Professional development on a shoestring

Our district professional development budget is being drastically reduced next year. Each department has been asked how to provide professional development on a shoestring. Do you have any suggestions for our science department?
–Lisa, Montgomery, Alabama

There are those who suggest that reduced professional development (PD) budgets in many-if not most-schools districts may not be as terrible as many think. Schools may have to reconsider the single events in which a well-knows speaker blitzes in for a few hours, gives a speech, and leaves without any follow-up activities to support the teachers or to determine if anything changes in the classrooms as a result.

Take a look at the National Staff Development Council’s new report, Professional Learning in the Learning Profession. The report summarizes the research on the relationships between PD and student learning and describes how effective PD should

  • Be intensive, ongoing and sustained over time, and connected to practice.
  • Focus on student learning and address the teaching of specific curriculum content.
  • Align with school improvement priorities and goals.
  • Build strong working relationships among teachers.

This is your chance to tailor PD to the needs of your science teachers, rather than trying to fit your colleagues into one-size-fits-all events. First, ask your administrator for state or local PD requirements and the district views on independent study and teacher-directed activities. Find out what types of pre-approval and documentation are required for these nontraditional activities.

Then survey the science teachers to identify their needs in content knowledge and instruction. Ask them to examine the curriculum and state standards to identify science topics in which they need background knowledge or cutting-edge topics for which they would like more information. And look at areas in which your students are struggling. Most districts offer general workshops in instructional skills, but you now have a chance to identify specific skills your science teachers need such as inquiry, lesson design, notebooks, formative assessments, laboratory procedures, cooperative learning, reading/writing in science, inclusion, technology, or classroom management. The result of your survey should be a set of goals reflecting the needs of your teachers, PD activities to meet those needs, and a description of how you will chart your progress toward meeting the goals.

You can find or create a variety of free or low cost PD activities: teacher-directed study groups, blogging, action research projects, independent study, presentations by your own teachers (ideally, they should receive a modest stipend), online courses, collaborations with other school districts (including videoconferencing) whose teachers have similar needs, events at nearby museums or science centers, and online collaborations with other science teachers via discussion groups or networking sites. Rather than putting together an extensive list of unrelated events, be sure your activities are connected to your identified needs and goals.

If your district does not have guidelines for personalized PD plans, the NSTA Learning Center has a “PD Plan and Portfolio” tool to guide you through this process, enabling you to record events and evidence and produce a report that can be shared with colleagues and administrators. The Learning Center has other resources for individual teachers or study groups available online:

  • Web Seminars: live online discussions (1.5 hours) with content experts and educators from around the world (free and archived for later use).
  • Science Objects: online “content refreshers” (2 hours) with graphics and animations on a variety of topics (free).
  • SciPacks: online courses (10 hours) that include an assessment, support from a facilitator, ideas for classroom use, and a certificate of completion ($31.99 for NSTA members, $39.99 for nonmembers).
  • SciGuides: online teaching resources that include web-based resources, lesson plans, and examples of student work (some are free, others are $4.95 for NSTA members, $5.95 for nonmembers).

The Learning Center also has a searchable list of books, book chapters, and archived journal articles that could be used in discussion groups or for independent study (journal articles and many book chapters are available for free or at minimal cost to NSTA members and nonmembers).

NSTA Communities is a new member resource. You can communicate with science teachers all over the world, share resources, join groups of like-minded teachers, and find educators in your geographical area with skills and knowledge they are willing to share. And you can offer your skills and advice to others.

Don’t forget to work with your administrators to design a format for reporting not just the topic and the hours but also a discussion of how these activities have improved teachers’ content knowledge and instructional skills. Invite administrators to your events and into the classrooms to see the results.

Good luck with your new opportunity! Please let me know (either via e-mail or a comment) if you have questions or other suggestions.

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