Planning an Effective In-Service

150 150 DC Special Education Cooperative

May 28, 2010

In-service has evolved over the last several years from a time for teachers to reconnect with each other, set up their classrooms and hear about the latest developments in their schools and districts to an intense, often two-week long series of meetings at which teachers sit and try to absorb an incredible amount of information.  While this is understandable from the administration’s viewpoint, it might be counter-productive.  There is an alternative, simple changes that can make the process work better for everyone.
As educators we know a great deal about how individuals do and don’t learn, unfortunately we seem to ignore much of it when it comes to sharing knowledge between ourselves.  We know that people can only passively absorb information in 15-20 min increments, but we have them sit in 1-2 hour meetings.  We also know that people learn at different paces and that nothing can shut a learner down faster than being forced to sit through a lesson they have already mastered, yet we do nothing to differentiate for ourselves.  Finally, we know that individuals learn best when they are invested in the process and see a tangible result at the end, but our sessions often end without a concrete take-away, something that teachers can immediately implement in the classroom.  Luckily, all of these can be easily fixed by following a few simple suggestions.
First, you should communicate early with staff about what must be accomplished during in-service and why.  The more they understand what they will be doing and why, the more likely they are to buy in to the process. Also be clear about what they will take out of their time and how it can be used in their classroom. It won’t stop all the grumbling but will lay the groundwork that you can build on later.
Always focus on the end goal, not the process. Lesson planning skills are a great topic for professional development.  Here the goal is not for teachers to all sit in a room together but for them to improve their planning techniques.  The deliverable would be a complete unit, including all supporting materials, to use in the classroom. By providing a number of ways to accomplish this, you can achieve that goal and also reinforce other positive habits. 
1) Teachers who keep binders of their unit and lesson plans throughout the year (which is best practice) can simply bring those in and review one unit with an administrator during set office hours, make suggested improvements and submit it for approval.  If they receive approval then they are cleared from attending that part of the in-service and can use the time for other planning or classroom set-up.  This rewards teachers who are already doing the right thing instead of punishing them by making them sit through yet another meeting they don’t need.
2) Teachers who don’t have binders could still complete the work over the summer break.  Simply send out the requirements and some supporting material and let them go.  You could also encourage collaboration by letting two teachers submit a joint unit, as long as both will be able to use it in their classrooms, which would make their job easier and also might be a skill that transfers to the school year.  They would need to submit the unit, receive feedback, make changes and resubmit.  Again, if it is approved they would be exempt from that in-service time, rewarding their willingness to work on their own time.
3) Teachers who do neither of the above (or who were not able to complete them to a high enough level) would attend the in-service. Having received the paperwork in advance, the assumption would be that they’d read it.  A brief review should take place, highlighting ideas that might be most troubling (max 20 minutes) and teachers would work either alone or in small groups to create a unit, with regular check-ins to ensure they are on-track and making progress. It will quickly become apparent who needs the most support and with fewer people it will be easier to provide it.
The same ideas can be adapted for most topics.  For some there might be a pre-test, which if passed will excuse teachers from the session. The possiblities are endless.  There will still be meetings that everyone needs to attend, but teachers will have been able to limit that time if they wish.  The key is to think about the rules of education when planning any professional development.

How does your school run teacher in-service days? Share your ideas in the comments section.