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Building a Local Professional Development Community

posted Jul 18, 2019, 1:38 PM by Mark Schober
I have been fortunate to be deeply involved with two successful local area physics groups, the St. Louis Area Physics Teachers and STEMteachersNYC. The long-standing St. Louis Area Physics Teachers was ever-present in my formative professional development. When I moved to New York City, I found that no such equivalent organization existed. Leveraging our connections, we assembled a group of teachers for our first workshop in the spring of 2011. Eight years later, we’ve offered over a hundred workshops serving over a 1200 teachers with ever-expanding plans. 
I prepared a talk for the 2019 AAPT Summer meeting to share key components of these organizations that will help you to start or strengthen your own. 

What follows is a series of anecdotes that compare and contrast the St. Louis Area Physics Teachers, that I was involved with from 1996-2010, and STEMteachersNYC, in which I am currently active.  Although quite different in size, they share many of the same features that have benefited and will continue to serve teachers into the future.
It is helpful to keep in mind why local professional development communities are so important and so valuable:
We form professional development teacher groups because there are never enough physics teachers in any one school to have meaningful content-oriented professional development. Other physics teachers are the best source of pedagogical content knowledge. Local teachers have contextual knowledge about state testing, political climate, funding, unions, local events and resources. Person-to-person interaction builds relationships that give you people you can call in a teaching pinch.
I’m going to divide up the basic ingredients of our teacher alliances into four essential parts, though, of course they are all interconnected:
People - those willing to share their expertise and those eager to grow in their profession
Programming - events, activities, and workshops that are of value to teachers
Communication - between members of the group, reaching out to invite new teachers, and communicating our work and mission to school officials and potential donors.
Resources - meeting locations, equipment, organizational structure, human capital, funding

A core group in geographical proximity to each other that are able to get together, face-to-face, approximately monthly is necessary to build and keep momentum. In St. Louis, teachers trained as PTRA’s were tasked with sharing their resources. They formed a core group that pulled teachers together from all over the city.
In New York, we had a university professor who had trained teachers all over the city, including one of my colleagues. That contact led to a discussion that brought together a top-notch group of physics teachers that formed the nucleus for STEMteachersNYC.

Identify a few leaders who will do a bit of everything, considering that you are here, that is probably you. In St. Louis, my mentors were the planners and leaders of workshops. Then I volunteered to update the group’s website and then became the person that dogged people for workshop details to post on the website and send out to the group via email. In New York, Fernand Brunschwig made STEMteachersNYC his focus in his “retirement” putting far more energy into the group than I had imagined possible.

Volunteers come in two types - those who ask “what can I do to help” and those who did not know they were workshop or organizational leaders or until they were persuasively asked. Perhaps the best PD you can offer to another teacher is to take note of something interesting that is going on in their teaching and then ask them to share it with other teachers. 

Participants are your future leaders, volunteers, and core group. Giving each participant the opportunity to be known and to know others moves them from being a passive observer to someone who is integral to the success of the workshop. Immersive workshops in which participants do exactly the activities that their students would was the norm in St. Louis, and soon I had some neat approaches to light going on in my classroom that I was asked to share with others. 
In New York, we quickly realized that calling ourselves PhysicsteachersNYC was too limiting -- so many teachers teach in multiple disciplines, that after a year, we widened our umbrella by renaming ourselves STEMteachersNYC. This shift in identity has helped us to reach physics teachers that we may not have otherwise met -- people who teach a class or two of physics by identify as a physical science or chemistry teacher according to their training. In St. Louis, we would often have a joint meeting with area chemistry teachers on an annual basis, and one of SLAPT’s greatest supporters was a professor of chemical education.

Finding people requires contacts, and word-of-mouth is still the most powerful hook. In both organizations, we’ve mined databases of schools for teacher and administrator contact information to send out mass paper mailings to get the word out, but it’s still the “I heard they hired a new science teacher over at school X, let’s reach out to them” is the long, slow process of building the organization one person at a time.

While the St. Louis group has always been all-volunteer, STEMteachersNYC grew so quickly that we needed staff to handle the day-to-day web maintenance, workshop registration, money handling. In New York, we now have an executive board with active subcommittees that guide the big picture while letting the staff take care of the nitty gritty.

In New York, we’ve adopted the slogan, “For Teachers, By Teachers, About Teaching.”

