Tag Archives: School

Professional Development

Every time I’ve interviewed for a teaching job, we’ve discussed the question of professional development: What does professional development look like at the school? What is provided for and expected of teachers? What PD opportunities have had an impact on my practice and what can I bring to the school from these opportunities?

Professional development, or PD in the alphabet soup of education, is how teachers get better at teaching. It’s how we learn about new research and best practices, look outside of what our own schools are doing, make connections with other schools and teachers, and grow as professionals. I can think of a professional development opportunity that fundamentally changed the way I approach my students as learners, and a second that changed my approach to teaching content. I have been a better teacher since and my students have benefitted from my opportunities to learn.

Unfortunately, a comment I hear often on PD days is, “Well, I didn’t learn anything, but it was nice to have the time to work.”

Let me start by saying that it is absolutely nice to have the time to work. Teachers are increasingly (and often overwhelmingly) expected to do more big-picture collaboration work with colleagues across departments that simply do not fit into the school day. The rare time that teachers have together during the day, when it exists, is usually spent on much more pressing concerns, like a plan for the next unit, editing an assessment task, or going over a recent student work. Having the time to work with colleagues with whom we do not otherwise have a chance to work is critical for the cohesive educational programs that we know help students learn. Additionally, there is often work for school evaluation visits that requires collecting materials, filling out questionnaires, and documenting school programs. Collaborative work time is necessary for all of this to take place, and I have never been in a school where teachers have enough time. So yes, we need the time to work.

However, collaborative work time is not professional development. Collaborative work time might stem from PD (we are always looking for new ideas) or benefit from PD (trying to integrate better technology in the classroom might require teachers to be trained on said technology, for example), but it is not the same as PD.

Although I am as grateful for work time as anyone else (and we really are!) I also want to learn. I want the professional development days on the calendar to be about professional development, to help me get better at my job, which is helping students learn. If I walk away from a PD session with one idea that I can try with one student tomorrow, that is a good day. If I walk away from one of our scheduled PD days without having had the opportunity to learn something new, I’m disappointed.

Of course, professional development can come in many forms. I once taught at a school in which a different teacher at each faculty meeting was invited to share something that they were trying in class. Often, these ideas came from working with the curriculum coordinator or attending PD trainings outside of school. Teachers were asked in advance, presentations took no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and we walked away from those meetings with new ideas.

If we want teachers to be independent, creative professionals, we need to give them opportunities to learn and opportunities to put into practice what they have learned. A PD day on a calendar should mean professional development; if the intention is for collaborative work, it should be called as such. The frustration is when collaborative work is confused for PD, and teachers who have been promised PD do not receive it. We cannot expect teachers to more effectively work with students if they do not have the opportunities to learn how to do so.

Big School, Small School

Almost ten years ago (where has the time gone?) I wrote my Master’s thesis on the school where I worked at the time, an all-girls school in the town where I grew up. I had had myriad stereotypes about the place as a student in the area, and I couldn’t have been more wrong about it. This interested me enough to conduct a case study to answer the question of why different stakeholders choose all-girls education. (Short answer: It depends. Long answer: Contained in aforementioned thesis.)

As part of regular practice, I’ve been conducting informal research throughout my time as a teacher. What happens if I refer to this as a “task” rather than “assignment”? What happens if the “rough draft” becomes the “initial submission”? If I want to encourage dialogue in class, should students sit with their friends or not? How does the environment change when the tables are in a U shape, rows of three, groups of four? How does the environment change when student-led discussions are an assessed part of the course?*

I have learned to be a teacher not only through deliberate training, observation, and practice, but also through a lot of trial and error. What works in one environment or for one group may or may not work for another, and there is a significant level of adaptability and flexibility that is required to help students learn. (Insert home-based learning here.) This is why some teachers argue that every class is a different prep, even if the class is a second section of the same subject – two grade 9 Individuals and Societies classes, for example. I don’t usually go this far; the plan and materials remain the same, though the approach might differ. The conversation will surely be different with different groups, and the response should follow naturally from the conversation. The environment matters.

A significant way in which environment matters is in terms of school size. If I were looking for another Master’s research project, I’d be interested in exploring the relationship between school size and culture. I deliberately moved from a school of around 3,000 students to one of around 300, both of which serve students in nursery school through grade 12. The larger school had more course offerings, activities, facilities, and resources. It had more options for students, professional growth opportunities for teachers, and the possibility of just about anything for a project or event. At the same time, it could be slow, bureaucratic, and frustrating to work within that system. With so many projects running at once, it sometimes seemed like nothing was ever thought through before execution, leading to problems that individuals had anticipated and wanted to address, but the meeting to discuss the idea was likely never held because something else took priority.

