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The Effect of Professional Development on a Mexican Mission School: A Case Study

Vickie S. Cook, Greenville College

Introduction

Since the early 1990s, there has been a growing body of literature regarding the facilitation of deeper thinking among educators based on the opportunity for in-service professional development (Darling-Hammond, 2003; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 1999, 2001; Reeves, 2010; Smith & O’Day, 1991). In-service professional development provides teachers with the opportunity to consider alternative solutions to teaching and learning situations. Providing solid professional development is the goal of schools globally. This effort can be challenging to small private schools that are pouring as many resources as possible into the necessary materials and curricula for their students. Few budget resources are left over to provide the necessary professional development for teachers in these schools.

This project was born of a strong partnership between a church located in the Midwestern United States and a small mission school located in the Mexico City area. The mission school typically enrolls approximately 60 – 80 students who live in one of four children’s homes. The children have primarily been sent to the mission as orphans and typically have lived in poverty prior to their arrival. Many may have been to school only sporadically, if at all. The average age of the children enrolled in the school is ten years of age.

Reeves (2010) made a strong case for moving past teachers liking professional development sessions or presenters and moving toward assessing if the professional development activity has lasting impact on teaching and learning. While the positive assessment of long-term impact is the desired goal, it was also noteworthy that this particular professional development activity would not have a long-term impact on the teaching and learning occurring in this school if the participants’ feelings were discounted during the presentations.

Methodology

The purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of the teaching staff in a Mexican private pre-K–8 school. The intent was to interview the administrators, teachers, and house parents associated with the children’s homes and school. A review of test scores and curriculum was planned to provide documentation to support or explain themes, which might emerge from interviews. The director of the school and board of trustees approved the research and requested a report of the themes that emerged. The two members who comprised the research team, the primary researcher and a trained translator, conducted the pre-intervention interviews and post-intervention interviews. The primary researcher asked the questions in English and provided a copy of a set of starter questions in Spanish to the adult participants. The translator orally asked the same question in Spanish of each participant. Prior to each interview, the participant was given the choice to participate and was given background on the purpose of the study. The primary researcher provided some of her background to each participant to support Merriam’s (2002) premise that if personal information is asked of interview participants, personal information of the researcher should also be shared. Semi-structured interviews followed with additional questions being asked as the participants introduced new information not asked in the original list of questions. Initial questions were broad enough to allow participants to add information as they wished to do so.

During 2008, 23 staff members were interviewed to determine professional development needs of the house parents, teaching staff, non-teaching staff, and administrators. These individuals were interviewed because of their familiarity with the school and length of service as teaching staff, teacher’s aides, or house parents. Each staff member had been employed at the school at least two years prior to the interviews. Based on the results of the initial interviews, a planned and focused intervention of professional development was implemented.

The professional development interventions were one-week workshops that occurred over two summers (2010 and 2011). At the end of the second summer professional development conference in 2011, post-conference interviews acted as an evaluation of the project to determine any change in thinking and subsequent practices among the school staff and to measure staff perceptions of improvements that were made to the areas identified as needing improvement in the pre-conference interview process. Those staff members who had left the school during the three-year period of 2008 – 2011 or those who were no longer serving in a position similar to the position held during the initial interview were not interviewed as part of the final data collection process. Fifteen interviewees were included in the post-conference interviews.

Additionally, six older children were interviewed regarding their perceptions of the school during the final evaluation process. Procedures for participation of the children were similar to those of the adults. The house parents were asked for permission to allow the children to participate. Children were asked a question in both English and Spanish. The children were not given a printed version of the starter questions. Questions developed for the children were broad enough to allow the child respondents the freedom to provide information they felt was relevant to the discussion.

To provide for reliability, both adult and child participant responses were repeated to the participant in Spanish to ensure accuracy of the response. Responses that needed additional clarification were addressed before the conclusion of each interview. At the end of each interview, each adult and child respondent was allowed to ask the researcher any questions that he or she wanted to ask.

Intervention

Over the course of the three years (2008 – 2011), professional development and focused parent-child literacy activities were provided for staff.

Figure 1. Timeline of Mexico Professional Development Project

The project began with interviews in summer 2008. A presentation to the mission board of trustees and subsequent recommendations for professional development and approval for the project occurred during 2009. A group of U.S. educators formally planned for a professional development conference to be presented in conference style over the course of one week with group sessions and break out activities. This professional development conference was presented in the summer of 2010. A team of 12 U.S. educators and translators staffed the first professional development conference.

