This fall nearly 800 new teachers have entered classrooms in the Milwaukee Public Schools for the first time. According to recent statistics from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, upwards of half of them will be gone by the fall of 2008. Like school leaders across the country, administrators in Milwaukee are working hard to slow down this revolving door in the profession and keep their best teaching talent in the classroom.
A new professional development initiative that provides mentoring for teachers at the click of the computer mouse may help to slow these high teacher attrition rates. At any time of day, novice teachers in Milwaukee can go online to share ideas with and seek support from experienced teachers as well as others new to the profession.
“The program is a huge benefit for new teachers,” says EDC’s Kirsten Peterson. “Typically, schools don’t have anything set up for new teachers. They’re often left to sink or swim on their own. With this program, new teachers take a six-week online workshop facilitated by a veteran teacher in the district. The workshop allows new teachers to learn and contribute to a larger system, along with more experienced teachers.”
An team of educators in EDC’s Center for Online Professional Education (COPE), in collaboration with researchers at Harvard University, is working with teacher leaders in Milwaukee to incorporate the program, called Online Professional Development (OPD), into their existing professional development programs. Funded by the Joyce Foundation, the program offers 25 online workshops (see box to the right) led by teachers who have taken a facilitator training course.
The OPD program provides stability for a large, spread-out district like Milwaukee that has changing priorities and agendas due to the constant change in staff and administration. “One way to maintain continuity is to have a solid ongoing professional development program that doesn’t change from year to year,” says Peterson. “Research shows that stability in professional development programs helps retain teachers. This online program allows professional development to put down roots.”
A distinct benefit of the OPD program is the time and location flexibility it affords busy teachers. “The program provides access to professional development any time, any place,” says Peterson. “Teachers can take part in professional development during a prep period, during lunch, after school, and at home.” In a survey of teachers who took an online workshop, 92 percent cited ‘could work according to own schedule’ and ‘didn’t have to travel’ as advantages of the online workshop versus a face-to-face seminar.
Critics may point out the impersonal nature of an online mentoring program. However, the OPD program incorporates face-to-face meetings that infuse a sense of community among teachers. “The initial meeting is face-to-face, which helps teachers connect to one another, put faces with names, and jumpstart the feeling of community before they begin the online workshop,” says Jennifer Wilson, a teacher facilitator in Milwaukee. One of the first to go through a facilitator preparation course, Wilson helps promote conversations among teachers during the online workshops. Teachers appreciate the face-to-face meeting, which not only helps them feel a sense of connection with other workshop participants, but also prepares them to use the technology that drives the online interactions. “I couldn’t imagine beginning the class without the initial meeting in which the technology was explained,” says a teacher.
Promoting comfort with technology is a distinct benefit of the OPD program for veteran teachers who are wary of computers. “The workshop helped me to overcome my lack of confidence in the use of computer technology. It has given me the tools to use this form of technology effectively and efficiently,” says a teacher. New teachers in the OPD program, who are already comfortable using computers, are learning how to use technology to enhance their student’s learning, rather than using technology for the sake of using it. “The new folks learn a great deal about curriculum development and classroom management from the veteran teachers—this is why it’s so wonderful to have both groups in the same course for several weeks,” says Peterson.
Keeping participants involved and motivated is a challenge for workshop facilitators. An additional incentive to take the online workshops, new teachers can earn graduate credit from a local university. Graduate credit is particularly valuable in light of PI 34, Wisconsin’s Quality Educator Initiative. Effective July 1, 2004, PI 34 dictates the standards teachers in Milwaukee must meet in order to be licensed, one of which is completing a professional development plan. “We saw PI 34 coming down the pike and we realized that we could use the OPD program to meet that need,” says Wilson.
The workshops turn out to be a valuable experience for many who initially log on merely to earn the graduate credit. As one teacher explains, “I signed up for the course to get the one graduate credit—if I learned something I could use then all the better. I’m happy to report that what I learned in the course and what I learned about my classmates’ views on making their teaching better has made taking this course extremely satisfying. There is, indeed, fresh thought being put into how to better educate children, how to make it more meaningful, and how to help teachers achieve higher levels of accomplishment. I like to think of courses like this as vitamins for teaching.”
Although there is abundant anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of the OPD program, Peterson says stay tuned because NSF just awarded a major grant to provide empirical evidence of the impact of online professional development versus face-to-face and hybrid approaches.
Originally published on September 30, 2003