Five Approaches to Professional Development Compared

Dennis R. Lauro, Jr., Northern Westchester/Putnam Teacher Center, North Salem, N.Y. The author compares and contrasts five different ways to implement teacher and staff training. He calls them: Comprehensive (bring in experts, ongoing basis); One-Shot Deal (presenter & seminars); attending Conferences; In-House Trainer; and Video-Based Staff Development. While the latter is the one that this center prefers, they note that offering more than one type of option is, of course, the best. Costs and other issues are covered for all of the approaches. Education has experienced many changes in the past 25 years, but professional development, while being an integral part of that change, hasn't always played a large role. Over the years, however, research has proven its benefits and government has placed more emphasis on professional development efforts. To help educators and the nation focus on this issue, teacher training was added to GOALS 2000: The Educate America Act, and funding allocated. Spearheaded by the Bush and Clinton administrations, this national educational mission has been legislated into federal law by Congress. As education directs more attention to the professional development and training of staff members at the district and school level, the selection of which training method to utilize must be decided. Schools and districts must address this as well as other questions before a professional development method or program is selected and implemented. The questions are many and inter-related. Which issues or topics should be studied? Is the district or school properly organized and prepared for a particular program or idea? What goals exist and what d'es the staff need to accomplish those goals? Is there a "mission statement" or is the staff responsible for determining the direction of the school or district? What are the concerns of the community? What do the students really need? Will teachers change, if change is necessary? What are the costs involved? Should staff training be conducted by district or school employees or should outside sources be brought in? Acceptance, Though Tough, Is Crucial Vital to the implementation of any professional development program or method is the acceptance by staff and real support for the selected program. For example, an administrator might attend a conference, learn about a successful program and desire to implement the idea or program districtwide. Individual school principals, upon the administrator's suggestions, will attempt to influence the school's teachers to implement the program or idea with their students. This top-down approach is rarely effective; without any input from teachers, their acceptance is harder to gain. Change is also often a difficult and long process. Depending on the program and the school or district, it may take one to five years from introduction to complete implementation. This time span means that many schools and districts may change their focus midstream. They may begin to implement yet another new program while staff members are only beginning to adjust to or accept the first idea. Thus, despite the best intentions, the goal of improving the teaching and learning process is again inhibited. Constant changing of programs can occur due to the lack of success of those initiated, to impatience or insufficient commitment by the administration and staff, or to the scarcity of funds to continue. Schools may also realize, after enthusiastically dedicating time, money and personnel, that a program d'esn't enjoy a high rate of success by reason of an inadequate research base. Inevitably, discontinuation of practiced ideas and the startup of new programs will lead to a lack of support and/or delay acceptance by some staff members for new programs. One way to assure success is to involve teachers early in the process of identifying their professional development needs, then maintain that involvement and feedback loop all the way through the design and implementation process. Support can be gained by studying and researching the various staff development programs under consideration. One should also seek the opinions and thoughts of the various teachers and administrators who will be involved on a day-to-day basis with the new process. The administration, for their part, must convey to teachers their ongoing confidence in the chosen method and their desire for transferring its benefits to students. If the administration isn't truly committed to the approach, then why should the teachers be? Conversion to a new program d'esn't happen overnight; it sometimes takes ten or more years for a school system to be thoroughly committed to, and secure with, a new idea. Thus, recurring demonstrations of support by administrators is vital to reassuring teachers. Schools face many concerns as they implement staff development programs. They must consider the different options available, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to present those options to teachers in a way that gains their acceptance. The goal is to find ways to improve the processes of education&emdash;teaching, learning and administration. Underlying it all is an imperative to reach the goal in a cost-effective way. The following discussion explores five general options available to those responsible for professional development. Issues of staff acceptance, program effectiveness, cost and more are included. Approach No. 1 &emdash; Comprehensive The first, and the most effective, is the comprehensive program. This consists of bringing a combination of experts and trainers with extensive professional development experience into a district or school to direct staff development sessions and to train staff members. The comprehensive approach is the most effective because of consistent training sessions that focus on specific objectives and goals. Teachers and administrators know the goals and objectives for each session and realize