After the 2010 professional development workshop, a second group of educators who had not participated in the professional development conference, provided parent and child literacy activities that were appropriate for a household consisting of a set of parents and helpers and up to 20 children ranging in age from 4 – 18 through visits to each of the homes. These activities were planned in conjunction with educators who participated in the first professional development conference and built on methods and strategies taught during the conference. These focused literacy activities were conducted in each of the four homes to encourage foundational support of the learning that was occurring in the school. Frank Smith, noted Canadian authority on literacy in children, posited that children learn literacy skills most effectively when taught by adults who enjoy literacy activities (cited in Weinbaum et al., 2004). These interesting and fun activities provided the springboard for house parents and the children to foster the concept of learning together and provided a new focus on literacy activities in a fun, interactive manner. These activities were taught to the parents, helpers, and children during three-hour sessions and focused on reading, listening, and active learning exercises.

In 2011, a second weeklong conference style event with large group meetings and smaller breakout sessions was conducted at the school. A team of ten U.S. educators and translators staffed the second professional development conference. Eight of the educators served on both professional development teams. At the end of the second summer conference, post-conference interviews acted as evaluation of the project to determine any change in thinking and subsequent practices among the school staff and to determine the perceptions of improvements that had been made to the areas noted as concerns in the initial pre-conference interviews. Additionally, six older children between the ages of 14 – 18 were interviewed regarding their perceptions of the school and changes that might have occurred during the two-year period. Only those children who had been at the mission school for at least one full year were included in the interview process.

The intervention professional development conferences and mediating parent-child literacy activities were developed using the following literature as foundational to the process. Professional development that focuses on teaching strategy can have a significant impact on the achievement of students (Elmore & Burney, 1999; Rojas-Drummond & Mercer, 2003). Similarly, it was found that professional development had a significant impact on the teaching practices of the teachers at this small mission school and as such on the achievement of the enrolled students. To return to Reeves (2010), it is equally important to understand that professional development that cannot be put into practice by teachers, whether this is due to lack of understanding, lack of resources, or lack of follow-through, will not have the desired impact on student learning. Reeves stated, “High-impact professional learning has three essential characteristics: (1) a focus on student learning, (2) rigorous measurement of adult decisions, and (3) a focus on peoples and practices, not programs” (p. 21).

The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) developed the following set of guidelines regarding professional development for teachers.

1. Quality professional development validates teaching and learning as the central activities of the school.

2. Quality professional development engages all school leaders in planful, integrated, career-long learning to improve student achievement.

3. Quality professional development promotes collaboration to achieve organizational goals while meeting individual needs.

4. Quality professional development models effective learning processes.

5. Quality professional development incorporates measures of accountability that direct attention to valued learning outcomes. (Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, 2000)

Initial interviews were conducted with teaching and non-teaching staff guided by the propositions identified by ISLCC for quality professional development. In an initial report to the executive board of the mission organization, themes and concerns were identified through interviews conducted with the teachers and staff (Cook, 2008). The primary focus of the initial interviews was to determine the effectiveness of teaching and non-teaching staff in the areas of literacy development and promotion of literacy with the children who live in the homes and attend the school. However, it was soon apparent to the interview team that this focus was not the most pressing need of the school.

Observations of the researcher regarding the initial interviews and interviewees included the following:

1. Many of the items noted in the report were consistent with the differences between the educational system in the United States and the educational system in Mexico including the processes involved with teaching and learning.

2. It was apparent that every staff member interviewed had a passion for the ministry and for providing a solid learning environment for the children, but felt less than confident about achieving this goal.

3. Most of the teachers and the staff members specifically noted interest in finding ways to improve the overall effectiveness of teaching and learning within the school. (Cook, 2008)

The following areas were noted from the original interviews for the executive board to consider as goals toward continuous improvement:

1. Improve teaching staff qualifications.

2. Professional development for teaching staff should occur regularly.

3. Communication between teachers and other staff must be strengthened with shared priorities and goals identified that address the overall mission of the organization.

4. A vendor for the school curriculum was selected over ten years ago. It served as a place to begin, but required significant supplemental content for knowledge gaps to be eliminated. Additionally the following curricular deficiencies were noted.

a. Curriculum was marketed globally by a vendor who is located within the United States and has been translated into Spanish.

b. English is presented from a first language perspective.

c. Spanish is presented from a second language perspective.

d. The curriculum was worksheet-based with little interaction or active learning activities. Curriculum is not constructivist or inquiry-based.

e. Curriculum contained notable gaps in both the breadth and depth of the material and these gaps were required to be supplemented by teachers. Teachers did not feel adequately prepared to meet these needs.

