Active Learning and Educational Milestones: 10 Ways to Improve Teacher In-Service Meetings

In-service meetings are designed to enhance skills, learn about curriculum changes and set personal milestones. Without taking the time necessary to properly plan an agenda, however, these well-intentioned meetings can become a waste of time.

Fortunately, identifying the common pitfalls of in-service meetings — and taking a hard look at what works well — can help make these events truly fruitful for everyone involved.

Align Meeting Goals

Well-planned teacher training is always going to be more successful than a session that’s simply thrown together. But what sort of things should be considered in the planning and preparation stage? One of the first things to think about is what the long-term goals of the meeting are.

Educator engagement company Pear Deck points out that meetings are most effective when everyone is approaching them from the same angle. “If we approach a meeting saying ‘together we want to draw the map and then figure out the best path through it,’ that can change the dynamic and make meetings more efficient,” the team writes.

This gets teachers united on what the agenda is, what the goal of the meeting is and how they should all collectively proceed.

Prioritize Instructional Skills and Practice

To make your teacher professional development efforts as fruitful as possible, it’s important to focus on a few skills that are of the utmost importance. “Each year, identify and focus on one or two instructional priorities — effective instructional practices that the district wants teachers to learn, refine, or improve,” says Joel Zarrow, Ph.D., CEO of the nonprofit organization, Children’s Literacy Initiative.

He says that it’s best if these priorities come from the teachers themselves, as this will ensure that they’re more enthusiastic about learning the topic. Moreover, administrators should be sure to provide teachers with the proper support not just during in-service meetings when the instruction is taught, but afterwards, when it’s being implemented. Such support is key to giving teachers the guidance and time they need to effectively implement new strategies and instructional methods.

Consider the Importance of Teachers’ Time

Administrators must also take a closer look at the impact of their actions on teachers’ daily lives.

“Behind every teacher story is an administrator who is interpreting policy, setting expectations, and establishing a tone that will determine the quality of their teachers’ work, and by extension, the education their students receive,” says education writer Jennifer Gonzalez at The Cult of Pedagogy.

While meetings are important, she adds, quality should be prioritized over quantity. Meetings take up a significant amount of time, and hosting last-minute meetings without well-planned agendas can cause frustration and animosity among teachers.

collaboration - improving in-service meetings

Personalize In-Service Meetings Around Teacher Input

One of the main reasons teacher meetings fail is because they aren’t actually geared to teacher needs. Instead, they focus on school-wide issues and ignore the real daily challenges that teachers face.

To change this pattern, administrators must engage teachers more deeply in the meeting process. Ask them what they need, what challenges they’re struggling with and where they’re seeing successes in the classroom. This can help you create meetings that focus specifically on teacher needs.

“If you’re able to start with the kinds of things teachers actually need, rather than what the school or district needs, engagement–eventually–should improve,” adds Terry Heick, founder and director of educator training provider, TeachThought.

Develop Performance Criteria

In the corporate world, many business leaders make it a point to develop performance criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of new professional development initiatives.

“Developing criteria is critical for setting expectations and guidelines for growth. The criteria should include tasks with task descriptions, performance matrix, or goals in which to measure task performance,” Kendrah Wick at G2 Crowd writes.

You might create a performance scale to help with this evaluation. Teachers can be evaluated on the teacher in-service day, and then again at the next defined milestone. Educational milestones with defined timelines give trainees the confidence of progression, Wick adds.

This avoids the open-ended uncertainty that often accompanies presentations and instructional programs that have no defined implementation plan or goal.

Focus on Individual Growth to Advance the Whole School

Administrators can also use in-service meetings as an opportunity to focus on individual teacher growth. A one-size-fits-all approach ignores the fact that your teachers have different levels of experience, explains Don Jones at Turbine.

For corporate teams, he suggests creating a collaborative, structured plan for each employee based on their skills sets, strengths and goals. There’s no reason this effective strategy can’t be applied to teachers, too. When customized solutions are combined with well-defined performance criteria, each teacher will have an individual growth plan that they’re excited to follow.

Leverage Active Learning to Provide Context

Active learning is a different approach to teacher development from traditional lectures and group work. Instead, it is a much more engaging form of learning that engages teachers directly in designing new strategies and testing them out, says Linda-Darling Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, in an article she co-wrote at Learning Policy Institute.

Active learning makes use of “authentic artifacts, interactive activities, and other strategies to provide deeply embedded, highly contextualized professional learning,” the researchers note.

The greatest benefit of this approach is that it asks teachers to engage in the same type of learning as their students. This brings teachers more closely into the learning process itself and helps them better empathize with and understand student concerns.

teamwork - improving in-service meetings

Flip Your In-Service Meetings

You may be a fan of the flipped classroom, but have you ever considered flipping the traditional meeting format for teachers?

Meetings at his school have successfully flipped, says Paul Hermes, associate principal at Appleton North High School in Wisconsin. They incorporate five key elements which include screencasts to preview the presentation and surveys to gather feedback on professional development topics staff is most interested in.

The tasks are completed before meetings, which frees up more time for when the team is actually together. The time saved is used in meetings for collaborative work across subjects, grade levels and departments.

Offer Explicit Support and Instructional Ideas

Gathering a team of talented people in a room isn’t going to do much on its own, says Sarah Fiarman, director of leadership at EL Education. Instead, she recommends providing explicit support to teachers so they have an exact idea of how to improve.

At her school, Fiarman helped reimagine traditional meetings and made them into teacher workshops that explored tangible, specific aspects of the teaching and learning process. These workshops asked teacher teams to work on developing and implementing the school’s values. Then, this same model was used in real classrooms on students to help them engage with their own values and attitudes towards work and behavior.

“Staff members from across grades reported seeing a difference in student attitudes towards work and behavior,” she writes. “One of our most skilled and experienced teachers told me that she was learning to teach in a new way and as a result, students were taking more ownership of their learning.”

Start Meetings with a Student-Centered Frame of Mind

Focusing on teacher needs is important for creating a meeting that feels meaningful. But, the end goal should always be to improve student learning. That’s why teacher and professional development provider William Ferriter believes in starting meetings with writing time, where teachers write notes to individual students.

Taking time to focus on individual student strengths puts teachers in a positive, student-centered frame of mind before anything else on the agenda gets in the way. Another benefit is that it gives teachers full permission to recognize their students’ successes — and how their own hard work as a teacher has contributed to those wins.

Once this habit is instilled, it’ll be easy to see the lasting ripple effects across the organization. Still, Ferriter stresses, administrators should be sure to maintain the practice. If eliminated, it’s a sign to teachers that other issues are more important than student-teacher relationships.

Images by: Matthew Henry, Sarah Pflug, Nicole De Khors

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