that every few weeks they will discuss them. Expert advice is provided by the presence of these outside trainers who return in a timely fashion throughout the year. The commitment a school or district has to make financially, coupled with this method's natural consistency of staff development resources utilized, plus teacher involvement throughout the process, fosters a greater percentage of teachers buying into the program. The comprehensive approach will be supported by a majority of teachers and administrators in the first or second year as they understand the long-term investment involved. From that point, an ever greater number of staff members are willing to support the program and make a long-term pledge to change as they see a commitment from their school and/or district as well as the willingness of colleagues to aid in the planning and implementation. It takes four to five years to implement a comprehensive program. Cost is high, based largely on the size of the staff to be trained, by the time you bring in presenters, trainers and pay for substitutes. Approach No. 2 &emdash; The One-Shot Deal The second approach, and probably the most common, is the "one-shot deal." A presenter is brought in before the school year starts and staff members get together for one to three days to focus on a valid, specific topic. Teachers benefit from this approach by learning about a particular idea or topic from an expert in that field. The interaction of the teachers with the expert, one-on-one or in group sessions, fosters a broader and deeper understanding of the topic. While common, this approach is one of the most expensive forms of staff development because of the lack of follow-through. Normally, a presenter arrives in a district, makes a presentation and a majority of teachers more than likely embrace the ideas discussed. School starts and teachers are motivated to try some of the ideas learned. However, because of little or no ongoing reinforcement, when stumbling blocks occur or questions arise that can't be answered, the idea has a tendency to fail as everybody reverts to their old ways. Additional challenges of the one-shot deal include delayed implementation and a lack of hands-on or practical examples. Since training usually occurs during breaks or the summer, teachers can only attempt to implement what they remember. And without hands-on sessions or real-life examples, transforming theory into classroom practice is quite difficult. Furthermore, because the training is only for a few days a year, it's hard to gain teachers' acceptance because they don't see a consistent commitment by the district or school. Change only takes place when it is consistent and supported over a sustained period of time. The cost to bring in presenters can also be expensive, as much as $1,500 to $5,000 a day, plus expenses, depending on the person. Approach #3 &emdash; Conferences Conferences comprise the third approach of staff development options. Conferences are a great resource as attendees can obtain massive amounts of information in a conservative amount of time. A district or school will generally send several people, depending on the conference's location, cost and content. Many different ideas, theories and practices are presented and displayed at conferences, providing participants with an abundance of information. But the amount of information available at conferences poses both an advantage and a disadvantage. Conference attendees have the opportunity to learn, in one location, about various methods, practices and new ideas for improvements and change in education. However, along with this comes the responsibility to determine which ideas are valuable enough to return and present to their school or district. Acceptance of the new ideas may suffer because those who attend the conferences don't have the experience to judge the presentations or the conference's base of presenters, yet they have the assignment to train staff members. Fellow teachers may also resent not being sent to the conference themselves. If the valuable ideas are never communicated to the rest of the staff, the only beneficiaries are the conference attendees. Conferences may also be pretty expensive; some can cost up to $1,500 per person, including travel expenses. Approach No. 4 &emdash; In-House The fourth approach, in-house professional development, can be very effective since trainers conduct onsite training of peers and are established as a constant resource. A qualified and trained person is available consistently to answer questions, to resolve concerns and to provide constant reinforcement of the commitment by a district or school to a certain program. This type of follow-through is invaluable for staff training. A challenge for in-house staff trainers is to stimulate interest and enthusiasm from teachers for staff development sessions. They must present themselves as examples by remaining up-to-date on educational issues and trends. Trainers must also create a bond of professional learning with their peers by pursuing feedback and assistance from teachers and administrators. This approach is very effective if the trainers demonstrate dedication to improving education, provide guidance in addition to directions, and are viewed by peers as knowledgeable resources of information in the school or district. They must be viewed as supporters of the program, willing to work with teachers to assist them in becoming experts in the new endeavor. Costs vary for this approach, but are, by nature, relatively high. School and district budgets, which are vital to the success of this approach, must dedicate the time and money necessary to research, materials, preparation, personnel and the actual staff development sessions. Approach No. 5 &emdash; Holistic Video-Based The fifth option is a holistic, video-based approach to staff development. This approach consists of a full year of monthly reinforcement, in video format, of research-based educational