Of Math and Myths: Professional Development and Change among High School Teachers

Every culture has its myths collections of enshrined beliefs, borne of experience, almost sanctified by repetition, that like the mythology of the Greeks, Romans and Celts, seeks to provide order to chaos or rational explanations to seemingly non-rational outcomes.

The professional culture to which I belong that of teacher educator also contains its own myths. Many of these myths center on high school teachers and can be encapsulated as follows:

  1. Of the three levels elementary, middle and high school the latter is most resistant to change;
  2. High school teachers have a predominant content focus, making non-content focused professional development difficult;
  3. While high school teachers will use technology, they will resist cooperative/collaborative groups; and
  4. Of all high school faculty, math teachers are the most resistant to learner-centered approaches.

While myths are fiction, they do serve as a shorthand to explain a particular circumstance or to personify a moral message: Narcissus and the danger of vanity; Ceres and the origin of the seasons; the Irish warrior, Cuchulainn's undoing by his own passions. Myths about high school faculty do indeed outline some basic problems in how content and instruction are ordered and the way in which professional development is often organized at the secondary level. Certainly there are high school teachers indeed teachers at all levels who, given such organizational constraints, appear to validate such myths. But based on my experience this past year with high school teachers in Laredo, Texas, the myth of the unchanging high school practitioner is one that needs revisiting.

In July 2002 the SouthCentral RTEC at Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), at the invitation of the United Independent School District, initiated Active Learning with Technology, a yearlong professional development project with 87 teachers from four high schools in Laredo, Texas. The aim of this project was to assist teachers to create learner-centered classrooms supported by technology.

Laredo is separated by the Rio Grande from its larger Mexican urban twin, Nuevo Laredo. In addition to being the second-fastest growing city in the United States, Laredo is also one of the poorest. Poverty levels are high at all schools (in some cases 100 percent). Many students moved with their migrant families for part of the year to work in northern agricultural states. Many other students, especially at one high school, lived in colonias-settlements on the urban fringe, often lacking water, wastewater, adequate housing and secure tenure. Overall, most students appeared more comfortable with Spanish than with English.

In April 2002, before the start of this project, I conducted classroom observations in 50 classrooms in 2 of the 4 high schools to determine the kind of professional development on which we should focus on in the upcoming year. Though grades and subject areas varied, the teaching style, with one exception, was uniform: teachers stood in front of the classroom, often anchored to their overhead projector, and talked at students, who sat in rows. Though every classroom possessed at least one computer, none was in use. Admittedly, one 45-minute observation cannot capture the complete range of teacher practice, but additional data buttressed these initial observations. Surveys administered to teachers indicated that 20 percent of teachers used technology on a "regular basis" (mostly for their own productivity) and on a scale of 0-3 (0 being "no experience" and 3 being "very experienced"), overall teacher proficiency with all standard office software was 0.70. I interviewed numerous teachers asking them about their goals and their fears regarding technology. Again, despite the diversity of teachers, goals could be synopsized as "I want to put my lectures on PowerPoint" and fears as "I have one computer and 25 students. How am I supposed to 'integrate'?"

Having observed their classrooms, heeded their concerns, considered the general consensus on the difficulty of "changing" high school practitioners, and recalling the professional isolation of my five years as a high school teacher (Had I actually ever seen any of my colleagues teach?), I must admit some initial hesitancy on our part. We had just successfully implemented a two-year professional development project with 160 teachers, helping them move toward more technology-integrated learner-centered classrooms. But of those teachers, high school teachers made up only a handful. Our professional development was not technology training; it focused more on creating a sense of comfort with technology. It was interdisciplinary, hands on, project-oriented and collaborative. Would the Laredo teachers respond to or reject this?

Professional development

We held six staff development sessions for teachers from August 2002 through March 2003. Each session was 6 to 7 hours in length and held on Saturdays in the school library. Within these sessions, the facilitator served as the "teacher" and the teachers themselves were "students." All activities, project- or problem-based, modeled the use of limited technology and focused on an interdisciplinary theme applicable to the high school curriculum. For example, in one activity, teachers used spreadsheet software to reapportion the 435 members of the House of Representatives based on the latest Census data. In a visual literacy activity teachers analyzed digital images and then used image-editing software to create a series of campaign ads for a candidate of their choosing. A third involved teachers in the creation of a digital community museum in which they rotated among learning stations to gather data for their digital museum. (A complete description of all activities, and the activities themselves, can be found at ACT: Active Learning with Technology

In addition to the active portion of the sessions, each provided time for sharing of ideas, reflection about challenges and successes, and work time to hone new teaching and learning skills and strategies. Professional development sessions were supplemented by monthly on-site follow up visits to each teacher's classroom in which the facilitator assisted teachers with the creation of new activities, gave refreshers on the technology, or conducted informal classroom observations and provided feedback.

