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College of Education > News and Publications > News: April - June 2012 > A Fresh Take on Teacher Professional Development

A Fresh Take on Teacher Professional Development

A pair of education graduate students creates professional-development opportunities that give teachers control over their own learning.

by Sara LaJeunesse (April 2012)

Donnan Stoicovy (left) and Rebecca Burns (right)UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Over a six-year period, public-school teachers in Pennsylvania are required to participate in 180 hours of professional-development training. For many, the obligation is an annoyance—yet another thing they have to do. Two College of Education graduate students say they’ve found a way to make professional-development experiences worth teachers’ while.

“Most staff-development experiences are done to teachers without their input and are not based on their needs,” says Rebecca Burns, a graduate student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and a former middle-school teacher. “We designed an experience that is just the opposite; it is tailored to meet teachers at their readiness levels and to support them in meaningful professional learning. In other words, we changed professional development from being done to teachers to being done with teachers.”

This change in the way professional development is presented to teachers, she adds, empowers them and, ultimately, makes the experience both more relevant and more fun.

With grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Burns and Donnan Stoicovy, a graduate student in the Educational Leadership program and the current principal of Park Forest Elementary School in State College, created a unique professional-development experience for teachers at Park Forest Elementary School in which they encouraged teachers to think about and plan lessons involving the schoolyard and the environment.

“First we surveyed the teachers to find out their needs and desires regarding such a professional-development experience,” says Stoicovy. “Based on that information, we planned the experience and asked for volunteers to participate. In the first year, only half of my staff participated. However, those teachers who participated were really excited and word spread, so by the third year, all but one of my staff members participated.”

The reason the teachers at Park Forest Elementary School were so excited, says Stoicovy, was that they were given a certain amount of control over the experience.

“We gave the teachers an opportunity to self organize into groups and to meet off campus to plan their lessons,” she says, adding that such liberties are not typical in teacher professional-development experiences. “By giving them this autonomy and by trusting them to do the work on their own, the teachers felt much more empowered and were more interested in the topic as a result.”

Examples of lessons that the teachers produced included the incorporation of the outdoors into the writing curriculum through journaling, the creation of a wiki that compiled a series of lessons integrating children’s literature and the schoolyard, and the development of zines that helped students become passionate about writing. Additionally, one learning team developed mathematics lessons involving gardening and wetlands. The team worked closely with Park Forest Elementary School’s librarian on the writing and researching process.

“Everybody can talk at the meetings,” said one teacher who participated in the 2009 professional-development experience. “It’s not like you are being lectured to like at other professional development. Most professional development, you go, someone lectures, you listen to somebody talk to you and you maybe take notes if you can stay awake, but this isn’t like that. Instead everybody is involved; everybody can talk; everybody can share. So you are more invested in it.”

The teachers were invited to present their lessons at mid-term and end-of-term gatherings organized by Burns and Stoicovy. The events were intended to give teachers an opportunity to get feedback from other teachers, to reflect on their experience and progress, and to set goals for the next sessions.

After their initial success with the schoolyard/environment professional-development opportunity, Burns and Stoicovy used the experience as a model for a second experience with a different focus: inclusion of all children in learning.

“We started with the question ‘How can we create a community of learners that celebrates the inclusion of all at Park Forest Elementary School?’ says Stoivocy. “Thirty-five teachers and paraprofessionals stepped up to engage in the experience. After self-organizing into five learning groups, each group developed its own action plan endeavoring to answer questions such as ‘What are the benefits and barriers of co-teaching at Park Forest Elementary School?’ ‘In what ways can we reach out to parents in order to support their child’s learning?’ and ‘How can we improve student engagement?’”

According to Stoicovy, the teachers and paraprofessionals that participated were engaged in something that was of interest to them, which ultimately led to change in the school. “The participants caused a ripple effect by sharing their work with others in the school,” says Stoicovy. “They are making a huge impact on the culture of the school.”

Burns and Stoicovy already are sharing their success story with other developers of teacher professional-development opportunities by giving presentations at conferences. They hope to help initiate a paradigm shift in the way teachers are taught.

“Empowering teachers in their own learning is important not only for teachers but for students too,” says Stoicovy. “Both of the experiences we created were a hit with the teachers. And when teachers get excited about learning their enthusiasm spreads to their students.”