This is a condensed version of an article I wrote for the spring 2014 edition of Living Education eMagazine.
The National Staff Development Council’s Standards for Staff Development provide guidance to school leaders focused on fostering high-quality professional learning communities. Principals who are willing to utilize the standards will find that they enable them to address the varied needs of teachers, which, in turn, enhances the learning of an increasingly diverse student population. School leaders should consider using a differentiated staff development model aligned with the pedagogical practices they expect of their teachers.
The NSDCs context, process and content standards offer a structure that promotes the development of school-based staff development programs capable of creating enduring educational change. A brief examination of the standards provides insight into how school leaders might differentiate their school-based staff development.
Organizing adults into learning communities does not happen magically. School leaders must provide the structure and time needed for teachers to collaborate with their peers. A culture of learning needs to be built in order for teacher capacity to increase (Rutherford, 2006). While the goals of the learning community should be aligned with district goals, they should be specific to the needs of the local school.
Teachers need time to discuss strategies for getting students to achieve, share their teaching practices, improve their techniques, and set communal student achievement goals (Sawchuk, 2007). This requires strong leadership and the ability to obtain the required resources. Principals can share their leadership without risking a loss of control. In fact, by sharing leadership, they empower their teachers to become partners in the school improvement process.
The end result of all staff development must be improved student performance. Teachers will support staff development efforts when they can make the connection between what they are asked to do and how it will lead to improved student performance. Educators in the 21st century are being asked to do more with data than ever. Formative and summative assessments can assist teachers in making informed instructional decisions. It is the building principal’s responsibility to structure the school day so that teachers have the time and materials to disaggregate data.
Teachers play a critical role in educational reform and need opportunities to engage in high-quality professional development (Goodnough, 2005). Data-driven decisions can be made by teachers only when they have the time and support to analyze and interpret data. Given the time to work with data, teachers are highly capable of analyzing assessment results to identify appropriate instructional strategies. With guidance, they will be able to modify their teaching to address the specific strengths and challenges of the individual student.
Staff development efforts should ensure equity, quality teaching and family involvement. In the pursuit of educational excellence, we cannot ignore the social and emotional needs of our students and community. We are still responsible for educating the whole-child. The reliance on quantitative data should not preclude schools from actively collecting qualitative data to support their efforts in providing safe, orderly and supportive learning environments.
Teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists and support staff play a vital role in establishing schools that meet the affective needs of all learners. Their role can easily be extended to staff development directed at encouraging family involvement, equity and school safety. Meaningful formal and informal staff development should be tailored to the specific needs of the school. Through these opportunities, teachers become intimately and effectively involved in their communities (Gabriel, 2005).
What Does Differentiated School-based Staff Development Look Like?
Differentiation for the adult learner parallels differentiation in the classroom. Principals who expect their teachers to meet the needs of all learners must model effective differentiation practices. School leaders who value the unique abilities of their teachers, and plan staff development with that in mind, send a message of empowerment to their teachers. Differentiated staff development builds teacher leadership capacity. It means utilizing staff members in the decision-making, planning and implementation phases of school-based staff development. A differentiated approach operates from, and builds on, teacher strengths. It includes, but is not limited to the use of study groups, action research, collaborative planning, vertical teaming, school developed mini-sessions, and district-wide initiatives.
There are ample resources available for school leaders to use study groups as an effective differentiation tool. The key is to include teachers in the selection of the topics and texts they will study. In planning for a school year, administrators will need to schedule time for teachers to both read and discuss material.
Study groups should operate under short-term parameters. Depending on the volume of material covered, study groups should last no longer than half of the school year. Ideally, study groups that conclude by the middle of the year allow teachers to use the second half of the year to integrate what they have learned.
School districts are collecting more data than ever and teachers should be given the opportunity to use that data at the building level. Action research has the potential to answer questions that teachers have about their students and their school. The most exciting aspect of action research is that it allows schools to take a focused look at their school-specific concerns.
School leaders should support the collection of anecdotal, qualitative data, which often provides insight into student performance that cannot be gleaned from quantitative data. The introduction of SLOs (student learning objectives) has made familiarity with action research a must for all teachers.
Collaborative Planning & Vertical Teaming
School districts must support vertical teaming among elementary, middle and high schools. While this can be complicated, it allows teachers to stay current on what skills their students need to be successful at the next level. Principals will have to balance the individual planning needs of teachers, while also engaging them in the value-laden process of collaborative planning and vertical teaming.
Staff members often have skills or training in areas that might not fit in neatly with school-wide initiatives. It is important to give these staff members a forum for sharing their knowledge. Technology, classroom management, school climate, teacher morale and an array of other topics can be covered by offering mini-sessions throughout the school year.
By actively seeking out teachers and by understanding their strengths, school leaders can “recruit” more staff members into the collective intelligence of their school. Mini-sessions can be offered before and after the school day. As optional, or alternative staff development, they give the teachers choice in the scope and depth of their involvement. The “edcamp” approach is another vehicle for capitalizing on the strengths of your teachers.
Most school leaders understand that district-wide initiatives often come with mandatory staff development for their teachers. School leaders need to stay current on what is coming from the district level to avoid overloading the staff development plates of teachers. That means sometimes they will have to balance the needs of their school with the needs of the district. However, circumstances may also provide opportunities for schools to combine their staff development efforts with the district.
The NSDC standards provide a structure that school leaders can use to meet the diverse needs of their teachers. School-based staff development in the 21st century requires non-traditional thinking. While this requires organization and planning, it is ultimately worthwhile, productive and empowering. The development of a professional learning community requires meaningful interaction and engagement on the part of teachers. Differentiating school-based staff development may serve as a catalyst toward those efforts.
Gabriel, J. G. (2005). How to thrive as a teacher leader. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Goodnough, K. (2005). Fostering teacher learning through collaborative inquiry. The Clearing House, 79 (2), 88-92.
Hannon, S. M. (2003). Building a better staff. School Library Journal, 49 (2), 4-5.
Morrow, L. M. (2003). Make professional development a priority. Reading Today, 21 (1), 6-7.
Rutherford, P. (2006). Leading the learning. Leadership, 36 (1), 22-26.
Sawchuk, S. (2007). Groups endorse peer driven, job embedded development. Education Daily, 40 (196), 2.