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It Takes Time

Twenty tips for making professional development a priority in your district

A universal truth in the life of a teacher or administrator is that there are never enough hours in the day, days in the week and weeks in the year. And professional development is especially hard to squeeze onto a filled calendar.

Adding to this problem is that the concept of meaningful professional development has changed. "For many years, administrators and teachers thought there was value in 'one-shot' professional development programs-sometimes jokingly called 'flu shots,' " says Juliana Texley, a former superintendent who currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in science and technology, through the Jason Academy for Science Teaching and Learning. Today, she says, we recognize the value of thinking about the concepts learned, trying them out and then returning to the group for more interaction. This points to the need for more professional development time.

While everyone should have individual learning goals, the challenges of freeing time for professional development tend to be similar based on roles within the school system:

Small district administrators may be in an even tougher position. Large district leaders have a lot more flexibility in being away from the office, says Joe Schneider, deputy executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

And then there are those juggling their roles as both building- and district-level administrators. Beccy Baldwin, the elementary school principal in North Nodaway R-VI School District in Hopkins and Pickering, Mo., for example, also handles her district's staff development. Preparing for the weekly district-wide professional development activity, she says, is "like teaching a graduate class."

Before creating solutions to professional development's time barrier, remind yourself of why it should be a priority. Yvonne Katz, superintendent of Beaverton (Ore.) School District, says she spends about 20 percent of her time working on professional growth. "I look to the private sector ... to test ideas and see what they've done," she says. Industries spend millions on staff development while the public sector seems to cut that area first, she explains. When Katz came to Beaverton nine years ago, $32 million in programs and services had to be cut, and the entire staff development department vanished.

"We had to figure out other ways of being creative in providing staff development," Katz says. "You can't continue to lead a forward-looking school district without growing and being out there with the latest research and best practices." Consider the following 20 tips from administrators about how they're making professional development time a priority in their districts. What might you do to make it meaningful in yours?

1. Set realistic time frames for development goals. As the author of The Professional Growth Plan: A School Leader's Guide to the Process (SkyLight Professional Development, 2002), McCormick suggests training a leader to work with staff as they create personal growth plans. "It's the administrator's job to say, 'That's too much for you to do,' " she says. When developing a time frame, consider what the person's schedule actually allows and how long it should take to complete the tasks, even if the answer is a few years.

2. Create job-embedded learning goals to make the best use of time. An essential part of the growth-plan process implemented by McCormick in her district is that the knowledge and skills learned can be applied in the classroom. This practice allows teachers to know what works and what doesn't and figure out why. "Teachers with growth plans in place can use teacher workshop days to work on them," McCormick says. Job-embedded administrator goals might be related to school improvement plans, teacher evaluations or other current initiatives and responsibilities.

3. Be proactive about suggesting opportunities for your staff and helping them find the time. McCormick says that she keeps an eye out for teachers whose growth plans overlap so she can get them working together. "I'm the one who can say, 'You guys need some subs to free you up.' Or, 'Let me get coverage for your class so you can go and analyze this data.' Or, 'Let me cover your class while you sit with the in-house consultant.' "

4. To save staff development planning time, hire a third-party vendor to help develop district or individual goals. For example, Salt Lake City-based iAssessment measures the current skills of teachers and the effectiveness of professional development resources and technology training. Its Web-based applications allow staff to do a quick self-appraisal, and then chart the skills, aligning them to standards. Co-founder Dan Cookson says, "It's really cut down on [administrator] time-it enables them to ... get a clear understanding using data-driven decision making." Districts have used iAssessment tools to establish career ladders, find professional development activities that meet their needs and identify deficiencies in district offerings.

5. Alter the school schedule through regular late starts or early dismissals. North Nodaway, a district with less than 300 students and about 40 teachers and administrators, reserves every Wednesday morning for professional development. "We decided that doing traditional professional development-one shot once a month-wasn't doing anything," Baldwin says. "What we wanted was to create something that would give us follow-through, a focus." After "a lot of proactive planning" where the district came up with solutions to every possible challenge to a weekly late start schedule, the administrators brought the idea to the school board and got it approved.

6. Use release time created by student teacher programs. Because programs require that student teachers spend time on their own in the classroom, supervising teachers might be given the opportunity to collaborate on a project, McCormick says.

7. Hire substitutes to create teacher release time. Understand, however, that this solution can create more work for teachers. "You have to prepare for the sub and then clean up after the sub-regardless of how good the sub is," McCormick says.

Teachers also worry about the effect of subs on students. Stillwater is creating a technology substitute project to help solve this problem. "We have packaged technology lesson projects that a group of volunteers can be trained to do, so kids aren't losing any instructional time," says Leggett. The district plans to train pre-service teachers and parents to teach the technology lessons, which may be introduced to an entire grade at once so the teachers can collaborate.

8. Set up a system where retired teachers or those who want part-time work can substitute regularly. Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska, formed a "trickle-charge" team of teachers for this purpose, says Director of Curriculum and Instruction Bob Crumley. "We contract them for 30 days a year to help teachers or [administrators] in a number of ways." Once the team relieved a whole school's teaching staff for a full day.

9. Consider advocating for year-round school. Crumley's district is looking at making this work so that getting teachers together for intensive week-long training sessions is possible. AASA's Schneider says he is impressed by the spread of year-round schools in California, where teachers might remain on nine-month contracts but there are employment opportunities available year-round.

