school achievement.

I don’t know a teacher that doesn’t believe in accountability.  Teachers inherently feel a sense of accountability for their students.  The way that accountability is being measured and the consequences that occur if growth isn’t met is what’s causing concern.  Critics emphasis that only focusing on standardized test scores encourage teaching to the test, massive amounts of test prep and unfortunately cheating.  I’m not downgrading the value of standardized assessments as I believe a limited amount are beneficial in providing valuable feedback that can inform instructional decisions.  Appropriately utilizing student assessment results may prove beneficial for a teacher or school, but using that data outside of its context to manipulate accusations can cause problems.

Proactive Steps …

By now most educators have realized that student achievement data is starting to make up an increasing portion (20% + ) of one’s evaluation.  In some cases one VAM assessment could be used to measure student growth and impact employment decisions.  Instead of using one standardized assessment to determining teacher effectiveness, administrators should enable teachers to show student learning through a variety of means. This is a difficult task to tackle as administrators are also being assessed on standardized assessment results.  While one assessment shows a singular brush stroke of learning, the picture becomes much clearer when multiple data points are used.  Even NWEA, the makers of the MAP assessment encourage school leaders to use multiple data points (not just MAP) to measure student growth.  Regardless, some districts are already using singular assessments for evaluation/employment purposes.  I’m advocating that principal’s take a closer look at multiple student achievement data points instead of relying on one growth indicator.

How …

Formative assessments, student projects, presentations, and pbl activities can show learning at varying levels.  This collection of student data can not only help inform instructional decisions, but show evidence of student learning.  Digital portfolios are making a splash in education and I’m hoping that more districts start using them in conjunction with standardized assessments to provide evidence of student learning.  Showcasing student learning through a variety of formative assessment tools gives more meaning to the learning that’s happening. If communicated appropriately, state and local schoolboards will take notice and become more interested in multiple data points to determine effectivenessss, rather than a singular one.

photo credit: CliffMuller via photopin cc

Utilizing Teachers’ Strengths to Improve Schools

Utilizing Teachers' Strengths

Utilizing Teachers’ Strengths

During this holiday season I’m reflecting on the topic of school leadership.  School improvement often begins with a vision, but without teacher input or ownership, the vision may become undervalued.  It takes commitment and collaboration from all stakeholders to improve a systematic school organization.  This collaboration requires staff to trust the leadership within a school.  Principals have opportunities to build trust with their staff by ensuring that they don’t underutilize talents within their own school.  Teachers often have skills that aren’t necessarily visible during an introductory handshake.  Every teacher has strengths that they can bring to the bale, although some of the strengths may be challenging to distinguish.  Some of these positive skills could include:  rapport with parents, technology integration, planning with teaching teams, leading through mentoring,  goal setting with students, small group instruction, facilitating guided groups, etc.)

Coordinating Strengths
Coordinating Strengths

Teachers that are underutilized often disengage when asked to be part of school leadership decisions.  I believe that the majority of teachers unconditionally care and want the best for their students.  Unfortunately, teacher underutilization may encourage complacency and a lack of voice during school leadership decisions.  At this point, some teachers find professional development elsewhere, or possibly, employment elsewhere. Retaining effective teachers through utilization of teachers’ strengths is possible. I believe that teachers that feel utilized and valued often have ownership and participate more in school decisions. Teacher ownership helps schools become communities of collaboration.

How do educational leaders utilize teachers’ strengths and encourage teacher leadership?

One way to encourage teachers to utilize their strengths is to use inventories.  Just as teachers survey their students to learn more about them, principals have a unique opportunity to understand their staff better by surveying them.  Being aware of a teacher’s strength will enable a principal to coordinate personell to best meet the needs of a school.  Administrators can create a survey using Google Docs or use a template that best meets their needs.  Surveying staff members can be a proactive step in understanding individual perspectives and skill sets.  Using teacher inventories can lead to staff investment opportunities for school administrators.

What methods do you use to to encourage teacher leadership?

Photo Credit:  D. Castillo & J. Creationz

A New School Year – New Possibilities

Image by:   Scottchan

It’s already been one week into the school year and I’m finding myself reviewing goals for this year.  After spending time on Twitter this summer, specifically following #mathchat,  #elemchat, and #cpchat hashtags, I’ve decided to implement a few ideas this year.  I’ve included two of the ideas below.

