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Professional development is good for teachers, and students

Photo of two women working at a desk

Central Valley teachers Colleen Matthews and Kate Hitchcock share ideas during a professional development workshop on Tuesday.

Central Valley parents look at the district calendar and see a Superintendent’s Conference Day or learn their child’s teacher is out of the classroom attending some conference. Understandably, they wonder if this is the best use of school time. After all, days off can disrupt child care and work schedules. And students perform best with a highly qualified teacher at the front of the class.

So, why are these days part of Central Valley’s—and every district’s—yearly calendar?

School districts plan professional development days during the school year for two reasons: 1) They are required by the New York State Education Department (NYSED); and, 2) Ongoing professional development keeps teachers up-to-date on new research about how children learn, emerging technology tools for the classroom, new curriculum resources and more.

Research shows that teacher quality is the single most powerful influence on a student’s achievement. According to NYSED, “it is essential to ensure that teachers are provided with ongoing, high quality professional development to sustain and enhance their practice.”

“We used to call this teacher training, but I want to stress that it is much more,” said Central Valley Superintendent Dr. Rich Hughes.

“Just the change in name, professional development versus training says it all. Our goal is to provide our teaching professionals with the resources they need to give our students the very best education we can support.”

Dr. Hughes said professional development cannot be a haphazard event. Instead, it is an essential element in an ongoing, comprehensive school improvement plan.

Central Valley Assistant Superintendent Cindy Stocker said that effective professional development is more than simply sharing new ideas; it also includes a commitment to fully integrate those ideas into the classroom and the school culture.

“As we explore the endless list of speakers and topics, we focus on those that will directly benefit our students. We know where the students are now and where they need to be to find success in careers and college and to be contributing members of our community. Effective professional development provides teachers with skills and processes that improve teaching so that it moves all students toward that success,” she said.

To be effective, professional development must collaborative, meaning teachers work together across classrooms, grades and even subjects. It is experiential or learned by doing. It is backed up by sound data and research. In other words, it works.

“Central Valley is committed to meaning professional development that yields results for this community’s children. It will be a foundation of our district’s success,” she said.

Multiple purposes

Central Valley uses professional development days to review state-mandated material such as anti-bullying or safety training. School leaders also use the time to share information on the district’s new technology, to introduce new curriculum and teaching practices or to build staff culture and the culture of a school.

Most importantly, Ms. Stocker said these work days enable staff to refine their skills and collaborate with colleagues.

“We encourage our teachers to collaborate regularly and learn from each other. They attend seminars and conferences and bring back ideas to share with their peers on a regular basis,” said Ms. Stocker.

That kind of work takes place outside the classroom, not while teaching students.

“Our teachers must enter the classroom prepared,” said Ms. Stocker. “It is important that teachers have time to learn, otherwise they would be simultaneously trying to learn and teach—the students would suffer.”

Photo of three teachers working at desks

Central Valley teachers Karen Casler, Carolyn Humphrey and John Kearney collaborate on an exercise during Dr. Harvey Silver’s professional development workshop.

Professional development by design

Professional development has taken on a more prominent place at Central Valley.

“In establishing Central Valley, our community made it clear that they wanted better for their children. The status quo was not sufficient,” said Dr. Hughes. “To make that happen, we have to improve what and how we teach. Professional development is key to empowering our teaching professionals to make critical changes in the classroom.”

Over the next several days, Central Valley teachers have two opportunities for professional development.

Tuesday through Thursday, 24 teachers, representing each of the four schools Building Learning Teams, are meeting with educator, author and trainer Dr. Harvey Silver.

“In those meetings, the teachers learn proven teaching strategies from a respected education expert. They will carry those strategies back to the buildings and share them with their learning teams,” said Ms. Stocker.

On Friday, Mar. 20, all teachers will attend the district’s Superintendent Conference Day. Dr. Silver will speak, introducing everyone to the material the building team leaders learned earlier in the week. Following lunch, they will break out into smaller groups for curriculum- and age-relevant seminars led by fellow Central Valley teaching professionals.

“On Friday, teachers teach teachers. The presenters each have an area of expertise that they will share with their fellow teachers. In the same way, those 24 teachers will share Dr. Silver’s strategies within their departments and buildings,” said Ms. Stocker.

“This is a working example of what educators call a ‘professional learning community’ or PLC. In a functioning PLC, coworkers collaborate—sharing what they know, exploring solutions to problems and implementing those solutions in the classroom in a way that benefits our students. Knowledge and experience multiply and spread throughout the district. What begins as a process, soon becomes a culture—of culture of high expectations and excellence.”

Dr. Hughes said he understands parents may sometimes feel frustrated when their children have days off from school beyond typical vacation days. He understands that some parents believe teachers could take care of professional development during the summer months. However, he said, “Do I want my first grade son to wait until summer for his teacher to get that training?”

“Imagine if you walked into your auto repair shop and they said we will look at your car, but we won’t really know how to fix it until summer when we can send the mechanic for professional development,” he said.

“It’s like that with school. We have one shot at educating our students and we want to do the best job we can,” said Hughes. “Anything less would cheat them of their futures.”

Read more on state regulations regarding professional development on the NYSED website.