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One of my other hats

Like most writers, I have many passions about which I care deeply. When I'm not wearing my writing hat (or out hunting wildflowers on a trail somewhere), I work as Director of Professional Development in a K-12 public charter school. I was recently interviewed about that work when I was in New Orleans presenting workshops on writing and teaching at the National Charter School Conference. The text of the interview is below, or you can read the original post on Procurify's blog.

The Procurify business development team just returned from a fantastic trip to New Orleans where the National Charter School Conference took place. There we met Megan Freeman, Director of Professional Development for Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado. We were lucky enough to have a quick chat with her about education, professional development, and the role of technology in schools.

What is your role at Peak to Peak Charter School and can you expand on your professional background?

I direct the Center for Professional Development at Peak to Peak Charter School, a nationally recognized K-12 charter school in the Boulder Valley School District here on Colorado's Front Range. I began my classroom career teaching in the arts and humanities, and over time I began to take on more instructional and curricular leadership roles. I eventually moved into administration full-time, and in my current role I oversee our state-approved induction program and our tiered professional development program. The induction program provides induction to both Peak to Peak teachers and teachers at other charter and independent schools who don’t have access to state-approved induction through their authorizing districts or on their own campuses. On our own campus, induction is the first of four differentiated tiers of professional development that are customized to give teachers at all phases of their careers meaningful, actionable professional development.

What sets Peak to Peak apart?

In a nutshell, our school’s mission is to prepare every student to be accepted and succeed at their best fit college, and we define college success this way: Fit + Financing = Finishing. We have a 100% graduation and college acceptance rate, so in many respects you could say that we are achieving our mission, but we also serve a socio-economically diverse population, and over time we started to see that many of our students were being accepted but then couldn’t afford to attend college. Toward that end, we recently created an endowment that is designed to help close the financial gap for those families, so that everyone who graduates from Peak to Peak can fulfill our mission both in theory and in practice.

As a K-12 educational institution, we are moving into our sixteenth year of operation. We are fortunate to have a stellar staff of master teachers, many of whom have been here since the early days of the school’s founding. Our staff retention is very high because we honor teachers as experts in their field, and we hire educational professionals who are fully committed to the mission and the vision of the school. Teachers at Peak to Peak are active agents in their professional lives and are intimately involved in the decisions that affect them. Our administrators operate through a shared leadership model that is diligent about engaging all stakeholders in problem solving and decision making, and our entire staff consists of life-long learners who are deeply engaged with what’s happening at the cutting edge of education, both in the local charter world and across the nation. The level of excellence that our staff produces makes for a dynamic, supportive, and rigorous academic environment in which students are known, respected, and challenged to learn. No one falls through the cracks at Peak to Peak.

When you talk about professional development - what do you think is the most important aspect of training to keep in mind?

Every teacher I know has suffered through poor professional development at some point in their career. Time is a teacher’s most precious resource, so to have it wasted by sub-standard PD is educational malpractice, as far as I’m concerned. Teachers need tools and ideas that they can use immediately in their classrooms to make themselves more effective and to engage their students authentically and rigorously in the learning. Too much professional development is about theory or hypotheticals - or worse, operational logistics - and not enough is about helping to fill the teachers’ toolkits with applicable strategies. Effective professional development delivery needs to adhere to the tenets of excellent teaching and model all the same instructional best practices that we expect to see in teachers’ classrooms with kids. It’s absurd for us to expect teachers to create dynamic lessons that engage students in reading, writing, talking, listening, and moving, and then hope that they themselves will learn anything by sitting for 90 minutes, being lectured at with a passive powerpoint. Professional development providers need to walk their talk, or teachers will tune out and attend to more pressing priorities.

Another critical component of professional development is providing differentiated content based on multiple data sources. Does every teacher in the building need the same PD? How are PD decisions being made? What data is being used to drive those decisions, and how will success be measured? How are teacher evaluation data and student achievement data being used to identify areas of need for individual teachers and across cohorts of teachers? How will teachers be supported in implementation and held accountable for effectiveness? Too often, schools follow the latest trend in professional development, and don’t approach it strategically from a mission-based, data-driven origin.

Does professional development differ across roles in the organization?

We have a tiered system of professional development at Peak to Peak. Teachers’ professional growth plans vary, depending on which tier they are on, and plans are customized to each individual's professional priorities. Everyone sets goals, and those goals are derived from a variety of data. Teachers in the same grade levels or departments often have shared goals, and entire levels (elementary, middle, high) may have goals in common, depending on the schools’ achievement data or identified priorities for a given year. On the operational side of the organization, professional development looks a little different, but the driving theory is the same in that we want every professional growing in their field, and bringing back what they learn for the greater good of the entire institution.

One of the values we hold at our school is the principle of Teacher as Expert, and we regularly provide opportunities for staff members to present workshops and share their expertise with their peers and at professional conferences. We are a very collaborative team, and we know that sharing the combined wisdom of the group has the power to transform the work we do every day. Toward that end, we have many structures built into our professional development planning that allows for and promotes that collaboration, including a wide variety of teacher-led Professional Learning Communities, teacher-led Task Forces, and ongoing workshops in instructional best practices.

How has the education industry changed in recent years? What direction do you think that the industry needs to move in next?

Technology is the most obvious answer. When I was starting out, we had blackboards and encyclopedias, and we were excited when we got overhead projectors with clear transparencies we could write on. Instructional technology is now developing at breakneck speeds, and the information and tools available to teachers are extraordinary. Library media specialists are worth their weigh in gold as they guide teachers and students through the myriad layers of resources available, and the need for quality technology in the classroom is paramount. Technology is the new literacy, and if we aren’t able to provide appropriate support to teachers and students, a technology gap will emerge that will be as limiting as any achievement gap we’ve ever seen in education.

That said, we still know that the single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. A student who has every cutting edge tool and resource available to her but doesn’t know how to think critically and problem-solve creatively won’t be able to contribute to society in meaningful ways and won’t be competitive in the job market. Education has always been about people, first, and that’s not going to change.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I think there is an untapped opportunity for university teacher training programs to partner with K-12 educators to rethink teacher preparation in this country. We are finding that the traditional model for teacher preparation is not producing consistently well-prepared new teachers, and I think higher education could learn a lot from the excellent pedagogy happening in K-12 classrooms. We need the best and the brightest collegiate minds to choose education as careers, and they need to be appropriately vetted, prepared, and supported so that they can be successful when they join the field. The "sage on the stage” lecture model that is so prevalent in higher education is actually a very ineffective pedagogical model, and we need our higher ed classrooms to be as dynamic and challenging as our K-12 classrooms. It would be thrilling to see a professional development revolution happen at the university level.

Megan Freeman directs the Center for Professional Development at Peak to Peak Charter School. She has over twenty years of classroom experience, teaching multiple subjects across the humanities and the arts to students K-16. In addition to overseeing and facilitating professional development at Peak to Peak, Megan leads workshops in best practices and consults with schools and universities, as well as serving on the Charter School Support Initiative Assessment Team for the Colorado Department of Education's Schools of Choice Unit.

Prior to Peak to Peak, Megan taught at Front Range Community College, the Alexander Dawson School, and the Ohio State University. She is a two-time Impact on Education Award finalist, a nominee for the 2008 Colorado Teacher of the Year, and a Fund for Teachers fellow. She is also a published poet, a fellow with the Colorado State University Writing Project, and a member of the Colorado Poets Center. Megan holds a professional teaching license from the state of Colorado and degrees from Occidental College and the Ohio State University.

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