June 17, 2024
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June 17, 2024
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Quality Professional Development

The recent announcement by Herzog Teachers’ College in Jerusalem and the Israeli Ministry of Education of a new Teaching Certificate for Diaspora Educators prompts another look at the need for quality professional development for our day school educators. The program, called Rimonim, will consist of academic-level courses including techno-pedagogy, Bible, Talmud, history and educational challenges in the 21st century. The heavily subsidized program includes a month-long experiential summer seminar in Israel.

Stating the obvious, teachers need to be trained and certified before they set foot in a classroom. Knowledge of content is insufficient. If plumbers, hair stylists and mechanics require training and licensure, al achat kamma v’kamma so should those to whom we entrust our children. Q.E.D.

However, since the reality is otherwise, the need for ongoing quality professional development is crucial. It is also important even for veteran teachers. A compelling vision of professional development has three components: It is results-driven, it is standards-based, it is job-embedded.

Results-driven education for students begins with the end in mind. This is Richard Covey’s formulation of the rabbinic dictum: Sof ma’aseh bemachshava t’chila. A results-driven vision requires us to ask three questions: What do students need to know and be able to do? What do educators need to know and be able to do to ensure student success? What professional development will ensure that educators acquire the necessary knowledge and skills?

This requires a standards-based vision. Standards-based planning deals with content, process and context. What knowledge and skills must educators learn to produce higher levels of learning for all students? How is learning structured to support teacher acquisition of new knowledge and skills? How is the school structured to support teacher learning? Is the school culture supportive of these goals?

In order for this vision to succeed there must be leadership, advocacy, organizational alignment and support. Staff development is based on continuous improvement that requires time set aside for learning. The process for developing this program is also standards-based. There must be organizational development and systems thinking regarding the change process for the organization as well as for the individual. Decision making for selecting staff development content must be data-driven. The models chosen for staff development should feature collaborative skills, and integration of innovations. An evaluation component must be built in, and there must be follow-up. Training without follow-up is malpractice.

The teleology of staff development posits that staff development is at the center of educational reform, and that there must be performance improvement for all who effect student learning. The most powerful staff-development program builds a culture that supports innovation, experimentation and collegial sharing. Good staff development also engages teachers in daily planning, critiquing and problem solving. Research has shown that good professional development, which recognizes teaching as a collaborative activity, can contribute to improved student achievement.

Professional development should deepen teachers’ content knowledge. This is essential to learning how to teach subject matter so that students understand it. It should also expand teachers’ instructional skills. Their knowledge of subject matter, plus their ability to translate that knowledge into classroom learning activities, are both crucial components of improving student achievement. It should be recognized that teachers have a great deal of knowledge about instruction, and therefore collaboration and sharing are very important.

A skilled facilitator or mentor can weave a tapestry of instructional skills based on teachers’ experience. Schools that have embedded coaching and allotted time for teaching teams to analyze student work produce more successful learning environments for students. A school that is effective with students is also likely to organize teachers’ work in a way that reduces teacher isolation and enhances opportunities for teacher learning. When a school pays teachers for a 30-hour week, but requires 25 hours for instruction and five for collaborative learning every week, that is a job-embedded approach. The novice can be mentored and the veteran can coach. This is but one example.

The challenge of designing a system in which all students and teachers are learning at high levels is a daunting one. Change is needed and change is difficult. Change requires new ways of thinking and behaving, is major in scope, discontinuous with the past and generally irreversible. Most people seek quantum differences in performance by pursuing incremental change. Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy.

There are no simple rules for finding high-leverage changes in school systems, but there are ways that make it more likely. Learning to see underlying “structures” rather than “events” is a starting point. Small, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they are in the right place. A vision must be morally compelling, richly detailed and a stretch for the organization. Making it happen requires three things: (1) a clear, compelling vision of the results; (2) thorough, ruthless assessment of institutional reality; and (3) powerful strategies and action plans to achieve the vision.

The National Staff Development Council recommends that schools allocate at least 10% of their budgets to staff development, and that at least 25% of an educator’s work time be devoted to learning and collaboration with colleagues. Research has demonstrated the critical link between a teacher’s own knowledge of subject matter and the skills that enable them to translate subject content into productive classroom learning activities. The goal and impact of professional development must be to improve results, not simply to enhance practice. Teachers must be clear about their priority—the goal of professional development is increased student learning.

To use an image from the airlines—we sometimes spend a great deal of time placing oxygen masks on other people’s faces while we ourselves are suffocating. Principals preoccupied with expected outcomes desperately want teachers to breathe in new ideas, yet do not themselves engage in visible, serious learning. Teachers badly want their students to learn to perform above grade level, yet seldom reveal themselves to children as learners. Setting up an effective professional development program requires foresight, fortitude and the integrity to answer the following questions: What is the goal for this “program”? What data tells us that this program is important? What research supports the notion that this program will achieve the desired results? Is there something educators must know and be able to do to implement it successfully? How will educators acquire the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions to ensure its success? Have resources been set aside to support the learning? Have other programs/initiatives been sacrificed for this new program? Which ones and why? How will the program be evaluated?

The overwhelming majority of teachers understand that improved student achievement should be the goal of professional development. They also wish to improve their skills and increase their knowledge. Since most teachers are altruistic, it is incumbent upon educational institutions to provide appropriate and quality professional training. Teachers are credible messengers about schools. We should listen to them. In fact, according to a recent survey, teachers are more credible in general than religious leaders, school officials, TV news anchors, governors, senators, mayors, congressmen and TV and radio talk show hosts. They are only slightly less credible than Supreme Court Justices.

The in-service workshop approach favored by most Jewish schools does not meet the criteria for quality professional development as outlined here. The need for properly trained teachers in our day schools is of crucial importance. If their formal preparation is any indication of the need for ongoing training, this is of vital and immediate importance.

While general studies faculty in most day schools are usually state licensed, the formal preparation of the Jewish studies faculty is spotty. Some are Israelis who may or may not be trained in teaching Hebrew as a second language and who may or may not have a sophisticated background in Judaica subjects. Rabbis and seminary graduates may have the required Judaica background, but many lack any formal pedagogic training and/or Hebrew language skills. All of this points to the serious need for quality, ongoing professional development programs.

We must create a powerful, compelling vision about strengthening the school culture. Resistance and barriers must be met and overcome. Priorities are what get funded. This is a priority. Chief Sitting Bull said: “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” And French scientist Claude Bernard observed, “It’s what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning.”

Jewish history has been described as “challenge and response.” We have outlined the challenge. What will be our response?

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children.

John Dewey

Things remain the same because it is impossible to change very much without changing most of everything.

Ted Sizer, founder of the Essential school movement.

It is no failure to fall short of realizing all that we might dream. The failure is to fall short of dreaming all that we may realize.

Dee Hock, Founder, VISA

The world as we understand it is a product of our way of thinking. Nothing will change in the future without fundamentally new ways of thinking.

Albert Einstein

Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a day school educator, administrator and consultant.

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