Individualized professional development

The middle school where I teach just changed the topics taught each year to align with our state standards. My specialty is biology/life science, but now I’m also expected to address topics in earth and physical science. The inservice agenda for this year focuses on teaching strategies, but what I really need are crash courses in earth and physical science. I can’t go back to college—what should I do?
— Kaylee, Longmont, Colorado

Science teachers have two fields requiring continuing education—pedagogy and science content. In my school district, it was easy for our committee to plan professional development in teaching practices. Topics such as cooperative learning, classroom management, technology, curriculum design, inclusion, and assessment applied to virtually all subject areas. But science content was another issue. With only four secondary biology/life science teachers, it was difficult (and costly) to find facilitators to provide workshops or seminars on specific science topics. So once a year, we combined with teachers from other schools for the traditional “large group in an auditorium for a speaker” event. This approach to professional development was often irrelevant; research has shown one-shot presentations without any follow-up are ineffective.
Many of our students have IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) to meet their needs. Perhaps its time for teachers to create IPDPs (Individualized Professional Development Plans) for ourselves, particularly for content knowledge. Some districts offer such an option for self-directed learning. Teachers set their own learning goals, design a learning strategy, document their activities, and describe how they will apply the new content knowledge. The plans require prior approval (especially if the district is awarding official professional development hours) and usually teachers are excused from some or all of the traditional inservice programs. Perhaps you could offer to pilot an IPDP in your school.
I know a teacher who actually used a KWL (what we know, what we want to know, and what we learned) chart to explain her plan. The NSTA Learning Center also has a “PD Plan and Portfolio” tool to guide you through this process. It sounds like you already have a goal (updating your content knowledge and skills, and finding related resources and activities for your classroom), but keep it simple and do-able. Identify one or two content topics to start, perhaps the ones in which you feel least confident.
Learning strategies could include a variety of sources. Check your local colleges/universities for content courses appropriate for teachers to keep current on familiar topics or to learn new ones. However, introductory courses are usually labeled as undergraduate and may not count for certification or tuition reimbursement. Some colleges/universities do have “special topic” courses (including online ones) designed to enhance teacher knowledge.
Not all content learning has to be in a formal graduate course. Consider reading science journals or trade books (check out the suggested reading lists in the NSTA journals), watching TV programs related to science, listening to podcasts, or participating a professional learning community. Look for seminars or speakers at nearby colleges/universities or professional societies. Consider visiting a museum, zoo, planetarium, nature center, or botanical garden that offers programs compatible with your goals.
The resources at the NSTA Learning Center can help you, too. It would be easy to incorporate these into IPDPs, and many are free to NSTA members. The resources include free Science Objects, free online web seminars (most other professional organizations charge for these), and listservs. Did you notice how many of these NSTA resources are free for members? That is an educator’s favorite word!
Reading NSTA journals such as The Science Teacher, Science Scope, and Science & Children is an easy way to stay current on both pedagogy and content, and your membership includes online access to all of them, including the archives. If you need some quick information on an unfamiliar topic, use NSTA’s SciLinks to find websites with information.
Keep a record of your learning—in a journal, on your PDA, or on a form supplied by your school as documentation. You may be surprised at how informal professional learning can add to your content knowledge base.

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