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The Best is Wonderful

The Worst is…amazing!

By Alain Jehlen

Gladys Sossa-Schwartz, a National Board-certified English as a Second Language teacher in Arlington, Virginia, says she learned a lot in her university education courses, but she learned twice as much in school-based professional development. “When done right,” she says, “it’s the key to recharging teachers and giving them the tools they need.”

So what is professional development “done right?”

It’s all about the learner—just as in any other education effort, says Julie Washington, a kindergarten teacher who’s in charge of United Teachers Los Angeles’ staff development effort.

“It needs to be site-based and differentiated to meet different needs,” Washington says. “Brand-new teachers may need to work on discipline. Veterans probably don’t. They may want to focus on content or collaborative teaching models. The people leading professional development should themselves be experienced teachers with practical knowledge.” Having a group of colleagues to learn with is also important, she adds.

How many L.A. schools reach that level of quality? Maybe 40 out of 700, says Washington.

NEA Today invited NEA members to share examples of the best or worst professional development they’d experienced. The range was enormous.

“Our district’s commitment to professional development was one of the biggest bonuses of coming here. I couldn’t be happier,” wrote Wendy Otto of Hamilton, Wisconsin.

But an Ohio teacher, who asked that we not reveal her name, wrote: “The words ‘professional development’ do not conjure up warm, fuzzy thoughts of garnering oodles of information I can use in my classroom. They only warn me of the waste of…a day of my life I can never get back.”

Here are three examples of staff development at its best, and three at its most awful.

In many cases, NEA local affiliates played a central role in building the best programs. We include e-mail addresses so you can find out more, and maybe adapt one of these programs to your school.

The Best

Teachers teaching teachers

One of our English teachers works half-time as our staff development coordinator. She knows our best resource as a staff is ourselves! Frequently, our in-service days look like mini-conventions: teachers have several topics to choose from, and most sessions are facilitated by teachers. Our business teachers may lead a session on using the latest software, the librarian may teach staff how to help students do better research, and the reading specialist may help teachers learn new vocabulary acquisition strategies. The best part is, we get to choose!

Professional development time not spent as mini-conventions is spent working to further our five-year site plan. Every staff member is involved in every step, from choosing the goal and the interventions to deciding how best to implement changes.

Wendy Otto, Sussex, Wisconsin

Action research

During our Delsea Regional School District’s November in-service, teachers choose from a variety of workshops on educational practices. Then they develop a yearlong action research project involving that practice, communicating with workshop presenters through follow-up visits or e-mails. Teachers also have the option to develop their own independent action research projects. Administrators encourage reflective practice and work with teachers on developing projects.

Then in May, we discuss our findings in small groups of teachers who are all conducting research in the same general area.

One example: A biology teacher created a Web page for one of his classes, with all his homework and worksheets. He taught another class without the Web page, and compared grades to see whether students did better with class information available online. The results: the Web page did help—but only for students who have computers at home.

Mary Moyer, Franklinville, New Jersey (President, New Jersey Association of School Librarians)

The NEA Academy

Learn Online

NEA recently launched the NEA Academy to provide online staff development for teachers and education support professionals. The first offerings include the successful “I Can Do It” classroom management program.

A task force of members and staff is selecting the best programs for the Academy. To make best use of the offerings, organize a group at your school to take courses together. For example, watch the first hour of “I Can Do It” on rules and procedures, talk about the ideas, try them, and evaluate together.

NEA intends to develop the Academy into the top professional development site on the Web. To learn more, go to

A little help from my friends

The heart of our professional development is to videotape ourselves teaching and get feedback from half a dozen of our colleagues.

We’re used to going into the room and shutting the door, so it can be scary to show colleagues a tape. But we have ground rules that help everyone feel safe: What’s said in our group stays there. We respect each other and listen to all views.

The program is voluntary, but staff members get paid extra for taking part. Each month, we discuss the work of one or two people. The teacher chooses which lesson to present, and what problem he or she wants help with. Besides the useful feedback, these sessions have helped us all see how our work fits with what other teachers are doing.

I’m a one-person art department, so before this, I had nobody to bounce ideas around with. I presented a second-grade lesson that uses numbers hidden in paintings to help children get familiar with numbers, and my colleagues gave me concrete ideas for making it clearer and better. Next time I do that lesson, I’ll use what I learned, and my kids will benefit. That’s the bottom line.

Maureen Gunderson, LeCenter, Minnesota

The Worst

Six long hours

Our Association requested that the staff be allowed to plan an in-service day. The central office agreed. But a month before it was to happen, they backtracked and said they would be in charge. Ten days before the event, the superintendent dumped the planning in the lap of the curriculum director.

What are Critical Friends?


At our building, we wound up with a speaker who did not address any teaching methods, curriculum, or activities that would remotely meet the needs of our large and varied staff. His opening statement was, “I only found out about this program less than a week ago, and I was actually in Europe.”

He talked for approximately six hours. Don’t ask me what he talked about—I couldn’t tell you. In fact, you could look around and see people reading, grading papers, doing crossword puzzles. If we planned our classroom activities the way they planned this professional development, we would be fired. And rightfully so.

Gail, Ohio

Déjà vu all over again

We have a very experienced staff and we are continually trained over and over again on how to write [Individualized Education Program] goals or how to record data—which we have all been doing for some 20+ years!

Sometimes we receive “computer training” from our arrogant young computer man. He usually trains us on programs we do not have yet, so by the time we get them, everyone has forgotten.

We all have paraprofessionals, but instead of training them along with us so they are not in the dark, we are told to “find something worthwhile for our aides to do to keep them busy.”

We work with special needs children every day. First aid, CPR, behavior management, where are they? They have been suggested numerous times to deaf ears.

Carol, Pennsylvania

Where were you on September 11?

On September 11, 2001, we attended a mandatory meeting called at the last minute. You might think it was to discuss how to deal with the effects of 9/11 on our students, but you’d be wrong. It was to pressure us into buying prepaid legal services from the brother and sister-in-law of the principal.

We were stuck at school until after 5 p.m. listening to a sales pitch when most of us wanted to get home to our families or our churches.

Debbie, Georgia

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