A Better Model for Professional Development in a Texas District

from Educators' eZine

As an Assistant Superintendent in a small, rural district, I am certain that many of my peers across the country share the professional development challenges faced in my district. All teachers need the same quality and consistency of professional development; however, being in a smaller district and a more isolated location, the traditional forms of professional development can be cost-prohibitive and impractical.

My name is Scott Davis and my district, Lamesa ISD (TX), serves about 2,100 students at four campuses. We recently performed a curriculum audit, which included the opportunity to analyze the professional development opportunities we provide our teachers. Through the audit, we created a staff development framework, which helped us avoid a pitfall of many small districts: doing things from memory without recording what we are doing from month to month and year to year. The framework helped us maintain a consistent focus and process, but like most other staff development programs only provided "one size fits all" training. It helped us meet district and state standards, but it did not allow us to individualize training to the teacher level.

Knowing our framework was still lacking and as the administrator responsible for professional development, I surveyed teachers and administrators to determine their professional development needs. The survey comments confirmed what I already believed; teachers wanted time for and access to professional development materials of their own choosing. Although the district provides many internal professional development opportunities and is served wonderfully by ESC 17, our regional service center, teachers needed something at their fingertips to provide immediate support. I, along with my principals, felt particular frustration about our lack of individualized training as I hired and assimilated new teachers because it was difficult to get them up to speed with the rest of the district.

In the fall of 2006, I began looking for a way to provide professional development that would meet the individual needs of Lamesa's teachers. In January, Keith Bryant, our superintendent, attended a conference where he picked up a flier about a new kind of professional development called on-demand professional learning. I began looking into PD 360, the primary on-demand product on the market, and was impressed immediately by the flexibility and customization it provided.

On-demand professional learning is a web-based form of professional development that empowers teachers and administrators to instantly find the support they need. On-demand resources, like PD 360, typically include short, searchable video segments that address a wide variety of topics and are accessible from any location. In the case of PD 360, these segments feature respected education experts and present real classroom examples that show teachers how to implement best practices. On-demand resources put professional learning at teachers' fingertips and help alleviate the scheduling conflicts that typically plague professional development activities.

I implemented on-demand professional learning beginning in March 2007 and logistically it has been an overwhelming success. On-demand professional learning supports the excellent professional development provided by ESC 17 and the onsite training conducted by our principals. In Lamesa, on-demand professional learning has not replaced other types of professional learning opportunities; instead, it enhances our program by meeting the specific need to provide teachers with job-embedded, individualized support.

To provide a district focus, I began by concentrating on one of PD 360's sixty-plus programs. Through observational data, my principals and I found that teachers needed help with using questions in their lessons. PD 360 had an excellent research-based program about questioning which we required our teachers to go through at their own pace over the summer. When the new school year started, all our teachers were on the same page and ready to implement the new strategies.

Beyond our district focus, on-demand professional learning allows me to individualize professional development at a department level, vertical team level, school level, and individual teacher level. Teachers can now access research-based professional development content from home or school, giving them the most flexible and pervasive system of professional development delivery they have ever had.

Jaci Ernest, our middle school Dyslexia teacher, said, "On-demand professional learning is a very interesting change from normal professional development. I particularly like that I can set my own timeframe for learning. Being able to go back and review the things I miss or did not quite understand keeps the information fresh in my mind, which is something traditional professional development has not done for me. I have found I implement what I have learned more fully in the classroom."

In addition to allowing for individualized support, on-demand professional learning fits into Lamesa's staff development framework for two reasons. First, it is customizable to state, district, and school standards. By providing teachers with a central location to view video segments that show how to implement standards and objectives, Lamesa teachers understand the standards more fully and are more equipped to apply them in the classroom. Second, on-demand professional learning perfectly supplements other professional development activities. Following onsite training, teachers can review their learning or delve deeper into a topic by watching related video segments.

Of particular value to me as a leader in small district is the savings on-demand professional learning provides. Since I purchased an on-demand professional learning resource, the 170 teachers in Lamesa ISD have logged over 41,452 professional development minutes, or more than four hours per teacher. The cost of hiring substitutes if all those professional development hours had taken place out of the classroom would have been over $9,000 – not to mention the cost of bringing in outside consultants.

Even better, my teachers can instantly find information about the topics that matter most to them, even if it does not match the district's current focus. Not having to wait for a workshop or scheduled event to get reliable information has made professional development an ongoing activity in Lamesa rather than a single event. Over the past year, I have received many emails from teachers expressing their appreciation for a resource they can access on their own.

"I enjoy having the PD 360 because it allows me to look up and learn about different issues as they arise in the classroom," said Tillie Borrego, our 2nd grade bilingual teacher. "The information is so accessible and well-organized. At the beginning of the year, I needed help with graphic organizers and was immediately able to find the information I wanted."

On-demand professional learning is also a tremendous help in the process of assimilating newly hired teachers. The school principals and I immediately begin training new hires at every experience level with the most critical information. We are seeing a greatly accelerated training process and increased success for our new teachers.

I know the challenges of providing systemic yet individual professional development is common for all districts, particularly smaller systems with limited budgets. However, I am convinced that on-demand professional learning remedies these concerns and supports and enhances current professional development efforts. For Lamesa, on-demand professional learning allows us to meet the needs of our teachers, and meeting their needs helps us meet the needs of our students. It really is as simple as that.

Scott Davis can be reached at sdavis@lamesa.esc17.net. Ruth Nelson and be contacted at ruthnelson@scicable.com.