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Connecting Our Staff to

Their Professional Affiliations 

 

BY JOHN T. FITZSIMONS

Why is it that when the economy is suffering and funding for public education is being capped or cut, superintendents often are quick to reduce the professional development budget? What message is that sending to the district’s faculty and students?

Does preservice education and training, regardless of the institution awarding the degree or the state granting a certificate, guarantee quality instruction and excellent pupil services? Do academic degrees and state certifications ensure quality instruction and services will be consistently delivered from rookies as well as classroom veterans?

I don’t know any colleague who would answer yes. To the contrary, we all recognize the serious limitations of preservice education. We are fully aware no one-size-fits-all protocol leads to effective teaching and support to all students. The mantra for many of us in education leadership is to provide for continuous improvement of the professional staff.

We understand it is essential that all educators, novice or experienced, be engaged in planned, ongoing professional development to remain current in their fields and adapt to an ever-changing society.

Professed Beliefs
As superintendents, we profess to these beliefs but send mixed or contradictory messages. When resources are scarce, we often first look to staff training as a place to cut spending.

No one disputes the importance of the professional staff. Their value is readily apparent in their cost. Salaries and benefits represent 70 percent of most public school budgets. Given their mission, schools are labor-intensive enterprises.

If the most valued and expensive resources are the school system’s professionals, why do we not invest in their development? How much, for example, would it cost to provide each member of the professional staff with membership in a professional organization that can enhance his or her work assignment? Many school districts provide the superintendent and administrators with paid membership in professional organizations of their choosing as a contract provision. Why shouldn’t the same provision be available to all professional staff?

Costs and Benefits
Let’s calculate the cost and the potential benefits. When I retired recently as superintendent, the Lawrence Public Schools in Lawrence, N.Y., employed 342 professionals to serve 3,146 students. The average cost of professional membership in an organization such as the National Council of Teachers of English or the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is approximately $100 and includes a subscription to the organization’s professional journal.

Thus, our district budgeted $35,000 to ensure all staff members joined professional organizations aligned with their assignments and responsibilities. Given the staff’s salaries and benefits represented approximately $35 million in expenses, the benefits of this professional development initiative far outweighed the cost.

As part of our process, staff members were responsible for identifying the most beneficial national professional organization to meet their needs relating to the support of students. The exercise in itself was a powerful professional development activity. It also gave principals and supervisors access to the latest professional literature that could be shared and discussed at meetings.

With 100 percent of the professional staff affiliated with appropriate professional groups, we set the stage for ongoing professional development. The activities generated by these affiliations far surpassed the perfunctory two or three days of scheduled in-service programs. In addition, the initiative sent a strong message to all employees that they are respected and valued professionals.

Learning Communities
The local unions may share in the cost of some professional development activities when they can play an active role in selecting the appropriate memberships to be offered. No such collaboration and cooperation is likely to take place when the first thing to be cut in tough economic times is the staff development budget.

Superintendents who want to build learning communities cannot do so without a strong commitment to the professional development of the staff. Otherwise, a school district is stuck with a group of loosely affiliated schools tied to rigid protocols, resisting change no matter how questionable the current practice. Systemic improvements based on sound educational research are not likely.

Schools routinely are challenged by professional isolation, which develops when few opportunities exist for professionals to observe each other’s work and share in the discovery of best practices. Chances for reflection, analysis and discussion with trusted colleagues are limited.

Supporting quality in-service programs and attendance at state and national workshops and conferences will pay dividends in improved instruction and services to students.

Professional development does not guarantee immediate results in changed teacher or student behaviors, but without it, ineffective practices go unchallenged. If superintendents want to serve as instructional leaders, they need to courageously promote a budget that includes funds for professional growth.

John Fitzsimons is a retired superintendent in Lawrence, N.Y. E-mail: cpwfitz1@aol.com

 

 

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