Approval was requested to provide professional development activities for the staff. Approvals were granted and planning began in earnest.

Professional Development Interventions

Because this was a unique school that was located in proximity to and exclusively serves four children’s homes, a distinctive meaning to the concept of school, family, and community was developed. To truly succeed, the parental figures in the homes and the teachers must collaborate to make education important and learning of true value to each child. Each child brings a special situation to the home and to the school. The needs of the children are great and the responsibilities of both the house parents and the teachers are tremendous. In addition to managing the homes, each house parent also maintains contact with the school by serving in the role of a monitor or aide one day per week in the classrooms. This helps build the school-home collaboration and lets children see that school is important to their parental figures.

A team of 12 U.S. educators provided the initial professional development intervention. The sessions were intentionally culturally relevant. The worthiness of the efforts of the current practices in the homes and classrooms was noted and valued publically by the U.S. educators. The sessions were provided to build on the current foundational strength of the school and the staff – not replace what was currently working within the school. Additionally, collaborative efforts to support the home and school relationships were emphasized. All sessions were presented in both English and Spanish and fluent translators were used in all technical exchanges to reduce misunderstandings that could have occurred due to language barriers.

Professional Development – Year One

Based on the interviews conducted with staff during 2008 and a review of the school curriculum, a team was developed to provide workshops in reading, special education, Christian-based curriculum, curriculum mapping of current curriculum between grade levels and Mexico’s assessment of children attending a private school, and home and school collaborations and team-building activities. The team of U.S. educators worked on the project to prepare culturally relevant workshops and translate materials for an eight-month time period.

Eighty-seven percent of teaching and non-teaching staff members participated in the first summer session using a variety of techniques including group work, role play, and hands on workshops. Mexican teachers and administrators attended sessions and participated in discussions regarding current practices and in the evaluation of teaching strategies and school policies. House parents who attended sessions based on their personal choice participated in discussions and asked questions for clarification. All four homes were represented.

Each day of the conference began with a group devotional activity that based the day’s activities and learning in scripture. Prayer for the students and the teachers created a foundation for the day’s learning. The first summer’s workshops included special sessions in meeting the needs of special education students, identification of learning differences, appropriate use of homework, and building teacher teams within the school and with the house parents of the children’s homes. Workshops in reading included methods and strategies in decoding, sight-words, reading comprehension, and fluency.

Knowledgeable teachers who had a strong familiarity with the Christian-based curriculum used at the school, developed workshops in specific curriculum-based activities. These curriculum-based activities reviewed proper assessment activities that were built into the curriculum by the publisher and ideas on bolstering the curriculum where there were known gaps in the presentation of material. One of the most popular sessions was the physical education workshop. Nutrition, health, and physical education were areas of importance for children who had previously lived in poverty, often suffering from no health care. Larger group sessions to discuss homework challenges and active learning sessions to explore learning theory and learning channels provided teachers with creative opportunities to build team-trust and to expand knowledge in the area of teaching and learning.

Fun activities that resulted in teachers winning classroom supplies, books, and other teacher-related prizes and gifts gave the participants a sense of professionalism and resulted in loud and joyous exchanges. Teachers anecdotally mentioned feeling valued at the end of summer activities. At the end of this first week’s professional development, the director of the school immediately asked that the team return the following summer to build on the learning that occurred during this first week.

Professional Development – Year Two

The U.S. team of educators proceeded to begin plans for the following year. Through a series of meetings and communication exchanges with the school directors, a plan was developed that would build on the activities of the first year while including five of the senior teachers at the Mexican school in the professional development workshop presentations. Each of the five senior teachers agreed to participate in presentations. Ninety-five percent of all staff attended the sessions provided during year two, including several new staff members.

The second year workshops began each day with devotional material and prayer to again create a foundation for the day’s learning. Small breakout workshops reviewed areas of literacy including reading comprehension, fluency, writing, and oral rhetoric as components explored in small group activities that were separated into elementary, middle school, and secondary school levels. Other workshops included learning games and physical education instruction. The school directors also asked for inclusion of math and science workshops. The math workshop was provided by an educator from Texas who was not part of the original team, but who volunteered as a tutor at the school. The science workshops were hands-on and provided a kitchen chemistry approach to active learning in the science classroom. The teachers were particularly pleased with the science workshops during this week of professional development. Finally, a breakout session that focused on listening to directions to create art projects in a step-by-step format was well received by the staff members who elected to attend this session. Larger sessions once again focused on homework challenges in the children’s home environment, as well as team-building activities. The teachers who had participated in the team building activities in year one took the lead and organized their colleagues into very competitive small groups for the activities. Again, a series of fun activities to allow teachers to win classroom supplies, books, and other teacher-related prizes and gifts added to the professional nature of the conference. Teachers again mentioned feeling valued at the end of this weeklong professional development session.

