Staff torture (oops, I meant development)

Well it’s that dreaded time again – staff development. I get to help with it these days which for any griping I might do is infinitely more interesting that when I used to have to sit through it. As a teacher’s aide I rarely felt like in-services and staff development classes gave me any useful information and I think that is probably most people main complaint. I liked the technology classes though I usually left wishing for a little more in-depth or specific information.

In my opinion we approach staff development all wrong. We require a person who can’t install a printer or navigate through directories of files to take a class and do an assessment on Microsoft Access. Does that person feel like they have wasted their time? Of course they do! Have they walked out of a half-day class knowing how and why to create a database and having the skills to go to their computer and do so? Nope! If anything we have taken someone who is a little uncomfortable with the technology to begin with and made them feel inadequate. That is an experience we all want – right? Not!

On the other hand we ask someone who already knows the basics, can create and save a Word document and then navigate to where they saved it and send it to someone else as an attachment to pass an assessment where they create a folder on their desktop, rename and delete a file and or send a blind carbon copy email. That person needs to enhance the skills they already have and probably already has a list in their mind of things they need to learn more about to enhance the skills they already have.

Part of the problem we face in motivating teachers to do more than just fill a seat for the required time is their past experience with staff development. Mention the subject to teachers and they tend to roll their eyes and launch into a speech about how they have so many other things they need to be doing or explanation of why they can’t or shouldn’t have to complete an assessment. The word assessment makes me cringe. It’s a test no matter what you want to call it and teachers like to give them – not take them.

I am by no means an expert on any of this but I have a few ideas and since my job takes me up close and personal with teachers concerns regarding technology I have come up with a few ideas.

What if we asked teachers what they need? I think a very specific survey might be helpful. Instead of asking them to put their names on it – ask their department or discipline. That way you have a starting point for grouping your classes. An English teacher is going to have different uses for technology than a Coach or a Math teacher.

Ask what software they routinely use. Ask what hardware they routinely use – do they burn cds? Do they use a data projector? Ask what problems they have with what they use. Ask if they would use other software and hardware if they new more about it. Ask if they would be willing to mentor someone who had similar needs but less experience and be willing to give credit for that mentoring (more about that later). If you have someone who is willing to mentor another teacher in the same department then the teacher with less technical experience will benefit from mentoring in areas that are already being utilized in their discipline and the department will benefit from enhanced communication. The mentoring could happen one on one. The best way we can model how to teach our students is by teaching each other and if a student needs to be in class less challenging than an accelerated class we would make sure that student was placed in an environment where they could have success. We know from experience with our students that if we place them in an inappropriate environment they are not going to be successful and we will likely see some acting out. We adults know how to act out too, don’t we? I personally can be the queen of passive-aggressive if you put me in the right situation!

I think we should approach this like a video game where you have levels of achievement. Not too elementary but still fun. Classes where a teachers are offered several choices of short projects they will complete that are tailored to be something they can USE later. This means that the project would not only have to be relevant to them but should be basic and clear and not just teachable but “learnable”. The teacher attending this session needs to be able to walk out knowing without a doubt that they can go back to their classroom and repeat and refine what they have learned and make it theirs. There can be a few extra tidbits thrown in for those who want to go further so they are not sitting their wishing they were in their classroom working on grades or lesson plans. Ideas for the projects would be generated from the surveys that teachers had filled out previously.

If a teacher is willing to be a mentor then they could be included in the sessions and work one on one where needed or meet with their “pupil” in the classroom. Being a mentor would not only guarantee some prestige for being a splendidly, creative, masterful “edugeek” but should also carry with it a few perks that would motivate others to covet their geekly stature and want to become mentors as well. They could be first in line for new technology that becomes available. How about free jump drives? We need to make it fun, we need to make it cool. We need to make it important to them!