What do teachers do for staff development?

Published 10:23 am Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Every so often, the schoolchildren are given a gift: an afternoon off. After lunch on these special days, the students are dismissed and the schools are emptied of students. What do the teachers do with this “time off” for staff development?

I spoke with several building principals to find out.

Each school had a little different focus for the afternoon, but all teachers hope that their work will mean improved student achievement.

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Most schools focused their work on the state standards in reading and math. Groups of teachers at each grade level had previously worked with these standards and their grade level tests and their curriculum to identify what their “gold standards.” These standards have the highest priority for teaching as teachers match their curriculum at each grade level with the state standards and state tests.

At the high school, the focus was on “curriculum mapping.” Each department worked together to make sure that the curriculum they are teaching matches with the standards set in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests that are taken by students in the spring.

At the high school, because not all teachers teach math or reading, they also cross train or make sure that, for example, math standards are supported in other areas of curriculum. I also learned that our science teachers are meeting with the other Big 9 science teachers to discuss how all schools are planning on meeting the science standards set by the state.

At Southwest Middle School, the focus was also on the MCA tests, but they took a slightly different approach. They focused on individual students’ testing histories. Teachers were able to gauge what levels of achievement students are currently reaching in their classrooms. They used data to identify struggling readers or those with lower math skills.

The teachers also identified their higher achievers and some ideas about how to teach for all students’ learning levels in the same class. They especially worked on the academic skills of “comparing and contrasting” since teaching students that skill has research-based proof of increasing student achievement.

Southwest teachers also spent time on the Northwest Education Association Web site looking at the company’s product called a “learning continuum.” To me this sounds like a very useful tool. Students are tested online in the fall and spring. Teachers can then compare their students’ scores to the learning continuum and read the NWEA suggestions for the next level of teaching.

Halverson Elementary School teachers worked to bump up student test scores by reviewing their previous scores and studying their student data as well as their own grade level’s reading and math standards. Their aim was to put more students together that are at the same instructional level more often during the school day.

Teachers also used data to find out what students know, what they need to know and matching those needs with their classroom curriculum. Principal Del Stein said his staff was “pumped and excited” when they left the building at the end of the staff development afternoon.

Other elementary principals and their building leadership teams chose poverty as their topic of discussion. Poverty is one of the national common threads in low test scores. It does not always apply, but it very often does. So teachers focused on the barriers poverty could create for learning and the overwhelming needs of those living in poverty.

Teachers learned that people in poverty can easily be put off by the offers of help from others. Assumptions are often made that just aren’t true. Teachers need empathy and understanding when engaging parents of children that are at risk. The parents often did not have good experiences at school, so a soft approach is needed.

If you think poverty is not that big of an issue in our district, look at these statistics:

Students eligible for free and reduced lunch as of Oct. 1 include 42.1 percent of students at Sibley, 52 percent of students at Hawthorne, 34.4 percent of Lakeview students and 59.2 percent of Halverson students.

Staff development days are productive. Our teaching and administrative staff use these opportunities to put their heads together to review current student-achievement strategies and to seek ways to make them even better.

Sally Ehrhardt is a member of the Albert Lea school board.