Who Supports Staff Developers? Building the Expertise of Experts

Dr. Babette Moeller is the Principal Investigator of a wide range of R&D work focused on ensuring that elementary, secondary, and post-secondary students with disabilities are included in and benefit from educational reform efforts. She has extensive experience in designing and implementing technology-supported programs in general and special education, providing professional development for teachers and administrators in a variety of settings, and conducting formative and summative evaluation research. In this post, she shares some preliminary findings from her current study on strategies to address staff developers’ needs and challenges.

Staff developers play a pivotal role in supporting educators in improving instruction—adopting new curricula, using technology to enhance learning, aligning with the Common Core, you name it. But, who supports staff developers? What kinds of challenges do they face in their important work? What resources do they need to implement professional development programs in a manner that is consistent with the one intended?  

My co-PIs Amy Brodesky, Dr. Lynn Goldsmith, and I examined this issue in our National Science Foundation-funded Supporting Staff Developers study. We investigated facilitators’ implementation of two professional development programs: Math for All (developed by myself and colleagues at Bank Street College) and Addressing Accessibility in Mathematics (developed by Amy and her colleagues). Although these two programs differ in content, grade level, and use of video, they share some key features. Both programs focus on standards-based math education for students with disabilities,engage special educators and math teachers in collaborative lesson planning, and guide them in carrying out adapted lessons in classrooms. And both programs use co-facilitators—one staff developer with expertise in special education and one with experience in math education.

In the first phase of our research, we conducted a qualitative study, in which we observed facilitators’ implementation of the two professional development programs without any additional support. Based on what we learned about facilitators’ needs, we then developed and pilot tested additional offerings such as institutes and online support for facilitators. From the qualitative study and pilot testing, we identified preliminary findings about our approaches and facilitators’ needs that helped guide revisions to our support for facilitators.

First, to support teachers who work with multiple grade levels and students with a broad range of strengths and needs, facilitators really need to have a big, cross-grade picture of math education and strategies to engage students with disabilities. We’ve found that facilitators benefit from experiencing the professional development as teachers will, rather than just reading materials on how to facilitate the program. By participating in the programs and engaging deeply with the content, they have an in-depth, first-hand understanding of the programs’ goals and intent, start to gain that bigger picture, and have more background knowledge and strategies to draw upon to deal with the unexpected as they engage teachers in the programs. 

Second, the co-facilitation model is important and challenging. Our focus on standards-based math education for students with disabilities requires a blend of content knowledge and skills, as well as adult learning expertise, which is very hard to find in one person. Staff developers can’t be experts in everything! In our co-facilitation model, the expertise doesn’t reside in one person. Potentially, that may make some facilitators feel uncomfortable—they are not the sole expert leading the group and they may be out of their comfort zone with either the math or the special education content—but it’s important for a couple of reasons. The co-facilitation gives staff developers an opportunity to learn from their peers, model collaboration for program participants, and pushes them out of their expert roles. They tend to become guides on the side, rather than sages on the stage, and teachers benefit.