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Designing Teacher-Centered Professional Development

Ask most history teachers about how effective their professional development is and you will usually receive a negative answer. This unenthusiastic response is engendered by the deficit approach that traditional professional development often takes. A subject supervisor looks at end-of-course state assessments and assumes something is wrong with the way history teachers are teaching. He or she then sets out to correct the problem, frequently with the help of an external consultant. This consultant is responsible for determining teacher needs, designing the professional development, and identifying resources.

I suggest a professional development model that responds to history teachers’ self-determined needs for growth.

This approach is based on the assumption that someone other than history teachers, such as principals, subject coordinators, or “experts” knows what should be taught and how it should be presented. Teachers, however, generally know what they need to know to improve their instruction and they resent their expertise being ignored. Consequently, history teachers often resist what should be a positive and energizing growth experience.

I suggest a professional development model that responds to history teachers’ self-determined needs for growth. This model rejects the presumption of a universal teacher deficit that requires an outsider to fix. Rather, it supports teachers’ self-diagnosed and self-prescribed efforts to improve their practice. The history coordinator in this model gives teachers the power to take responsibility for diagnosing their needs and for planning, creating, implementing, and evaluating their professional development. Programs based on this model are not the required one-shot, after-school workshops in which everyone completes the same activities dictated by an external consultant. These are professional development efforts in which individual teachers take responsibility for determining their own agenda and activities.

Acknowledging that teachers know what they need to know encourages them to happily pursue that knowledge.

The Teaching American History (TAH) projects with which I have been associated as an evaluator usually employ a model of professional development that requires teachers to assume direction for their own development. The TAH projects are long term, based on teacher-requested inquiries and events and offer a variety of learning activities. For example, a request from teachers planning to cover the American Civil War era might be to learn how to use the Document-based Questions (DBQ) technique with slave narratives. The project director, following the teachers’ lead, will bring in a U.S. history professor, arrange a trip to a university library’s document collection, or facilitate a visit to a plantation museum. The project director then assists the teachers as they design related learning activities and implement them and evaluate whether the professional development has been effective. Teachers determine and design learning activities collaboratively, and they structure the evaluation to reflect their purposes. This model provides meaningful and lasting learning that impacts student achievement.

Therefore, the most effective professional development for history teachers is:

  1. Collaboratively determined, designed, and evaluated by coordinators and teachers;
  2. Site-based, long-term, and classroom-centered with critiqued practice provided for participating teachers;
  3. Individualized to meet the needs of each teacher; and
  4. Content-oriented and based on recent research.

These attributes allow teachers to be active partners in the quest for professional development. Acknowledging that teachers know what they need to know encourages them to happily pursue that knowledge.