10. Offer summer learning opportunities that teachers can't refuse. Most districts have just four to five staff development days spread out during the year, according to Schneider. But Chugach has in recent years planned about 10 during the school year and 20 during the summer, which teachers attended without compensation for two years (now the district pays them stipends, usually $140 per day). "We had a very dedicated staff that was committed to giving up their time in the summer as long as the administration allowed them to play a large part in making policy changes," Crumley says. From writing standards to developing an instructional model, the district's teachers feel that summer session projects equal time well spent.

In Beaverton, teachers are offered "a very rich menu of short courses" that are free and extremely popular, Katz says. Staff members with a particular strength, such as technology, are used as summer instructors.

11. Understand that teachers of non-related subject areas may still benefit from spending time on an activity. In Baldwin's district, all staff attended a session on statewide testing in math and science. "The librarian or band teacher may not think it's relevant to them," she says. "In our small district, what we feel is important is that those people are also informed." And this thinking has paid off. After the statewide testing session, the band teacher composed a song using the concepts of the water cycle, which the third grade teacher now uses in the classroom.

12. Allow staff to take ownership of development topics. "Teacher empowerment is essential," says Crumley, who explains that last winter's three-day training session topic was replaced when teachers became interested in how teaching strategies for students affected by fetal alcohol syndrome could be used to raise student achievement across the board. Crumley also asks staff to complete evaluations after every professional development activity. He says the district acts upon this feedback and relays an evaluation summary in a district-wide newsletter.

13. Use "train-the-trainer" methods. Katz says her district frequently sends a teacher or administrator to a course or convention, with the expectation that the person returns to spread the word-saving both time and money.

14. Allow aspiring leaders the chance to fill in for administrators. Teacher participants in Beaverton's Future Leaders Program sometimes take on the responsibilities of a vice principal or other administrator who needs to be away from the office, whether it's because of a sick day or the administrator needs to attend a conference. A substitute mans the teacher's classroom that day, Katz says.

15. Provide incentives for participation, prompting educators to find the time. Indianapolis Public Schools offered laptops (funded by a state grant) to principals who completed an online course in technology leadership. Now they are creating online workgroups for parents, teachers and students, as well as posting newsletters, working documents for teachers, announcements and other information online, says instructor Julie Bohnenkamp, director of instructional technology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

16. Let your commitment to professional development serve as a model. "I don't ask staff to read professionally if I'm not also reading professionally," says McCormick, whose own learning goals include wanting to calculate the impact the professional growth process has had on her schools' professional learning environment. "I think [my staff knows] the expectations I've set for myself."

17. Use technology to communicate with staff about professional readings so they can learn as their individual schedules allow. "What I've started in the district is a Socratic seminar program where we read best practices and publications," says Crumley. "Through e-mail and teleconferences or face-to-face, we discuss how that impacts what we're currently doing."

18. Encourage online learning for teachers. With an online class, professional development can be squeezed into any tight schedule. "The coursework can be divided into whatever time units are most convenient-15-minute chunks or half a day on Saturday," says Texley of the Jason Academy, which offers five-week courses requiring six to 10 hours of work per week.

Suzanne Flynn, a fourth grade teacher at Indian Brook Elementary in Plymouth, Mass., recently took Texley's Introduction to Science Teaching and Learning class. "I found that it's all about priorities in your life and multitasking as much as possible," Flynn says. She found herself engrossed in her assignments while she had her 6 a.m. coffee, and then again for a few minutes after returning home from school. "You get the spaghetti going and then you get to work," she says of a typical dinner hour.

19. Explore online learning for yourself and other administrators. While teachers have probably embraced online learning more than administrators have, school leaders are beginning to see the benefits of this format. Cyndy Woods, a Fulbright Teacher Scholar and assistant principal at Maya High School, a charter school in Glendale, Ariz., is also a department chair for Classroom Connect's new Connected University, which offers three-week online technology courses for administrators. "Since administrators truly have a 24/7 kind of job, they need to maximize their available moments-and online learning allows them to do that," she says, adding that "if they find they have time on a weekend, they're likely to be home, learning at a relaxed and self-set pace."

Ron Poole, principal of Nutter Fort (W.Va.) Intermediate School, recently completed Connected University's Administrator I course. "You can't always be running everywhere through the nation" for face-to-face professional development, he says. "I was a little bit frightened [to try online learning]. ... It was unknown territory. I found that it's not nearly as much effort as I thought it was going to be. And the rewards that can pay off are going to be tenfold in my opinion." As far as the in-person contact that online learners may miss, Poole says he got to know some of his classmates well. "There is genuine concern and a feeling of comradery that we're all doing this together-we're all learning and sharing ideas."

20. Carefully choose the best use of your own professional development time. "There's a lot of wonderful opportunity out there, and there's a big need for time in my district," Crumley says, adding that he participates in activities that will benefit himself and the district.

Schneider says he's seeing a big emphasis on instructional leadership now, primarily among principals but also among superintendents, who need to know how to recruit and evaluate instructional leaders. Data management is also a hot issue, he says. Schneider anticipates a lot of interest in workshops that will help districts deal with the new funding regulations created by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Like many administrators, Baldwin sometimes feels as if she must force herself to grow professionally. But her own growth will always be a top priority, she says. "I make my school grow because I grow."

Melissa Ezarik,, is features editor.