This is not to say that a small school is the answer to the above dilemma. In a small school, everyone goes above and beyond because the school’s daily functioning depends on teachers acting as support staff where needed. Due to budget concerns, there’s an awareness of cost when organizing large projects, but the projects themselves are easy to pull off in a relatively short time because the scale is so manageable. A limited number of adults also means no middle-management, which gives students and teachers immediate access to the school administration when it comes to presenting ideas or addressing problems. This proximity also contributes to visibility. Students are known by most teachers and teachers are known by most students; everyone is around and relatively easy to find, making for casual rather than formal interactions. While small staff size makes for relaxed meetings and easy dissemination of information, the opportunities for teacher growth and development are minimal.

At the moment, I’m curious about school culture and how the different issues faced by schools of different sizes contribute to the development of a learning environment. On the one hand, I truly miss the closeness of colleagues and friends of the large school and the community that we built among ourselves because the sheer size of the place could be overwhelming. The small school functions more as a collection of individuals who happen to work in the same place; people are comfortable enough that they don’t need a community.

But in the small school, I’ve been able to work with a group of students who come up with school-wide ideas and carry them out without too much interference. The small school also has fewer rules and procedures because individual students are easier to catch and redirect. But I miss having an overview of a process before it begins and clear steps of what to do in different situations, which was the case at the large school. That being said, I don’t miss the time it took to go through processes just so that all relevant parties would have the time to participate. It is easier to get things done in the small school because fewer people are involved, but I miss the teamwork in the large school. I miss having people around who know what I’m doing, but I’m glad to have the freedom to do what I think is right.

As for the students, it seems to me that there’s less academic pressure in the small school but perhaps more social pressure. A smaller number of students means less competition, which may or may not be a good thing, but fewer social opportunities for those who might actually find “their people” in a large environment. When there’s a social problem, everyone is affected, everyone knows, and there’s nowhere to hide. But there are perhaps fewer social problems because the students are closer to one another than they would be in a larger environment. By the time they graduate, many of these students have been together as a class for the majority of their lives, which means they function like a family. There may be some frustration and disfunctionality, but they grit their teeth and get along.

The flip side is that the sadness and apprehension palpable in grade 12 is far greater than anything I’ve seen before. The students understand the school because they have grown up in it, and being in such a small, safe environment with constant supervision has preserved their innocence. Again, this may or may not be a good thing. In a large school, perhaps some students would have been pushed by their peers to be more academically successful, or perhaps they would have been offered courses better suited to their needs. With peers less tolerant of immature behaviours, perhaps some students would have been forced to act differently. As before, this may or may not be a good thing.

I look around and ask these questions because it all comes down to the most significant question: How can I be the most effective teacher for this group of students in this environment?

Step one: Ask the questions.
Step two: Watch carefully.
Step three: Try something. And then try something else.
Step Four: Repeat.


*The last question was actually my first action research project as part of my Master’s program and what I learned from it fundamentally shaped my approach to teaching and learning.

What Students Want

Recently I wrote a piece about asking students for feedback, which I have since discussed with several friends who are also educators. Subsequently, I had a conversation with a teacher assistant who is working towards teacher certification. She had a few questions that made me smile because they were questions that I first had in her shoes many years ago, questions that I grapple with often. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to outline a few themes that came through in the DP Psychology course evaluations from my grade 12 students. As their words suggest, students appreciate the following:

Opportunities to learn from each other

I believe that the world needs good people, and I believe that good people work together. They support one another, they work towards shared goals, and they do what is right for the benefit of the group. Schools are phenomenal places of socialization and I’ve learned that these are the lessons that carry outside of the classroom and into the real world. Therefore, one strategy I often use in class is “jigsaw” learning. Divide a task into pieces, share the pieces among the group, conclude the task in a way that requires all pieces to come together. For example, if an essay question contains three parts and then requires an overall evaluation, all three parts must be complete before the group can work together on the evaluation.

But what if he doesn’t do his part, or she completes hers to a much higher degree than they do?