Homework ≠ Grades 

I’ve been tackling the issue of the role and value of homework over the past few years. This topic has been debated by educational experts for a number of years.  So why am I so worked up over this?

Many years ago I remember grading every student’s paper (homework, test, quiz, etc.) that crossed my desk.  Most teachers at my school would do this, so I thought I should as well.  I would assign a fraction and percentage for each assignment (example:  14/18).  Homework was a certain percentage of the student’s grade, as well as tests, and other in class assignments. Generally, the homework grade often inflated the overall grade for the student.  This idea made me uncomfortable and made me question the value of homework.  Over the next few years I incorporated exit cards into my instruction and began to research the value of homework.  The more that I’ve researched the topic and value of homework, the more I’m finding that it needs to contribute to the learning process.  Homework shouldn’t be assigned or perceived as busy work. The more that I read over the summer, including @yourkidsteacher‘s post and @alfikohn‘s post, I decided to try something a bit different this year.

Homework is not part of the student’s grade, but it’s still part of the class.  Not giving homework to my students isn’t really an option.  To be proactive, I communicated to the community that I would be giving feedback and not grades on the homework.  In an effort to bring more direct feedback to the students, I decided to use the check / minus method, which I blogged about a while back.  The review checkpoints are a form of an exit card that the students will complete after being taught a specific concept.  The review checkpoints will be given 3 + times per month and would count towards their overall grade.

After reviewing the homework, I give specific feedback on the student’s paper.  I’m planning on having the student review their homework pages and feedback on a regular basis.  The new homework policy is still in the refining process, but I feel as though the students/parents appreciate the feedback and find it more useful than a stagnant 13/15 on the top of their homework sheet.

Special Projects

I’m already planning on a special project for every grading period. My students have created Podcasts, Photostory projects, mathematician biography reports, and hosted a math concept fair in the past.  Some of the projects were better than others, but the students always worked in collaborative groups to complete the projects.  I’d like to incorporate more math projects this year.  I believe that the learning (academic and social) that occurs during math project sessions benefits all students.   When asked, students often list the math projects as one of their favorite activities in math class. This is also a non-traditional method to assess student learning.  I generally use a rubric to assess a special project and it’s part of the student’s grade.

Planning – What plan?

Image by:  Stuart Miles

I remember approximately ten years ago  …  my school just received the opportunity to utilize classroom webpages.  Instantly, I thought that posting class letters, general information and homework on my class website would benefit the community.  The webmaster at that time told the staff that we were only able to update the pages once a week.  I’m not sure why, but I assume they wanted to slowly roll out this “new” technology.  I naively thought that I could just post a weeks worth of homework on my webpage on Monday and just update it on the following Monday. To say the least, my idea needed extreme tweaking. By Wednesday of that week, I was finding myself behind the homework schedule.  I was definitely finding out that my plans were not working. Around the third week of school I decided to utilize my homework idea later. After much reflection and having to explain myself numerous times, I would consider my webpage homework situation a learning experience.

Fast forward nine years later –>

Last year, I tentatively placed specific academic units in certain months and time periods in my planning book.  I used pencils with this because inevitably there are always edits to the schedule.  As the year progressed, my eraser was definitely getting its use.

These eraser marks/edits are often the caused by variables.   Scheduling conflicts and students are just two of the variables.  I appreciate the fact that students are a variable in the classroom.  Why?

Not all students learn at the same rate or the same way.  I tend to emphasize this concept during community interactions.  Advancing through the curriculum at an accelerated pace doesn’t necessarily mean that students understand and are able to apply their learning. Accelerating curriculum may mean that some topics are lightly coated.  The learning experience can be impacted (positively/negatively) through acceleration.

Now –>

I’m not advocating for less planning, but instead, I feel that educators need to tentatively plan their instruction and communicate that the pace and lesson sequencing may change.  I’ve already purchased my official school planning book for the fall and have started to sketch in a few key dates.  I’m just about ready to start mapping out the curriculum for the year.  Before writing any curriculum events, I always remember my homework situation in the first paragraph of this post.  That humbling experience has allowed me to be more proactive in setting realistic goals for students to learn and (more importantly) apply their learning.

