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Professional Opinion

Providing PD on a budget

Three low-cost training tools that meet today’s education needs
Barbara Blackburn is one of the nation’s foremost authors on student engagement and increasing rigor. Ronald Williamson is a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University.
Barbara Blackburn is one of the nation’s foremost authors on student engagement and increasing rigor. Ronald Williamson is a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University.

Effective professional development is an essential part of every school improvement effort.

Traditionally, the process has included workshops, seminars, courses and conferences. These types of activities have varied in terms of effectiveness and often are quite costly.

Today’s professional development, while still providing these options, has expanded to include peer coaching, collaborative work teams, study groups, action research teams and other activities that support a teacher-leadership approach. Let’s look at three PD effective opportunities.

Using articles for guided discussion

One of the simplest and most effective ways to help teachers grow is through book studies. However, the programs can be a drain on limited resources. An alternative is to use articles and other print or electronic resources to guide discussions on particular topics.

For example, Barbara Blackburn was asked to work with one district that wanted to increase rigor in its classrooms. As a beginning point, the principal shared “The Beginner’s Guide to Rigor” to provide a basis for teachers to discuss their own perspectives of rigor, as well as to incorporate new ideas. Afterward, teachers explored concepts on various websites to implement in their classrooms.

Looking at student work

Another powerful way to improve your school’s instructional program is to look at authentic student work. In many schools, teams of teachers—either at the department, course or grade level—examine student work as a way to clarify their own standards, to strengthen common expectations for students or to align curricula across faculty.

This is most effective when teachers are comfortable sharing their students’ work and revealing artifacts about their classroom practice. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform suggests several preliminary steps in its “Looking at Student Work Protocol”:

  • Talk together about the process and how to ensure it is not evaluative.
  • Identify ways to gather relevant contextual information—e.g., copies of assignments or scoring guides).
  • Select a protocol or guideline for the conversation that promotes discussion and interaction. 
  • Agree on how to select work samples.
  • Establish a system for providing and receiving feedback that is constructive.

Learning walks

A learning walk is a form of instructional walkthrough, but one that is typically organized and led by teachers. Learning walks are not designed for individual feedback, but instead help participants learn about instruction and identify strengths and weaknesses.

Learning walks provide a “snapshot” of the instructional program at your school. Participants should not draw conclusions about individual teachers or classes. Remember these points:

  • Work with your staff to identify the purpose of the learning walk.
  • Determine the process, including length of classroom visits, what will occur during the visits, and a consistent tool for participants to use to record their observations.
  • Conduct a pre-walk orientation for those participating.
  • Conduct the learning walk and spend no more than five minutes in each classroom.
  • Immediately after the walk, ask participants to meet and talk about the information they gathered and how to share it with the faculty.
  • Develop a plan for sharing information and for using it to guide your continued school improvement work.

In today’s climate of limited funds and resources, building on low-cost PD alternatives is critical.

Barbara Blackburn (bcgroup@gmail.com) is one of the nation’s foremost authors on student engagement and improving rigor in classrooms. She works with teachers and school leaders throughout the country on issues of student motivation, instructional rigor, student engagement and leadership for school change. Ronald Williamson (rwmson214@aol.com) is a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University. He works with school leaders and leadership teams on improving school culture and improving the educational experience of students.