One day last February, I found myself standing in front of an audience of 150, solemnly reciting a co-authored haiku poem about my brain. Four colleagues stood beside me in a row, waving their fingers in an impersonation of a cortical neuron’s dendrites. Gary Anaka, a Brain Coach and self-described “human gerbil”, stood nearby, applauding our efforts.
Despite his unconventional methods, Anaka knew how to foster effective learning for those who help children learn on a daily basis. Today, Anaka is one of many workshop presenters across the province, giving teachers and other school staff a chance to play student. While the children have the day off, the teachers themselves are seeking fresh perspectives and new teaching techniques on this province-wide professional development day, or “Pro-D” day.
During Pro-D days, teachers and other school personnel have an opportunity to avail themselves of new pedagogical methods, including the latest education research and how it applies to their classrooms. Part of teachers’ professional purview is to know about “best practices”: concepts like Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which encourage teachers to evolve beyond the schoolmarm of yore who read aloud from a science textbook in order to teach a new concept. According to an article on the BC Teachers’ Federation website, “[Pro-D] days in the school calendar recognized that teachers needed time during the school year to hone their skills, improve practice, and stay current with changes related to teaching and learning.”
While most Pro-D dates are set by individual schools, the annual province-wide Pro-D day is a chance for teachers to mingle with colleagues from other school districts. Each teacher is free to attend sessions throughout the province, using his or her yearly allowance for professional development activities ($100-$200, for example). Choices this year include the BC Teacher Librarians’ “Champions of Literacy” conference ($150 to register), the Northwest Math Conference ($185), the “Junior Entomologist” workshop at the Bug Lab in New Westminster ($30), and the BC Pediatric Society’s Sip Smart! workshop (free of charge) for helping teach kids make healthy drink choices.
Not all learning activities constitute acceptable professional development, however. Activities that are disallowed include curling up on the couch at home to read a book on learning disabilities, and decorating a Halloween-themed bulletin board in the school hallway.
Some question whether a single shot of intensive Pro-D is the best way for teachers to self-improve.
At one Pro-D session, a colleague of mine found this scrawled on a desk: “Pro-D is like artificial insemination: they give you the injection and you go away hoping for the best in 9 months.”
Notoriously, sessions feel useful and inspiring until the following Monday when the teacher returns to the classroom and confronts the trivialities of the normal routine.
A US-based non-profit called National Staff Development Council maintains that, ideally, “every educator engages in effective professional learning every day so every student achieves.” In most schools, Pro-D does happen regularly outside of the non-instructional school days, on a weekly or monthly basis. Voluntary study groups and gatherings are scheduled throughout the year, enabling teachers to try things out in the classroom and chat about it with colleagues over a 3pm cup of coffee.
Likely a combination of intensive and ongoing Pro-D is the best way to foster the skills of teachers and other staff members.
On a non-instructional Pro-D day like yesterday (Friday), not having to deal with a classroom full of clamouring, rain-soaked kids after recess is a bonus.