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Districts Benefit from Professional Development Schools in More Ways Than One
A few years ago Dr. George Fiore, superintendent of Kutztown Area School District in Pennsylvania, got together with a few of his colleagues — a handful of superintendents from neighboring districts. They looked around at the education landscape and, like most of the country, saw far fewer college graduates intent on teaching.
Together, the superintendents approached nearby Kutztown University, well-regarded for its education program, to explore a partnership. When they did, the dean at Kutztown brought up the concept of Professional Development Schools (PDS) — an idea that over the past few decades has gained traction as a way for school districts and universities to partner with two goals in mind:
- Train new teachers
- Provide job-embedded professional learning opportunities for existing teachers
What began as a shot at bringing potential teachers into schools earlier turned into far more than that. It was a win-win: the school districts would get a chance to work with college students from the time they were freshmen, and the university would be able to line up quality placements for their student teachers.
Professional Development Schools are a win-win: school districts get to train education majors from the time they’re freshmen. Teachers take part in phenomenal professional learning. Universities place student teachers. College students get a huge head start.
“That was an equal responsibility that we had, and we were willing to take on Professional Development School students as well as student teachers. So we made a mutual commitment which we realize could help grow future teachers within our program,” said Dr. Fiore.
How the Professional Development School Works at Kutztown Area School District
The program’s structure is simple: university students begin spending time in the classroom at KASD during their freshman year, getting 30 hours per year of field experience and becoming familiar with all 4 domains of the Danielson Framework for Teaching. As freshmen, they observe what happens in the classroom. With each passing year they become more involved: working one on one with students, working in small groups, and by the time they’re juniors, they may even teach an entire class. Come senior year, if there’s mutual agreement between the school district and the university, they stay on for student teaching.
Georgia Lobb is a junior at Kutztown University. It’s her third year as part of the PDS, and because she wants to teach math, she works with mentor teacher Shaylon Krautwald, who teaches Algebra One, Probability & Statistics, and AP Statistics. Once a week in the afternoons, Georgia comes to KASD. During a free period, Shaylon explains the lesson, what she’s about to do in the classroom, and why. After class, the two discuss what Georgia observed and how it went.
Benefits of PDS to Kutztown Area School District
The PDS takes an investment of time and effort, Dr. Fiore said. But KASD is reaping rewards in a number of ways.
The original goal to create a pipeline of education majors who want to work at KASD hasn’t gotten any less important, especially for those difficult-to-fill STEM positions. Dr. Fiore said that being able to find students at age 18 and then train them for 4 years while they’re in college is a huge win. It gives potential candidates a chance to get to know the district, the area, the students, the community. And it means that when that student does apply for a job, the district already has a solid picture of their skills and abilities.
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As students become more familiar with teaching in general, and with the Danielson framework in particular, it helps with retention later on, said Dr. Fiore. Getting a 3 year head start on classroom practice helps to build a planning work ethic, and having a well-equipped toolbox of strategies and skills — such as classroom management — increases the likelihood of success.
“If you think about where most teachers struggle in their first few years, it’s going to be in the areas of planning and preparation… Whether it’s ‘How do you organize your classroom? How do I distribute papers?’ Some of the smallest things fall apart for inexperienced educators. So that helps with retention because they have those things down.”
Students in the PDS become part of the KASD community. This helps with recruiting, too. “What they love is, ‘I love my kids. I love the community. I love the environment. I love that we have supportive people, whether it’s administration, support staff, secretaries that really care about our success.’ That’s the kind of community you build with this group of students.”
Students also get involved in extracurricular activities, such as helping to lead clubs. This kind of preparation also develops skillsets that students take with them as they enter the workforce.
Benefits of PDS to Mentor Teachers
True to its name, the Professional Development School is great professional development. Being able to metacognitively evaluate your own teaching practice, then communicate it to someone else and coach them through it, is a potent learning experience. “Shaylon, who has Georgia in her room, could say, ‘I want you to write down every question I asked this period.’ Think about how powerful just that activity is. Because then Shaylon has to think about, ‘Why am I asking these questions?’ Georgia has to analyze, ‘Why is she asking these questions, and what is the methodology that ties to?’”
Shaylon agrees. “When you have to be able to explain yourself to someone else, to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, it helps to better organize all the information in your head so that you can actually do it better, because the reflection process that you have to take part in before you explain it to someone else makes you think even more deeply about all your practices.”
Having to explain your teaching to someone else makes you think even more deeply about your practice.
And, Dr. Fiore said, being asked to participate in the PDS is a way to recognize and say “thank you” to those mentor teachers. “I think it’s pretty cool to have the superintendent ask you to participate in mentoring future teachers. That never happened for me. It’s recognition of the hard work, because it’s really hard in our profession, sometimes, to recognize those that have this skill set.”
Benefits to Kutztown University Students
And, of course, students participating in the PDS program find it valuable as well. Despite the fact that it’s a complete extra for them — they don’t receive payment, they don’t receive a grade — students volunteer to take part. It speaks to the idea that teaching is a vocation, not just a job. Great teachers, Dr. Fiore said, want to be great.
Georgia said she is gaining tools that she can not only use one day in the classroom — they’re useful in her university classes, too. “There are a lot of different things that I can pull from that other students are telling me, ‘Wow, that’s such a good idea! Where did you get that?’ And I say, ‘Oh, from Mrs. Krautwald, from the cohort.’”
Receiving direct mentoring from a veteran teacher, having the ability to collaborate, is valuable as well. “One of the greatest things I had when I became a teacher was the ability to collaborate with other teachers,” Dr. Fiore said. “I was at a large school where we had a really good professional learning community that gave me weekly interaction with other teachers to learn from them. And I learned so much by working with them. So the thought of now being a teacher who can start working with younger teachers was something I felt was really important, because I think you can learn the most from your colleagues. As much as you can learn in college, they just can’t possibly prepare you for everything you’re going to experience.”
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It’s All About the Students
All of this, of course, is good for students at KASD as teachers grow in their practice and become more effective at teaching. That’s what makes the time and sweat invested worthwhile.
“To me, that’s worth every second, because all you need is one time where you don’t have a qualified teacher — it’s devastating to your kids. It’s my ‘why’: you come to work and you say, ‘I want to put a quality teacher in front of every kid.’” Hiring a teacher like Georgia is a long-term commitment: “Why not train the heck out of them real early, so that she loves this place, and she’s well-trained, and she is, from day one, a top-notch teacher?”