Certainly, this happens. But this is where the framing comes in. When this is framed as an opportunity for students to learn from each other rather than just to complete a task, interaction is more positive. When jigsaw activities provide a means of sharing a range of examples and information in circumstances where there is choice in what students ultimately decide to study, sharing knowledge means that a student might find what a peer has to say more interesting than what they themselves had prepared. In this case, the student has some background knowledge when it comes to making the choice to study a different example than the one they were originally assigned. A student’s overall success does not depend on peers, but working as a group gives everyone a clearer point from which to start.

Real deadlines

I am a stickler for deadlines and have always been. Normal classroom interactions, regardless of grade level, are as follows:

  • “I didn’t finish this.” –> “Submit what you have now.”
  • “Can I have more time?” –> “Submit what you have now and if you’d like to make changes, you have until X time. At that point, I’ll mark whatever is submitted.”
  • “I’m not ready for this test.” –> “Give it a try and if it’s a disaster, we’ll talk about it.”
  • “Do we have to turn this in today?” –> “Yes.”

(Full disclosure: There are exceptions, but they are rare.)

When students ask, as they always do, why deadlines matter, the answer is straightforward:

Deadlines matter because everything operates within the context of a bigger picture. If the problem is procrastination (this is very often the case, and the issue of distraction due to technology grows more alarming with every passing year) postponing a deadline will not solve the problem. Instead, it will exacerbate the problem by creating a domino effect with other deadlines.

Deadlines matter because they allow teachers to catch significant errors when there is still a chance to fix them.

Deadlines matter because unlike the students I work with, who are going through the IB Diploma Programme for the first time, I actually do know how the two-year program works, where the areas of difficulty are likely to be, what to watch out for, and the fluctuations in work ethic that occur throughout. It is not my first time guiding students through this program and that expertise counts.

The easiest example of maintaining real deadlines is with the submission of my students’ replication of a psychology experiment, an internal coursework component that makes up 20-25% of their final official psychology grade. Many students complain about the deadline and protest that we are months ahead of the IB required submission date. Yes we are, I tell them, and you will have plenty to do between now and then. Invariably, every single year, we laugh at this before students go off on study leave. They are always glad that this task was one more thing off the to-do list that never ends.

Organization

A number of years ago, when I moved into a school system that was fully integrated with technology, I started keeping daily plans for my students on blogs and websites with links to all of the resources we would need for that day. This evolved to include search functions, folders of resources, calendars, key words tags, and useful external links. Parents love it because class becomes transparent, and students love it because they know exactly what to do when they’re out and they know where to find everything we’ve ever done in class. When revising for an exam that covers two years of coursework, knowing where to find materials is especially useful. If I am organized, it takes that cognitive load away from my students and allows them to focus on the aspects of learning that require their individualized attention.

My students also wrote about how helpful it was to learn how exam questions are constructed, to begin every unit with a revision document that we filled out in sections throughout the unit, and to follow the same patterns and procedures over and over again. By the end of the course, our psychology key ideas organisers should contain absolutely everything students need to study. And I have heard from students over and over that while there is a lot in these documents, they work.

Thoughtful use of time

I think that one of the reasons students complain about school is similar to one of the reasons adults complain about meetings – they feel that their time is being wasted. I am all for teachers developing a rapport with students. This is critical to creating environments conducive to learning and and to getting to know one another as people, which is essential for working together. However, there is a time and a place. There is a time to laugh and joke, a time to tell a quick story, and a time to spend a few extra minutes on one topic over another.

On the other hand, classroom time is limited and there is a lot that is important to do during that time. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and get caught up in tangentially related ideas, or to spend too much time sharing an interesting story and not enough time following the plan for the day.

We all know that it can be fun to get distracted in class, for teachers as well as students, and I have learned that students appreciate when teachers have an eye on this. There is always a lot to do and it is the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that it gets done and to make sure that limited time is used well.

A general sense of security

Overall, I think this comes down to the message that students appreciate actions demonstrating that teachers know what they’re doing and are working to help students achieve their goals. They want to know that teachers make decisions based on what works for students, that teachers are consistent, and that their time in school is valuable. They want to be treated with dignity and respect – and don’t we all?


Shortly after I wrote the first outline for this blog post at the beginning of April, this article came out. It says in better words, backed up with research rather than anecdotes, what I am trying to say here. “Calm, clear, and kind” are the themes that come through. And again, isn’t that what we all want in our interactions?

“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” – Hanna Holborn Gray