We needn't have worried about teacher enthusiasm toward the activities. Teachers were most enthusiastic, and participated as we had hoped they would as active and engaged learners. They eagerly drove around Laredo taking pictures for a "community museum"; were moved by interviews at a local nursing home; exhibited pride in their first Web page; and took mischievous delight in recounting how skittish Border officials watched them as they learned to use probes to collect vehicular air and noise emissions at the International Bridge in Laredo (on the first day of the Iraq war and a Code Orange alert). They made connections between their own learning and that of their students. In a reflection session following the first day's professional development, one teacher said, "I'm so glad that it's okay to put the kids in groups. I think they really like it--and I really like it too. It's not just for elementary school kids."

During the course of the year, change was difficult and slow for many teachers as they struggled with the demands of preparing students for the Texas state exam, and commenced the difficult process of reorganizing their classrooms to accommodate technology and learner centered instruction. We experienced attrition something new for our SEDL projects as seven teachers dropped out of the project to focus on preparing students for the 10th grade Test of Academic Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The District experienced many of the problems associated with high need and low wage areas as one of the high schools rotated through three principals in one year and the district lost two of its three technicians to higher paying private sector jobs. Teachers at first struggled with grouping strategies, with fitting technology into their content area, and with reorganizing instruction for a classroom of one computer and 25-30 students. A few teachers never attempted to apply anything they had learned in the professional development sessions. Some attempts at collaboration were stillborn; others incubated but never hatched. But many more classrooms gave life to a new type of learning: computers were on, in regular use by teachers and students alike. Students were collaborating. Teachers shared examples of student projects using electronic presentation, concept mapping and web editing applications. Teachers were excited. Student-produced work sprouted all over formerly bare hallway walls.

But what, specifically, about the shibboleths of high school teachers and change, collaboration and content? As part of our post-professional development classroom observations, I revisited the same 50 classrooms in March 2003 that I had observed in 2002. Having steeped myself in the aforementioned mythology of high school teachers and change, I had modest expectations in terms of any sort of impact of our professional development on teacher practice. I was most pleasantly surprised and will now discuss the changes I observed in light of the myths mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Evidence of change

I saw some degree of change in all 50 classrooms. In some instances, the changes were small (such as allowing students to work together in groups for the last half of class or allowing individual students to access technology). In 20 of the classrooms, change was substantial, involving grouping and the reorganization of traditional modes of communication, organization and labor. In some classrooms, given my knowledge of the teacher and his/her previous mode of instruction and hesitation with technology, the changes were noteworthy. I mention two below. These, perhaps, may seem modest to many readers because of their own comfort with technology, but they are indeed dramatic given where these teachers had started.

  • In one Spanish class, where previously the teacher had restricted herself to worksheets and rote activity, the class worked in groups of 2-3 to create a PowerPoint book on a Latin American country of their choosing. Whereas in the previous year's observation, the teacher had led students through rote recitation of Spanish phrases, one year later, students were generating authentic language. The teacher circulated among the students, providing information only when solicited from students and helped them use/troubleshoot PowerPoint without touching the mouse or keyboard (This was something we had modeled and focused on in our professional development activities). The teacher had integrated technology into her class in such a way that the tool propelled students to collaborate and learn from one another. The teacher gave her students the space to learn. She was the model of a guide, a coach, a facilitator.
  • In an Integrated Physics and Calculus class at another high school, students gathered acceleration and velocity data using marbles, input their data and graphed results in Excel, and then explained the process using Publisher. In that same school, the 11th grade US Government teacher, realizing how dry the topic of post Civil War Reconstruction can be, asked students create a video of the textbook chapter on Reconstruction. Students created costumes and props; filmed in black and white and at night to create the proper ambience for events; and played roles as diverse as Klan members, freed slaves, Union soldiers, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant. They edited their video using free video editing software and premiered it for the class. Their video was well done, comprehensive and entertaining. Never before had I seen students so enthralled by the topic of Reconstruction.
  1. I was the facilitator at one school and visited classrooms on a monthly basis. In terms of the second school, I returned only once, in March 2003, for post-professional development classroom observations.
  2. For an explanation of Pascal's Triangle, visit: Pascal's Triangle

Email: Mary Burns