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This Principal Knew PD Was Irrelevant. So He and His Teachers Changed It

What will professional development for educators look like in 10 years?

Will it continue to be a top-down, one-size-fits-all annual training that all teachers must attend, or will PD turn into something that teachers have always demanded it be—useful and relevant?

Right now, it seems like most PD falls in the former category. In a nationally representative survey of 1,400 teachers, the EdWeek Research Center reported that almost half of teachers don’t think the PD they get is relevant to their work. They also think they get too much PD in a year.

Some principals are aware of this problem of relevance. In fact, Chris Young, the principal of North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt., felt it acutely in his school.

“I’ve been a principal for 22 years. I remember a time when I had a lot more leeway in how I set up PD [for teachers],” said Young, during an April 11 virtual summit hosted by Education Week. (see video embedded at top of this article)

In more recent years, as federal and state policymakers focused more on improving public education, district and school leaders had to start following more top-down training mandates.

“It’s frustrating to not learn strategies in our own subject area,” said William Prue, who’s taught music at North Country Union for the last 13 years.

To address teacher frustrations about relevance, Young started to make some definitive changes to the way PD was done in his school.

The idea was for teachers to create an “action-research project” to study the implementation of an instructional or engagement strategy in their classes, and then record its impact on students. Young said he wanted teachers to tackle a problem of practice as their PD for the year. Those who opted in wouldn’t have to sit through any other PD sessions through the year.

“We wanted our teachers to become reflective practitioners,” Young said
“If they are using a particular instructional strategy, they should figure out if it’s effective.”

Prue was one of the first teachers to sign up. His research question tried to gauge if student participation and engagement increased when he invited members of the community—mostly retirees—to play instruments with students during band class. He’s collected one round of surveys to capture student reactions to playing instruments with adults, which indicated that it was a positive experience for them. “The adults and kids are learning from each other. It helped the kids to see that they have a future and make connections with adults who’ve had full lives,” Prue said.

The action-research PD has now launched Prue into a full year of study. He’s on a sabbatical from teaching next school year to pursue this research question more deeply and figure out how the same strategy of integrating community members into learning might be applied to other classes at North Country, such as physics, English, or physical education.

Teachers shape the PD, but with some conditions

This type of PD is only a year old at the school, said Young, but there are a few rules about how to implement it.

First, its open only to teachers who’ve taught for over three years. For newer teachers, Young emphasized that the school still needs to ground them in core teaching practices. In its first iteration, 20 teachers from the high school signed up.

The second condition was to choose a research question based on a strategy that the teacher was already using in their class.

“We had some teachers who wanted to try out a new reading program. That would’ve been too much,” Young said. Some of the other PD research projects that teachers are currently running include mapping how knowledge about geography can impact math learning, and whether introducing performance art in classes improves how students engage with their academic content.

For Young and Prue, this type of PD flips the switch on what usually happens.

“Imagine that I went to a conference over the summer and saw a session on community connections. And then I ran an in-service [session] to tell my teachers that I’d like them to implement more community engagement in their classrooms. Some people will ask me why that’s relevant to them,” said Young.

The benefit in this type of PD is that teachers will try out a research question that’s relevant to them, and then show the results to their colleagues. “That’s where a school-wide change will take root,” Young added.

Prue said this approach to PD has brought other benefits, like learning research skills while he was also getting a better sense of what engages his students. “Next time, I’m going to invite a bigger group of community members, high school students and teachers from junior high, to test the impact of my methods,” Prue said.

Reset for the next year

As Prue heads off to pursue his fellowship, Young plans to tweak this PD experiment for the next cohort. The PD in the second year won’t be linked to getting university course credit, an arrangement Young had struck with the Southern New Hampshire University in the first iteration of the PD. That arrangement ended up being cumbersome, he said.

“If teachers were to do an action research project, I wanted it to be a well-designed one that would actually test their methodology. But for the credit, we had to frontload a lot of the information, and we didn’t have enough time at the end to go through teacher reflections,” said Young.

What Young will retain are the trainings on how to look for the right research question and study it. Teachers often won’t have the skill set to come up with a research project or find time to read the current literature on teacher practices. Young plans to continue that support for future cohorts.

The school has built time into their professional development days for teachers to work on their research projects. Young wants more teachers to sign up for the next round but isn’t yet suggesting topics for them to research.

“I want teachers to reflect on their practice and ask hard questions. It’s not about how big the project is. I’ll be happy if I see teachers take up more projects around proficiency-based learning, he said. “But we’re not there yet.”

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