Revisiting an Active Community

Professional development through the lens of language and technology.

GUEST COLUMN | by Megan Roberts

CREDIT MfA.jpgWhat do we mean by the term “Professional Development”: Is it best to use it as a verb? How about as a noun? Or a proper noun? To some, it may seem trivial to spend time pondering the usage of a term that is widely understood in education circles. But it’s not. Language is crucial – and how we talk about the teaching profession and in this case, how teachers learn in the 21st century, is critical to ensuring that teachers and the career of teaching receives the respect it deserves.

They learn together and construct environments that mirror the learning technologies and opportunities their students have in their own schools.

When we don’t talk about teacher professional development as a continuous and active process, we are disrespecting the profession and its core principles. And perhaps now, more than ever, we need to be intentional with our language as we ask teachers to keep pace with the ever-changing technology landscape in the classroom. This not only means that professional development opportunities need to mimic technology focused classrooms, but it also highlights the importance of recognizing that teachers at various stages of their careers all benefit from being part of active professional development communities. Learning is an active process and we need to be intentional in the way we talk about it. Technology, as a tool for both teaching and learning, doesn’t take away the need to learn; quite the contrary, it can help inspire teacher creativity, increase efficiencies, and ignite innovative projects and pedagogy beyond what used to be possible.

Let’s examine what we know for sure.

We know that all good teachers, like all good professionals, have a desire to grow professionally. We know that dedicated teachers, whether they are new to the profession or highly accomplished, plan with purpose and continue to learn over time.

But the demands and opportunities that come with new innovations in technology, require new learning in online or blended formats, or by google tools, online grading systems, coding and computing skills and various communication systems. Yes – integrating technology into the classroom has in fact changed the classroom, thus, teachers are constantly looking for new and active opportunities to lead and learn. We also know that, over time, good teachers become expert teachers. They master the art of teaching and have the experience and success to show for it. At Math for America (MƒA) – a New York City nonprofit that aims to keep excellent K-12 public school math and science teachers in the classroom – countless professional development opportunities are rooted in embracing the craft of teaching with a focus on emerging technologies. The teachers at MƒA work as an active community; they facilitate and lead workshops where they can discuss how to make classrooms smarter via exploring Arduinos one night or incorporating computer science learning with Bootstrap the next. They learn together and construct environments that mirror the learning technologies and opportunities their students have in their own schools.

But great teachers don’t see themselves as finished with professional development at any magical juncture in their career – it isn’t something that’s done to them. They still want to learn, especially in the technological arena; they still need to. Of course, experienced teachers, sometimes referred to as “master teachers,” have professional development needs that often vary from those who are in their first few years of teaching. But, every teacher benefits from continuous and purposeful learning experiences that provide opportunities to continue to grow, reflect, and stay at the cutting edge of the teaching profession.

And here’s the thing: teachers don’t go from good to great simply because they attend a series of courses on wireless communication or data-logging. Great teachers don’t master their craft by attending an in-service day about mathematical computing across the curriculum. Teaching is complex, and neither practice, nor great tech tools, transforms practice in a day or a week or by a single type of learning experience. Professional development is an ongoing and active process and like student classrooms, learning happens within a community, with intention, and over time.

Professional development isn’t passive, so rarely should it be used as a noun. Professional development is active, and as such, it’s a verb. It’s an intentional and on-going acquisition of skills, knowledge, and a place of professional reflection. When professional development is tailored to meet the needs of the learner and includes teachers who feel connected to its purpose, then the term and definition resonates with all of us.

Megan Roberts is the Executive Director of Math for America (MƒA), a nonprofit organization that offers fellowships to outstanding public school mathematics and science teachers, connecting them with one another to inspire them to stay in the classroom and amplify their impact. Prior to MƒA, Megan worked for the NYC Department of Education as Executive Director for the Office of Innovation. She is a former science teacher, staff developer, school administrator and researcher. Follow @MathforAmerica and @MeganR147. 

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