Best Practices in Professional Learning: Author Q&A
Best Practices in Professional Learning: Author Q&A
PUBLISHED: Thursday, November 07, 2019 by Andilynn Feddeler

Teachers need to be trained to address the needs of gifted and talented students, both within the regular classroom and in specialized programs. The Best Practices in Professional Learning series, edited by Angela M. Novak, Ph.D., and Christine L. Weber, Ph.D., provides readers with a foundation for designing and implementing effective professional development experiences for educators working with gifted learners. Each volume is a service publication of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). 

Volume 1 provides foundational strategies for professional learning, and Volume 2 covers special topics, including twice-exceptional learners, underachieving gifted students, the underrepresentation of minorities, acceleration options, and assisting educators to work with parents. The forthcoming third volume (June 2020) provides strategies and curricular materials/resources for working with gifted learners in specific content areas. Learn more about the series and professional learning in this interview with Angela M. Novak.


Q: What is your #1 advice to educators who have no idea where to start when it comes to professional learning? 

A: Wow, I can only pick one piece of advice? Give me a few minutes to try to come up with a really long sentence! Well, let’s see. I teach both undergraduate and graduate students in a wide variety of education courses—gifted education, of course, but also anything from sophomore-level understanding curriculum and lesson planning, to senior and graduate level assessment and adolescent development. My consistent message across every class is “Know your babies.” Know who they are. Affectively. Behaviorally. Culturally. Developmentally. Educationally. Let your babies, and your knowledge of your babies, drive your class, your learning environment, your lessons. So, if I’m limited to one piece of advice, I’m sticking to what I know best, but with a flip on the audience. Know your stakeholders. Understand who you are providing the professional learning for. In what context. For what children. In what community. Professional learning isn’t just about what you want to put out there; it is contextual. Without connections, it loses meaning as soon as the presenters leave the building. 

 

Q: Why is the distinction between professional learning and professional development important? 

A: You know, it’s interesting; the importance, the distinction, is really in the actions more so than the terminology used. But how the field of professional learning has emerged—as a changing field, with a new name, a new identity from professional development—is reflected in the vision and principles that are the groundwork of professional learning. These include ongoing, sustained work, rather than a one-time training; interactive and collaborative training, rather than “sit and get” information sessions; and individualized and differentiated topics based on the needs of the teachers, school, or district, rather than a standard curriculum for all. These are some of the hallmarks of professional learning. My coeditor Dr. Christine Weber and I collaborated with Dr. Katie Lewis on a piece for the NAGC Insider that dives into the difference. As leaders in the Professional Development Network—at the time Past Chair, Chair, and Chair-Elect—we were working on the official name change process within NAGC. Successfully, I might add, as it is now the Professional Learning Network. But as Shakespeare would posit (“what’s in a name?”), would professional learning, by any other name, be as effective? In my opinion, if it is called the old PD but it is embodying the principles of PL, that’s what is essential. But by making a purposeful shift in terminology, I believe you are also signifying a purposeful shift in pedagogy.

 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your work? 

A: Hmm, I supposed it depends on the readers! For administrators, I hope that they see that there’s so much more to professional learning than what we likely remember from being in the teacher seat 20 years ago. I’ve so enjoyed editing the chapters in the books and reading the different perspectives of the authors. And learning! I know I learned a lot with each book, but in the upcoming third volume, focusing on content areas, my eyes were really opened. I wrote a chapter with a colleague who teaches in the doctoral program for administrators, and I kept saying, “What does this mean? I need to learn more,” when she’d bring up a new theoretical lens during our research stage, or “Is that how principals are trained?” I went through a policy, planning, and leadership program for my doctorate in gifted education, and just more than a decade later, it is a different approach. 

For teachers, I hope they see that there are different approaches to professional learning—and so many ways to go about it on their own if they are in a school that doesn’t have a budget, especially to support professional learning in gifted education. There are a few chapters that talk specifically about self-directed professional learning, reflection, and the teacher as a sole practitioner. These really speak to how I felt when I was a gifted teacher, whether it was pull-out or resource. I was, more often than not, the only one in my building. In one district, I was one out of two gifted teachers in the district (albeit a small district). I covered all three elementary schools (as a .5 employee), and the other teacher covered middle school and high school, and was also the district coordinator. Sole practitioners in our schools, indeed! Other chapters are more topical—and can serve as guides to self-directed professional learning, in a way. Rather than using the ideas as a way to lead professional learning for a district, a gifted teacher can use the resources as a self-paced study guide. 

Overall, my hope for a takeaway is that an essential piece in supporting gifted students is supporting teachers.


Angela Novak, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of elementary and middle grades education at East Carolina University, in Greenville, NC. 

Christine L. Weber, Ph.D., is a professor of Childhood Education, Literacy, and TESOL at the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville.