Without a doubt one of the most difficult things anyone can be expected to do is come up with an event that is going to be an effective learning experience for around 500 people, and yet that’s what happens every year at the All Colleges PD Day here in the ACT – when every teacher in one of our senior secondary colleges is brought together to the one location for a professional development event. I attended as a participant for the first time since 2008, and I have to start by giving massive kudos to the organisers of the day – it ran well, participants seemed to be generally engaged, and from what I could see most people were pretty positive about the whole thing.
I’ve organised some smaller scale professional learning events myself, and whilst the logistics can be tricky and complications about in terms of venues, marketing, catering etc., the hardest part in my view is coming up with sessions and activities that everyone will benefit from. I’ve spent many days trying to work out what kinds of things are going to be of interest to the participants, and whilst I think I’ve got a pretty good track record, looking at the survey feedback shows that every time there is always a small percentage of people who don’t get as much out of the event as I would have liked. Sure, some of it probably comes down to people who may not want to engage in the first place, but the counter argument to that is the same we can use in our classrooms – if the session(s) had been engaging, they may have participated anyway.
However this post is less about my experiences on the day (in a nutshell, I felt the sessions were pitched at the school leadership teams and in particular Principals and Deputies more so that the classroom teachers, which was fine for me but I know some colleagues would have liked more targeted PD that related more directly to their classroom practice), and more about the approach to professional learning we take as a profession in general.
It’s a recent phenomenon in the ACT (and relatively recent across Australia, generally speaking) that teacher registration is now a part of our profession, and to maintain or get your accreditation requires completion of 20 hours (in our case) of professional learning. The complete details of teacher registration in the ACT can be found at the ACT Teacher Quality Institute website (and there are other bodies in other jurisdictions) and although this could easily turn into an argument about the merits (or lack thereof depending on your perspective) of registration, I’m going to try to minimise that and instead focus on how professional learning is recorded. Our hours need to be made up of 10 hours of accredited learning (i.e. certified by the TQI as addressing the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and delivered by registered training providers) and the remaining hours comprised of “teacher-identified” PD. There is quite a lot of flexibility in the teacher-identified learning – it may be comprised of reading, research, participation in online seminars – the range and variety is quite broad.
Unfortunately, I hear many teachers complaining about the TQI or equivalent in their respective states and territories. These arguments often take the form of “I get nothing for my money” and “why should I pay for the privilege of being a teacher” and similar grumblings about a lack of value for our registration. However, professions generally all require registration with a national standards body to be able to practice. Over time these organisations have filled a significant role in ensuring the quality of each profession, and I think we have to keep in mind that this is all still very young in education. There is little money, no history and a struggle against a status quo that in my view isn’t acceptable, so the fact that it is causing some disruption is probably a good thing.
It was emphasised during presentations by the TQI that they acknowledge that the majority of teachers engage in more than 20 hours of PD a year, and that this isn’t meant to be particularly onerous in terms of recording the PD we do undertake. The role of the TQI portal is to give us a means of capturing the professional learning we do engage with, and provide us with an easy way to reflect on the event/activity and refer to it again at a later date. The reflection is important – it encourages us to go back and revisit what it was we got out of the event, and I believe that has value because this is what often triggers experimentation or revision of something you’re already doing.
And yet, even though there is an acknowledgement of the variety of professional learning opportunities that teachers engage in, and an admission that what is being mandated is only a very small part of what would generally be considered normal for a teacher, the way PD is delivered remains largely the same. At big events such as this one, the topics are generally chosen to be relatively broad and not directly applicable to any one learning are or discipline. What this means is that over a teaching career, the topics available at these kinds of events become quite limited – student engagement, pedagogy, curriculum development – since these can all be seen as applicable to all teachers regardless of subject area.
When you ask teachers which PD they have found the most valuable in their teaching lives, they rarely respond with a big event where the presentations are generic. You get responses like “I went to an absolutely amazing Shakespeare workshop that changed the way I teach Shakespeare” or “I spent a few days at a programming event where I learned so many new ways of engaging kids with computer science concepts it has changed the way I work in the classroom” – the responses all tend to be very closely aligned to the curriculum content as well as the broader topics mentioned earlier.
The big events provide opportunities for face-to-face contact that can create connections and generate conversations that just aren’t possible in virtual/online/video-conference events, or through individual research or reading, but that alone shouldn’t be the reason we attend them. One of the great things about ACEC (Australian Computers in Education Conference) and other learning area equivalent events is that when you go along to them you’re likely to find something that you can directly apply to your classroom, and to have conversations with other teachers who are teaching the same kinds of things you are. However, they carry with them the additional expenses of travel and accommodation (except for when the event takes place in your home town), and this can make them difficult to attend on a regular basis.
Ultimately, when we look to what PD we want to attend in a given year, the decision is going to come down to what will best address our individual needs at that particular time. This is going to be different for each one of us, and we can’t expect that any single event is going to tick all the boxes for everyone who attends.
But, doesn’t this sound like our classrooms? If we are expected to design activities and classroom materials that cater to the individual needs of our students, why is it that so much of our PD doesn’t do the same for us? And if the PD doesn’t do that for us, are we vocal enough about it to help drive the change necessary to make it better?
If all we do is complain about how boring or ineffective PD is, it will never change – just like the kid who does nothing but whinge about how boring school is and is given no reason to think otherwise will never get involved in class.
So over time, my hope is that the TQI will be able to help us with that – that the accreditation, evaluation and reflection process involved in all of the professional learning activities that take place will provide a means for identifying the types of learning people find most enjoyable, engaging and effective. That the programs being accredited align with the teaching standards in a way that we find truly useful, so that when we are looking for PD we’ll have a reliable place to source it. And that by going back and looking over our reflections and evaluations we’ll be able to identify those elements of teaching that excite us, engage us and keep us passionate.
If it gets to that, then from my perspective the fee I pay for teacher registration will be money well spent.