The Need for Professional Development

Current literature indicates a strong need for professional development within the school system. Professional development has been identified by teachers as assisting with the development of skills related to being more fully able to think deeply about the implications and practices associated with the behaviors of teaching and learning (Desimone, Porter, Garet, Yoon, & Birman, 2002).

It is evident that professional development of in-service teachers is critical in both the art and the science of teaching (Rojas-Drummond & Mercer, 2003). The teacher who is not provided opportunities to reflect and consider the outcomes of strategies and methodologies learned in the classroom may cease to exhibit the skills necessary to maintain higher-level achievement by their students.

In a study conducted by the World Bank (Lopez-Acevedo, 2002), it was noted that Mexico’s attempts to improve school attendance has resulted in challenges of improving school quality to meet the needs of the increased numbers of students. Additionally, schools in developing countries that work with the poorest and most rural populations of children often have the most challenges to face in providing good teachers and a high quality educational environment that often results in children repeating grade levels. In particular, Schmelkes (1999, 2000), demonstrated the inequities among Mexican children from differing socio-economic backgrounds. Tatto (1999b) discussed the need for educational reform in Mexican schools. She indicated the need for deep change within the school system. A concern was noted that change would only occur superficially unless teachers were encouraged to think deeply and differently about their practice (Tatto, 1999a). The Development of Education Program in Mexico identified the need for schools to be places of change and that this change would only occur if the change began with the teachers in the schools. By beginning with teacher learning, instructional change could occur on a transformative basis (Atweh & Arias Ochoa, 2001).

To be effective, professional development must be tied to the overall teaching and learning culture of the school. Teaching and support staff must be engaged in the same professional learning activities and those activities should be aligned to the overall plan for school improvement. School personnel must work collaboratively as a team on any project designed to improve the overall performance of the students and the school (Rosborg, McGee, & Burgett, 2003).

Focusing on a specific set of goals and stated outcomes between 2008 and 2011 for this Mexican school aligns with the recommendations made in professional development literature (Darling-Hammond, 2003; Desimone, et al., 2002; Elmore & Burney, 1999; Reeves, 2002, 2010; Rosborg, et al., 2003). By clearly working with both teaching and non-teaching staff to develop specific goals related to professional development sessions, this effort focused on the goals of school improvement as identified by the staff who were interviewed in pre- and post-conference settings.

Results

The first session held during summer 2010 resulted in teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as administrators, saying they liked the activities. While liking an activity may not operationalize its use in a school (Reeves, 2010), having this foundation was crucial to being invited to bring additional professional development sessions to the school. Teachers were encouraged and engaged with the first year’s sessions. Being ensured that they were doing many, many things right was essential to establishing a relationship that would allow more and deeper thinking about teaching and learning to occur. These first sessions were met with serious debate and critical thinking regarding the outcomes expected and the strategies used to meet those expectations. Teachers were asked to reflect on the day’s learning each afternoon before leaving the school.

Changing from a more traditional school setting that isolates the teachers from each other and from administrators, teachers from the parents, and parents from the educators requires a transformation toward a professional learning community (Eaker, DuFour, & DuFour, 2002). This type of transformation is dependent on seven specific characteristics. Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour identified those as:

1. Collaboration

2. Developing mission, vision, and goals

3. Focus on learning

4. Leadership

5. Focus on school improvement

6. Celebration

7. Persistence

Many of these characteristics were already apparent in this mission school. The school has a strong mission and vision with stated goals that would benefit from improved communication and clarity. There was a strong focus on learning within the school. Those in leadership roles in the organization and in the school felt their responsibility keenly and looked to improve their skills in various ways such as taking university courses and continuing education related to content area and school improvement. There was a focus on continually improving the school with teaching and non-teaching staff. Celebrations were used to encourage and engage the children and staff. Persistence was taught to each child, as they were encouraged to always remember to dream and reach new goals.

At the end of the first weeklong conference in 2010, the U.S. team received an unsolicited invitation to return to the school the following year to provide a second week of professional development sessions. The school director was extremely pleased by the outcomes achieved during the first week intervention, the teachers’ receptiveness, and the team’s openness to cultural issues and differences. The team was very happy to accept this invitation and spent several months preparing and discussing the options to further emphasize the focus areas.

