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District Teachers Valued as Leaders in Professional Development

Story by: Rob Kinch

Photo by: John Marks

       To earn their contractual hours dedicated to continued professional development, so as to maximize the degree of excellence of their students’ education, NJ teachers frequently find themselves at odds with the scope, content, and utility of the ‘workshops’ provided them by their school districts.  Attending a series of full and half day presentations throughout the year which they often find less than stimulating or which have little or no bearing on their specific disciplines, teachers often discover themselves feeling frustrated, unengaged, and skeptical of each subsequent district-planned presentation.  Dr. Tiffany Beer, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Rahway School District, is having none of it.  “We have a ton of expertise on our own staff; they are experts in myriad areas!”  With her recognition of the talents of the district’s educators, Dr. Beer developed her plan to allow teachers their own voice in expressing their varying needs and to provide the arenas for teachers to share their knowledge with their colleagues.

       “I wanted our teachers to have more choice,” affirms Dr. Beer.  “They have decidedly different needs and I respect their professionalism in choosing what they wish to learn about.”  As she focused on the implementation of her idea of teacher-led professional development, Dr. Beer considered the negatives associated with bringing in speakers and special workshops from outside the district. “One-off professional development yields no continuity for our teachers.  Also, you never know what you’ll get…sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not!”  “With our teachers, I knew what I was going to get!  I have seen their daily successes in interacting with their students and their colleagues.”   She adds pragmatically, “Why should our dollars be spent on other people when they can be invested in our OWN talent?”  Her plans for the innovative in-house driven professional development were quickly realized as teachers, eager to avail themselves of this opportunity, signed on for the new program which debuted in September, was followed up in October, and most recently implemented in the district’s March 2 day of professional development.

       Evaluating the success of the September and October PD days, Dr. Beer offers, “I was very happy with what I saw; naturally there are gaps to be filled in, but seeing the staff excited gave me the confidence to move forward.”  “Some of the workshops filled up on 35 minutes and there was an easy transition…things went more smoothly than anticipated.  Feedback from the faculty was very positive; parking seemed to be the only problem!”  Recognizing realistically that her program is still a “work in progress,” she is constantly exploring ways to expand it to include more offerings.  “My brain’s always going!”  “I want the teachers to know that I trust that their knowledge goes so much deeper than what we are able to witness daily.”

       Rahway District’s March 2 Professional Development day offered faculty members numerous workshop options such as, “The Pyramid Model: Building Relationships and Creating Supportive Environments” for PreK-K teachers, “Incorporating Orton-Gillingham Strategies in the Classroom” (reading methodology) for K-12 teachers, “Exploration and Table-Talk of Multiple High School Mathematical Practices” for district Math teachers, and “Responsive Classroom: Middle Grades” (focus on social-emotional learning/creating safe and joyful learning communities) for grades 5-9, all organized and presented by Rahway District staff members.  Success of the new PD format could be easily measured by comments offered by both presenters and attending faculty members alike.  “Yesterday’s Mathematical Practices workshop was a huge success,” explains RHS Math teacher Toni Robertelli.  “As first-time presenters, Anna Winters and I were beyond pleased with the amount of highly valuable discussions and productivity of the group.  Our participants left the workshop excited with actual planned out lessons ready to go in their classroom for the upcoming week.”

       Social Studies teacher Michael Celoski “absolutely loved the structure of faculty members sharing with their colleagues.”  As presenters to Social Studies teachers throughout the district, he and Edward Dailey “had a fantastic experience collaborating with one another to create a presentation we knew would address firsthand the needs of our fellow colleagues and, most importantly, our students.”  Echoing Dr. Beer’s wryly stated belief that professional development “begins at home,” Mr. Celoski is eager to acknowledge “using Rahway’s own to turnkey best teaching practices is, in my opinion, a much better and effective use of Rahway’s resources to help improve student achievement and teacher performance.”

       “As Director of Curriculum and Instruction,” notes Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patricia Camp. “Dr. Tiffany Beer has broadened her influence from the Language Arts department to all departments.  This includes her recognition that we have many strong teachers in the district and her development of a PD program to support them sharing their expertise with their colleagues.”  Culinary Arts teacher Susan Martino would most definitely agree.  Having attended a workshop that she found “personal, private, and healing” which provided participants with the curriculum and skills necessary to inspire young women to embrace their purpose in the world, Ms. Martino believed the new direction taken in professional development evidenced that “the administration believes we are equal to or more qualified to help one another than an outside source!”

       Dr. Beer’s ultimate goal?  “I want this to be the teachers’ voices.  They should have the opportunity to demonstrate what they know and what they want to learn.”  A goal definitely set and met.