NRC/GT: Professional Developmentā€”Not an Event

Fall 2000 Masthead


E. Jean Gubbins
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

“Reforms don’t spread in places where teachers do not have the capacity to implement them.”
Linda Darling-Hammond, AERA (1998)

 

What does professional development mean to you? Is it a periodic calendar event? Is it based on your school district’s needs? Is it a time to discuss critical issues related to school district priorities? Is it mandatory attendance at a workshop? Are professional development opportunities self-initiated? To what extent have you benefited from professional development opportunities?

How would you answer the questions above? Do you think that your answers would be similar to those of other staff members? Why or why not? Try to gather some informal data by asking your colleagues about their views of professional development. Developing a working understanding of how professional development is viewed by staff members is a critical step in creating an effective plan tailored to your school needs, the needs of each staff member, and the needs of students as well as their parents.

Several years ago, we designed a survey of professional development practices in gifted education. We thought long and hard about the type of information that we wanted to know. We conducted a thorough review of the literature, attended conferences, convened groups of professionals with various prior experiences, and drafted potential items. We wanted to know the extent to which professional development was really tied to the overall visions of school districts. Some of the resulting data from the survey were highlighted in an earlier newsletter (Westberg et al., 1998). Looking back on the data and the outcomes from several studies over the last 10 years of The National Research Center of the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) led to a synthesis of professional development principles. Over and over, one word captured the essence of the principles: CHANGE. Change is certainly difficult; it is a process. We may be acutely aware of the need to restructure a curriculum unit, develop challenging opportunities for students to demonstrate their mathematics or science skills, or address students’ affective needs. Of course, the level of change required to respond to any of these identified needs would vary by person. Most likely, a quick fix would not be appropriate for any plan to change one’s curriculum, instructional style, or classroom climate. Far too many times, a mediocre plan is created just to do something different. We really do not know if the plan will result in improvement or the desired change. We may just want to try something without really analyzing the best way to approach an articulated plan that is responsive to the identified needs at the school, grade, or personal level. We do not always attend to the context in which the change must take place.

The following principles consider the person, as well as the environment, the process, and the end product (e.g., changes in behavior, knowledge base, and instructional approaches). Take a moment and review the 16 principles that emerged from our research. We are sure that you will soon recognize that many of these principles are also reflective of literature beyond the field of gifted and talented education. Go ahead and place a check under “agree” or “disagree” next to each of the following NRC/GT research-based principles.

Do you agree with the NRC/GT research-based principles?

Agree
Disagree
 
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  1. Professional development requires a personal and professional commitment to make a change in existing strategies and practices.
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  1. Professional development opportunities have to be in response to an identified need: school level, grade level, small group, or individual.
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  1. Professional development must be multi-faceted and responsive to varied learning styles.
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  1. Professional development needs to go beyond knowledge acquisition; knowledge and experiences must be applied.
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  1. Professional development may require mentor/protégé experiences.
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  1. Professional development may be more effective with opportunities to observe master teachers in similar roles, engage in collegial coaching, and demonstrate practices.
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  1. Professional development requires time for reflection (e.g., How does this new strategy or practice add to my repertoire? Should this new strategy or practice replace a former one?).
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  1. Professional development needs to have an impact on students, teachers, curriculum, school policies, or school procedures.
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  1. Professional development needs to be valued.
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  1. Professional development requires a desire to learn. Lifelong learners want and need opportunities for continual growth.
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  1. Professional development requires a “personal growth plan” (e.g., What do I want to accomplish? What job will I seek? What skills do I need? How will new skills make a difference in the school or community? How will students benefit?).
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  1. Professional development requires prolonged time, practice, feedback, and reflection.
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  1. Professional development needs to be differentiated (e.g., What do I know? What do I need to know? How will I seek opportunities to learn? How will I share the experiences with others?).
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  1. Professional development plans should reflect creative problem solving guidelines (e.g., find the problem, identify the problem, and seek sources to resolve or redefine the problem).
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  1. Professional development requires administrative and collegial support and a willingness to experience failure.
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  1. Professional development requires the collection, analysis, and application of school-level and district-level data to make informed decisions.

Count the number of checks you have under the heading of “agree.” Did you agree with more than 10 principles of professional development? What were your personal professional development experiences that seemed to result in similar principles? Did you recall your early or current involvement in professional development opportunities?

Professional development has many definitions. There are also multiple terms used in textbooks, journals, and newsletters, such as staff development or inservice. Obviously, the preferred term or phrase is a personal choice, as long as people understand the definition. In our survey of professional development practices, we wanted to make sure that one definition guided the responses. We crafted several definitions and finally wordsmithed one that reflected our views:

Professional development is a planned program of learning opportunities to improve the performance of the administrative and instructional staff. (NRC/GT, 1996)

 

I, too, reviewed the list of 16 principles of professional development in gifted and talented education and checked the appropriate boxes as I reflected on my experiences as an educator for over three decades. I recalled several early experiences with formal and informal approaches. Mandatory attendance at a presentation on a topic chosen by administrators was not always well received. Sometimes people, myself included, assumed the role of reluctant learners or disinterested attendees. The presentation topic may have been selected by someone’s identified need, but those of us who were not engaged in the topic may not have recognized or even agreed with the focus. Clock-watching was a popular habit. I empathized with presenters who were clearly passionate and very knowledgeable about their topics. Many of them learned to read their audiences and to make adjustments in their pre-planned presentations. Obviously, this was not always an easy task. But this is what we ask of ourselves as we work with young people everyday. Shouldn’t we also be able to adopt this same professional stance with adults?

At times, reluctant attendees connected with topics. You could see the changes in participants: body language, level of focus, engagement in questions and answers, or level of participation in hands-on activities. Successful professional development experiences are not a given. Missing the mark is a reality. However, if people are encouraged to share their ideas for the types, styles, or topics of professional development opportunities, the potential for experimenting with suggested strategies and practices will most likely increase.

Designing formal professional development opportunities in response to identified needs is not difficult. One approach would be to ask teachers and administrators to list the outstanding achievements of the school. Then, ask them to list areas of improvement. Review the lists, check for common topics, and summarize the input. Return the lists for additional input by asking staff members to select their first priority for their school. What needs are identified most often? Share the summary of needs with staff members and discuss possible approaches to addressing identified needs. Involving faculty at each phase of planning professional development opportunities will certainly require a little more time, but the effort will be worthwhile.

Remember that professional development is not an event. It is an ongoing opportunity to help you meet your goals as they relate to your role as an educator. Each of us who has chosen to be an educator understands what an enormous responsibility it is to work with youngsters and adults who touch our lives. Changes in practices, instructional styles, or curriculum are realities in places where people have the talent, commitment, and resources to implement them. Are these the places where you want to work? Are these the places where you want your children to attend school?

Reference
Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). Evaluating the Annenberg challenge: Strategies and early findings. Invited presentation at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.
The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. (1996). Professional development practices in gifted and talented education: District level survey. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Westberg, K. L., Burns, D. E., Gubbins, E. J., Reis, S. M., Park, S., & Maxfield. L. R. (1998, Spring). Professional development practices in gifted education: Results of a national survey. The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented Newsletter, pp. 3-4.

 

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