Whenever we bring teachers together for a workshop, we want to immerse them in the learning process, just as their students would, and then reflect on the experience from a teacher’s perspective: what teaching tools were used? What variations would work in different school environments? What support will students need? Such workshops strengthen content knowledge in a non-threatening way, and the pedagogy discussion pools the experience and ideas of all participants. In both groups, Modeling Instruction pedagogy has factored in significantly, but so has ISLE, TIPERs, PTRA, Quarknet, Hands-on-Universe, and CASTLE, among many others. Most of our school-year workshops are three hours long on a Saturday or Sunday morning, and in the summer we run workshops from a few days to a few weeks long.

I am a big fan of make-n-take workshops. I like sending teachers away with a class set of materials so that they are much more likely to use what they’ve experienced in a workshop with their students. I’ve made low-cost electrostatics kits, homemade photoelectric effect devices, slow acceleration apparatus, customized globes with laser-cut measuring tools for exploring the seasons, inertial mass balances, wave generators, double slit diffraction . . . lots of stuff. And there’s no better way to spend some time with other people and making things. The conversations are great, food is involved when appropriate, and the best kind of collegial bonding occurs. You are sure going to come to the next workshop -- to see your friends as much as to grow as a teacher.

Field trips for teachers are great scouting trips for enrichment activities you might do with your students. In St. Louis, we held our annual meeting/election/workshop planning get-together at the interpretative center for a superfund cleanup site. It was so interesting. In New York, we got a tour of Highbridge, the original aqueduct that brought water into the city with the engineer who oversaw its restoration. We established a great partnership with Six Flags St. Louis to really make physics day a special event where students actually do some very interesting physics. We offered a fall workshop to help teachers learn how to incorporate amusement park physics into their curriculum and prepare them to take advantage of the resources we made available to them for Physics Day in April.

While less of our focus, we’ve also had some fantastic guest speakers. In New York, we heard from the IBM scientist who discovered the foundational principles of Lasik eye surgery, about culturally relevant teaching with Chris Emden, author of “For Folks Who Teach in the Hood -- and the rest of y’all, too,” and climate scientist James Hansen.

Communication has become cheaper than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easier. As people become attached to a small number of electronic media sources, our organizations now have to post content and monitor responses on multiple platforms. 

Back in the old days, the 2000’s, I managed the website for St. Louis Area Physics Teachers and dogged people with emails for information and sent out notifications to our mailing list as I updated the website. The mailing list was a low-tech affair that required maintenance on the backside from me, and that has been upgraded to using Google forms to capture member sign-ups.

In New York, we’ve used a Google group that allows anyone to post to the group. The emails it generates can contain rich content and we use it to direct teachers to our website (which is really nice). There are such good tools readily available to build the interactivity of the site: Workshop registrations are handled through Eventbrite, donations are accepted through PayPal, and new member signups are managed through Google forms. 

Yet with all this, it’s still nice to have a phone number and an address. When you’re trying to plan a series of workshops, it’s so nice to just be able to talk to someone instead of sending yet another email. And when you’re trying to reach those who do not yet know all you have to offer, snail mail is still a good option to promote what you can offer to teachers and to schools. 
It is possible to run an organization on a shoestring budget, as we did in St. Louis. Current membership dues are $10 per year and are collected on an honor system. It funds website costs, mailings, and an annual award. Workshops are hosted by teachers at their schools on Saturdays or after school. Make-n-take workshops carry a fee that covers the expense of the equipment. 

In New York, we quickly realized that we would need a formal accounting system and non-profit status. For a short time, the American Modeling Teachers Association let us bank through them until we had completed the paperwork and approvals for non-profit status. Part of the process requires adopting a constitution and by-laws, and thinking about such structure greatly provides a structure for stability and transparency. Being a formally recognized organization has allowed us to form an agreement with Teachers College, Columbia University, where we hold the majority of our workshops. We also obtained insurance, and we work with an accountant and a lawyer to make sure we are doing everything just right. Having our governance in order has allowed us to apply for grants and solicit funding from individuals and corporations. Lucky for us, our fundraising committee is led by someone who has had an entire career raising funds for non-profits, and our finance committee is bolstered by several members of the Harvard Business Club, bringing expertise that we teachers never trained for. They helped us to see that $20 for a high-quality three-hour workshop is still cheap compared to George Washington Bridge toll of $14. Further, we developed a partnership with the New York City Department of Education that allows city teachers to receive per session pay for participation in our workshops and also receive continuing education credit.

In St. Louis, I worked with SLAPT to meet AAPT’s requirements to become a section of AAPT. SLAPT is more active than many AAPT sections and is a model for effective local professional development. I hoped that section membership would give us a voice in improving the section structure, and then I got distracted by moving to New York and participating in the fantastic growth of STEMteachersNYC!

Check out our websites for a sampling of the fantastic things that are going on in these organizations!


St. Louis Area Physics Teachers