concepts. The videos are used as a source of constant renewal, motivation and long-term change for educators. While video training is nothing new, there is a unique resource in this format that we have been using at the Northern Westchester/Putnam Teacher Center in New York. Called The Video Journal of Education, it is a high-quality video series featuring current educational issues to assist teacher training. Utilized by educators in the U.S. and Canada, the series is a great example of this approach to professional development. Each year a new volume of The Video Journal is produced. A volume contains nine issues and each issue has two 30-35 minute videotapes, an audio tape containing both video soundtracks and an easy-to-use guidebook to facilitate group discussion. Featuring nationally recognized experts, the videos address the latest concepts and theories in education; in addition, real classroom examples are profiled. Each video is a piece of the puzzle that forms the composite of a truly quality school, and provides educators with methods for improved teacher instruction and higher student achievement. It is our belief, based on our own experiences, that discussions following the viewing of these videos can help launch staff members, teachers, administrators, school boards, parents and students into dynamic processes that, over time, will motivate and forge real change in school practice. At the center, we use the video series to gain an understanding of the different types of new approaches available such as performance-based assessment, site-based governance, inclusion, multi-cultural education and many other important educational issues and topics. But, while administrators may relish in various educational theories, teachers benefit most by seeing other teachers teaching. A combination of theory and hands-on examples is the basis for the holistic video-based approach to staff training. With The Video Journal, for example, teachers aren't limited to hearing about an idea in a presentation, they actually see their peers in rural, urban and suburban schools utilizing the very ideas or programs they are learning about. Teachers are best motivated to try new ideas by watching other teachers experience success in a real classroom. An additional advantage of the holistic video-based approach is the ability to control the schedule and location of professional development sessions. Videos can be shown at the most convenient time for a school's schedule, instead of scheduling around a presenter or a conference. Training sessions can also be held at individual schools, cutting down on transportation costs and the time involved for each session. The video-based approach is not designed to replace group discussion, but to augment it. It should be used to increase group communication, generate ideas or assist in the implementation of a program. Unless the videos are followed by discussion and practice, they turn into a "one-shot deal" and lose their effectiveness. Success from this approach comes with aligning the videos' topics with the goals and culture of a school system, as well as their constant availability as a resource to new staff or personnel, or those with questions or concerns. The holistic video-based approach is also cost-effective. With The Video Journal, national experts, who may charge as much as $15,000 for a full presentation to a large group, present their theories on video for a fraction of the cost. In addition, districts that could not afford to send teachers to another district to observe quality teaching can now, at a significantly lower cost, observe effective teachers in classrooms across the U.S. and Canada. Instead of spending several thousand dollars on conferences or to bring in one expert, extensive staff training on many different programs and ideas is available&emdash;with less of a budget strain. Conclusion The professional development program at most school districts incorporates several of these approaches. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but all contribute to the improvement of teaching and learning as no one teacher approaches staff development in the same way. Providing various options of staff development can only lead to a better staff who is prepared to face the challenges of everyday education. Effective means, cost-effective delivery systems and a staff willing to learn can only make the educational setting a better place. No matter which option is selected for professional development, the true measure of success is when student results improve and teachers say: "This is the most exciting thing I've seen in education. I'm teaching more effectively and my students are succeeding. I go to my classroom motivated to teach, and I enjoy my job." Dennis Lauro has been director of the Northern Westchester/Putnam Teacher Center for the past three years. The Center serves more than 1,200 teachers in six participating school districts that make up a consortium dedicated to staff development in the state of New York. The local district-supported state program enables the Policy Board, made up of a majority of classroom teachers, to govern the operation and leave the day-to-day work largely to staff.Three Keys to Success First, choose the right program for your school or district and put the right people in charge of it. Second, involve teachers proactively. When teachers are active in identifying their professional development needs&emdash;planning a program, selecting trainers and actual implementation&emdash;the likelihood of the program being able to affect change is dramatically enhanced. Third, only launch a professional development program when there is full support for its implementation, including from the school board, administrative members and staff, as well as the practitioners who will receive the training. Products mentioned: The Video Journal of Education, Salt Lake City, Utah, (800) 572-1153

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.