Posts Tagged 'federal policy'

Ch. 15: An unexpected opportunity, and an impasse: NSDC I

op·por·tu·ni·ty noun
 /ˌäpərˈt(y)o͞onədē/
a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something
a chance for employment or promotion

im·passe noun
/ˈimˌpas,imˈpas/
a situation in which no progress is possible, especially because of disagreement; a deadlock.

By the summer of 1978 I had been teaching for 10 years. 

I had helped found and implement a successful alternative high school (ALPHA) at which I had worked for 6 years.

I had earned two graduate degrees.

I had failed to get jobs I had sought and turned down one that I sensed would not be right for me.

And I felt the emotional fatigue of working with at-risk students whose academic, family, mental health, and addiction problems often felt overwhelming.

So I was ready for something different with new challenges and problems to be solved.

Such an opportunity came from an unexpected source.

In the late 1970s, during the administration of Jimmy Carter, education saw important advances. Teacher unions were influential in Washington, the Department of Education had recently been created, and federal teacher center legislation was passed which in 1978 awarded competitive 3-year grants to about 30 school systems or consortiums of systems.

My district was part of one such consortium that included seven school systems in Northwest Wayne County near Detroit. 

A central feature of that legislation was the view that teachers should have a larger say in their own professional development.

To that end, the legislation required that the teacher centers be governed by policy board with a majority of teachers. (In 1979 the consortium also began receiving state funds with similar requirements.)

Because of my professional development work as a teacher leader in an innovative alternative high school and in leading workshops on teacher stress and burnout, I was encouraged to apply for the center’s executive director position.

I was selected, and in late September 1978 I went from my high school classroom to a 3-day meeting in Washington, DC for teacher center directors and board members, plus dozens of representatives of the federal government and of national and state organizations who had a variety of supportive roles. 

I quickly realized that the world of high school teachers and that of Washington, DC policymakers could not have been more different.

On Friday I was thinking about my lesson plans for the following week. On Saturday, in Washington, I heard speeches filled with terms and acronyms I didn’t understand about the specifics of the legislation whose requirements seemed baffling.

And that is how I became the teacher leader of the Northwest Staff Development Center (NSDC) which served about 4,000 teachers and administrators. It was called “Northwest” because of the location in Wayne County of the seven consortium districts, and “staff” development center rather than teacher center because one of the first decisions the policy board made was that it should serve administrators as well as teachers. 

(I later would think of it as NSDC I because a few years later I would be employed by the National Staff Development Council, NSDC II.)

The policy board selected an elementary teacher as an assistant director, and we immediately began translating the abstract language of proposal writers intended to please proposal readers into concrete programs that would begin within weeks. 

The center offered a variety of short and long-term workshops both during and after the school day. Mostly they were based on subjects identified through “needs assessments” in the seven districts.

One of my first professional development surprises was that while some topics, such as classroom management and motivating students, were overwhelmingly identified as “high need,” just a handful of the 4,000 educators would enroll in workshops or courses on those topics.

The center also provided mini-grants to individual teachers or a group of teachers who wanted to create innovative programs or curricula and individual grants to teachers for conference attendance or purchasing professional materials for a school or school system, among other uses.

We developed a monthly newsletter that listed upcoming events and described our evolving ideas about professional development.

It was an exciting time because both researchers and practitioners were seeking ways to understand, describe, and disseminate effective teaching practices.

And they were also thinking more deeply about professional development that would spread those teaching practices. 

I attended my first annual conference of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) in 1979. While there were just 125 educators in attendance, it was the organization’s largest conference to date, and my participation would prove to have a profound influence on my career.

At that conference I learned about the research of Bruce Joyce on effective training, which placed classroom follow-up and coaching front and center, features that were missing from all of our teacher center programs.

And perhaps most importantly, for the first time I engaged in deep conversations with others who shared the challenges and rewards of our often lonely work.

What did I learn in my 3 years at the teacher center before it closed in 1981?

• That teacher-planned professional development isn’t necessarily superior to that planned by administrators, and that the best decisions were made collaboratively.

• That “needs assessments” based on teachers’ perceptions were insufficient in planning programs that would make a difference in teaching and learning. 

• That our emphasis on finding the best presenters for workshops rather than designing programs intended to produce lasting changes in teaching and leadership that would benefit all students was wrongheaded, but it was all that we knew to do at the time.

• That a “presenter’s” charisma or ability to inspire were not a substitute for the use of effective teaching methods with educators—that is, that the presenter/teacher would be an outstanding model of the recommended practices. 

• That focusing primarily on individual development, not team development and creating school and district cultures of continuous improvement, was insufficient.

• That while federal and state policy-making and the daily work of teachers often resided in separate worlds, I learned how political decisions have important effects on schools and classrooms.

When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 one of his first actions was to eliminate the Teacher Center Program.

And so in 1981 I was unemployed, and while I could return to the classroom in a yet to be determined placement, I knew that I wanted to find a way to continue to use the important things I had learned at both ALPHA and NSDC I. 

But first I would have to invent a way to do so when no ready-made possibilities presented themselves.

Have you ever felt that your career was at an impasse? If so, how did you manage that period of your life?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]


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