The supportive activities provided at the individual homes in late 2010 were planned in relationship to the first professional development sessions. These supportive activities were directly related to points 1 and 3 from the Eaker, DuFour & DuFour (2002) list. Collaboration in support of learning activities and development of strong parent and child activities that focused on literacy learning were encouraged. The outcome was readily apparent as children and house parents enjoyed the learning exchanges and shared other ideas that they had to further develop collaborations between the homes and school.

The final professional development sessions provided during summer 2011 were met with a changed atmosphere. Teachers were not looking for simply entertaining sessions. They did not spend as much time talking together at the beginning of the individual sessions; they desired to actively participate in the learning. The teachers shared comments regarding the challenges of implementation from the previous year. Conversations ensued regarding the effectiveness of putting into practice theory and methods learned during the 2010 session. Teachers discussed and debated challenges faced with children functioning below grade level and how to address specific learning challenges.

Teaching and non-teaching staff shared frustrations and successes in understanding and accommodating a large variety of learning styles, psychological development, and appropriate uses of homework. Discussions during botana (break) often focused on teaching strategies, learning, and improvement of instruction. Application of content strategies was discussed and considered by the participants. In the post-conference interviews staff identified the areas where they had seen improvement in during the previous year. Areas of improvement most often noted by staff included:

1. Overall literacy development as demonstrated by writing, oral projects, and reading tests.

2. Communication between homes and the school was improved.

3. Some house parents had implemented practicing critical thinking exercises with the children each evening.

4. Curriculum was being evaluated for consistency, as well as depth and breadth by a team of school administrators and teachers.

5. Incorporation of active learning, cultural learning, and expanded physical education occurred.

6. Discussions regarding mastery of materials, not simply quantity of materials, appropriate uses of homework, and improvement of student motivation occurred among teachers and house parents.

Table 1 reflects the themes that were most often identified from the pre-conference interviews as those needing improvement or attention and were identified by staff in the post-conference interviews as having shown improvement. No attempt to quantify the level of improvement was made, as there was no previous assessment measure in place.

Emergent Themes Needing Improvement Percentage of Staff who identified this theme as having shown improvement in post conference interviews
Overall literacy development 80% n=12
Communication between homes and the school 66% n=10
Use of critical thinking exercises in the homes 53% n= 8
Consistency of curriculum 13% n= 2
Active learning 53% n= 8
Cultural learning 53% n= 8
Physical Education 66% n=10
Mastery of materials in content areas 40% n= 6
Appropriate use of homework 33% n= 5
Improved student motivation to learn 27% n= 4

Table 1. Emergent themes of areas noted as improved between 1st Professional Development Session and 2nd Professional Development Session.

Those areas that were not noted by as many participants as having seen improvement were shared with school administrators for areas of continued need for development.

Additionally, six older children were interviewed about their school experiences in during the 2010-2011 academic year. The children were chosen because they had either been in the private Christian school during the entire past year, or had recently been promoted to the private non-Christian high school in the area and had insight into the preparation needed for that educational environment. All six interviewees voiced concern for continued improvement to specific curriculum and the need to add more cultural and active learning exercises to the current curriculum. Overall, the participating children were happy with the preparation they had received at the Mexican school through the secondary or junior high component of schooling. All but one respondent felt strongly that the children needed to be better socially prepared to move from the private Christian school environment to the private secular school environment especially in dealing with language issues regarding curse words, foul language, and slang, as well as bullying. All six participants spoke of being bored in the classroom while at the mission school and looked forward to learning activities that allowed creativity and movement to occur.

Discussion

Continuous improvement in teaching is an ongoing process that is not completed in a single participatory event. Professional development must be continuous and provide opportunity for deeper thinking to occur on many levels (Villegas-Reimers, 2003). Positive observations in this three-year, on-going project included:

1. Teachers’ have worked to put learned strategies into practice.

2. Teachers and house parents have improved communication and see this as an on-going area for development.

3. Teaching and non-teaching staff members are working toward providing a solid Christian home and school environment for the children served by the mission.

The next steps for this school will be to provide on-going professional learning communities to allow the teaching and non-teaching staff the opportunity to collaborate on a regular basis and address the issues that are of significant consequence to the children living in the homes and attending the mission school. The most pressing issue faced by the school is the review and evaluation of its curriculum. The teachers and administrators will need to determine if the current curriculum is the most effective material to provide their students with foundational knowledge needed to achieve. This organization is blessed with professionals who share values and a strong Christian identity in their approach to their vocations. The staff has decided to follow up these activities with a collaborative book study on teaching and learning. Their challenge of meager resources will continue, but with the addition of professional development and professional learning communities, they will be stronger together.

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