Educators can plan until their heart is content, but their plans will not be perfect. Modifying and differentiating instruction will always need to occur for students to reach their optimal potential.

Education and Flow Charts

Image by:  Sujin

Students often thrive when given responsibility.  Sometimes students even ask for responsibility in the classroom.  At every grade level student responsibility can be utilized to improve and contribute to the overall efficiency of a classroom.  Student jobs are often found in the elementary classroom.  The idea of assigning student jobs can be termed as assigning responsibility.  I prefer using the activity, My Job Your Job Our Job, but jobs in themselves are an interesting way to teach and encourage responsibility.  Unless explicitly told, students are often unaware of the quality of work that is acceptable during their student job activity.  Modeling and setting classroom expectations for all jobs is necessary to gradually release responsibility to the student.   Accountability and follow through are also necessary components.  Expectations are vital when gradually releasing responsibility to the student.  Students need to understand what is expected as soon as they enter a classroom. Including students in the creation of these expectations via a flow chart may encourage accountability on the students behalf.  I found this template to be useful in having a conversation about flow charts with my students.

For the past few years I’ve used a process flow chart to help guide my students in taking responsibility for their actions.  As soon as the students enter the room they are asked to follow an arrival flow chart.  Likewise, when students are asked to leave the classroom, they follow the dismissal flow chart.  The flow chart clearly explains what is expected as students arrive and leave the classroom.

When students understand these expectations, they are more willing to become accountable for their own actions relating to their arrival/dismissal from my classroom. I believe having an arrival and dismissal flow chart may improve classroom efficiency and productivity.  As a result of implementing the flow chart, I’m spending more time teaching for learning in the classroom rather than losing the first five minutes of class to social hour.  In any activity, modeling is vital, this is no exception.  During the first week of school my students actually self-assess their performance following the arrival/dismissal flow chart.  I’ve even used a plus/delta chart to help during this process.  After the “trial” period has ended, the students become comfortable with their new environment and proceed efficiently when an arrival/dismissal flow chart is utilized regularly.  Visual learners may appreciate how the flow chart is displayed in the classroom.  Using a flow chart might also be a way to introduce graphic organizers to the class.  Students can even create their own flow charts using graphic organizer templates.




I’ve had experiences working in a variety of teaching capacities.  Teachers have an enormous responsibility to improve student learning in the classroom.  When the teacher and students understand the expectations of each other, both parties benefit.  This could also be said about the community and teacher.  I’ve found flow charts to be useful in other academic content areas, such as in math when explaining the problem solving process.  Process charts can also be used to clarify behavior expectations.  Utilizing process charts may enable students to become more responsible for their own actions in the classroom.

Characteristics of a Teacher

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Image by Nuttakit

Early in my teaching career I had an administrator ask me an interesting question:

What characteristics do you value in a potential teacher?

This question was asked before interviewing a few candidates for an upper elementary grade level teaching position. From what I remember, my response primarily consisted of the candidate being able to follow the district’s protocols, the ability to create lesson plans, and handle classroom management.  Looking back now, my answers originated from what I learned during my undergraduate experience.  If I was going to answer the question now, my answer would be vastly different.

Three Characteristics:

1.)  Communication

The teacher should have solid communication skills.  These skills are important, not only for instruction delivery, but also in communicating expectations to the community.  Teachers need to be able to use technology to deliver updates and keep parents in the loop to what is happening in the classroom.  Often, non-communication may be perceived as not caring.  Trouble can brew from unbalanced expectations from the teacher or parent.

2.)  Collaboration

Working together with limited resources happens frequently in the education sector. Having the ability to collaboratively work within a grade level team, as well as a school team benefits an entire school.  Teachers who embrace the idea that not only are the students in their class valued, but the entire school is full of learners and all stakeholders are responsible for the students.

3.)  Focus on Student Learning

Teachers need to be able to understand their role in the student learning process.  Teachers play many roles in the classroom, but student learning should be the focal point.  Student achievement data, in a variety of forms can be helpful in driving instruction decisions.  Teachers who are able to analyze student data to make instructional decisions are extremely valuable.  Curriculum is only as good as the teacher who is utilizing the resource.  To meet students’ needs teachers need to be able to identify students’ academic learning needs and address how to utilize resources to meet the needs of each student in the classroom.  In order to ensure that students are learning at high levels, teachers need to be able to access practical professional development opportunities to improve their craft, therefore increasing student learning.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just a few key components that I find valuable.  21st century teachers need to be able to have a variety of skills that enable students to learn at optimal levels.

Differentiated Instruction

Image by Luigi Diamanti

As an educator, part of my job is to meet students’ academic needs.  Every educator, at one time or another, asks the question – how can I meet the needs of all the students that enter my classroom?  That’s a tough questions to answer, with multiple answers, depending on your philosophy of education.  To start, you need to understand the current skill level of your students.  You might want to give some type of pre-assessment to determine what type of skills that the students possess. A lot of vital data can be extracted by analyzing student assessment data.  Student assessment data can often drive school-wide instructional decisions.  Once assessment data has been collected and analyzed, you can begin to start to differentiate and individualize instruction.  Differentiated instruction is an educational buzz word that has been around for quite some time now.  What does it actually mean and isn’t it subjective?  Here are a few definitions:

“Differentiated instruction is a teaching theory based on the premise that instructional approaches should vary and be adapted in relation to individual and diverse students in classrooms” – Carol Anne Tomlinson

Differentiating instruction ….”Maximize(s) each student’s growth by recognizing that students have different ways of learning, different interests, and different ways of responding to instruction”  – Diane Ravitch

“Rather than simply teaching to the middle by providing a single avenue for learning for all students in a class, teachers using differentiated instruction match tasks, activities, and assessments with their students’ interests, abilities, and learning preferences” Jennipher Willoughby

Throughout this post, I’m going to show one way to differentiate instruction in the classroom. Specifically, via a flexible grouping strategy.

After utilizing a pre-assessment, or some type of formative assessment, you can use the results to begin to group the students based on skill level.  Generally, different “flexible” groups are created based on the skill level of each student. Each group will work towards achieving or mastering specific skills related to the curriculum.  For example, one group might work on basic computation strategies related to practical application problems, another might practice critical thinking skills, and another group may complete enrichment projects related to statistics.  What each group works on should focus on improving students’ skills.  Student groups are fluid and can change throughout the school year as additional student data is collected.  Individuals in each group will set their own goals through a goal setting process.  By engaging in goal setting, students are given the opportunity to gain responsibility for their own learning.  Shifting some of the responsibility to the student gives ownership, therefore assisting in intrinsically motivating a student to achieve their goal.

This is only one form of differentiated instruction.  I’ve provided a list of resources on differentiated instruction below.

Disclaimer (unfortunate but necessary) : The thoughts and opinions expressed in these pages are my own, and not necessarily the opinions of my employers.

Remember Constructivism?

What do you remember learning during your K – 12 experience?  You might cringe a bit as nostalgic memories come to mind…..  Now think about what you learned academically during that same time period. If you’re like me, most of what is remembered is attached to some type of positive (hopefully) engaging learning experience. Those memories have stood the test of time for some reason.  Educators understand that teaching is a process of making personal meaning. Those “personal meaning” experiences were most likely created by teachers who planned interactive lessons that engaged students.

I may be in familiar company, but I assume some learning experiences have left my memory banks altogether.  Here’s a brief list of what I remember:

  • Working in groups with other students – collaborate group assignments
  • Interactive projects that were presented in class
  • Concepts learned in school were tied to school / community based projects
  • Using technology in some form to create projects
  • Using games to learn

Even though it’s been many years since my K-12 experience, surprisingly, I still remember the concepts associated with the instruction.  From what I remember, most of what I enjoyed (or decided to actively learn) during my K – 12 education was generated by teachers who utilized some version of Constructivist teaching theory. Constructivist teaching has been in the news recently, specifically in education circles.  In fact, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has been quoted to have an opinion regarding Constructivism in the classroom. You can find his opinion in the second paragraph of this article.  Despite recent media coverage, Constructivism is still valued by educators and is utilized in many classrooms around the world.  Not one tool, even Kahn Academy, will improve the education system overnight. I think most educators would agree that how the curriculum is communicated is one factor, among many, that impacts student learning.  If utilized correctly, Constructivist teaching strategies can be a terrific tool, enabling teachers to developing engaging lessons that improve student learning.

Additional Resources on Constructivism can be found below.

What does a Constructivist classroom look like?

More examples

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