Professional development helps teachers and students

Megan McDaniel, who recently received her Master of Arts degree from Harvard University, teaches a literacy class Wednesday, April 19, 2023, at Northwood Middle School in Woodstock.

Professional development comes with many benefits for teachers.

Teachers get tips to use in class and learn more about the subjects they teach. And for veteran teachers, it can also be a refresher. And if they get a master’s degree or doctorate, many school districts pay for some of their tuition and also give them a contractual increase in salary.

Their students also benefit.

“Students have unique needs that are always in flux,” said Megan McDaniel, eighth-grade literacy teacher at Northwood Middle School in Woodstock and a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Megan McDaniel, who recently received her Master of Arts degree from Harvard University, works with Jacobe King as she teaches a literacy class Wednesday, April 19, 2023, at Northwood Middle School in Woodstock.

“Like any person, no student is the same,” McDaniel said. “This requires teachers to have a wide variety of tools to pull from in order to best meet their students in their zone of proximal development (an educational philosophy that says there’s a space between what a learner is capable of doing unsupported and what the learner can’t do even with support).”

When teachers participate in professional development or an advanced degree program, McDaniel said, it helps them expand their toolbox and try new things.

“Students benefit greatly from having educators who don’t shy away from change and evolve as learners through teaching,” she said. “When teachers take time to develop their teaching techniques and philosophies, students have a wider variety of ways to collaborate, converse and learn.”

McDaniel said her students have told her that having a teacher who continues to learn inspires them to do their best, get the most out of school, and think about their life after high school.

Jim Vera has been the social studies department chair at Oswego East High School since 2008. He’s an advocate for professional development and recognizes how it benefits students.

Sterling School’s paraprofessionals attend a meeting Friday, April 21, 2023. about SPS University, a program meant to fast track those who want to full time teachers.

“Professional development is part of the teaching experience. It teaches more relevant practices and in the case of history, new perspectives,” he said.

“In my case, it’s been a long time since I went to college, and professional development allows me to keep up with the best practices. Students have needs now that really weren’t taken into consideration when I was in college.”

For younger teachers, Vera said, professional development gives them new experiences outside the classroom to help them prepare for their careers.

Vera said he’s fortunate to work in a school district and with a principal (Laura Bankowski) who places a high value on professional development.

He said he attends the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies, of which he’s a member, and he’s taken advantage of professional development offered by the Illinois Democracy School Network as an Illinois Civic Mentor.

“The district has been great about giving me the time I need to attend the conferences, and it has provided me with a forum to share what I learn with my department, my school, and the district,” he said.

“I think many of my students have benefitted from my experiences. I feel it’s important for teachers to learn from other professionals, and you’re never too old to learn something new.”

Vera said professional development can help teachers either with content or teaching methods. Or both.

“Teachers usually choose professional development that helps their instructional practices, and that can come from a deeper understanding of content,” he said.

“It depends upon the individual, and their strengths in the classroom. I teach AP U.S. History, so a lot of the professional development that I’ve chosen has been additional history classes to have a broader content base for my students.”

McDaniel said professional development is essential if someone wants to become a better teacher.

“When you’re getting your bachelor’s degree, you learn about teaching philosophies, but you usually have to wait to put them into practice when you’re a student teacher.

“Sometimes teachers need to try different ways to put the philosophies into practice based on their students’ needs.

“For me, getting a masters while teaching helped me become a more versatile teacher. Teaching methods became more ingrained in my teaching once I was able to put them into practice and see the results.”

On a personal level, McDaniel said, professional development has helped her become more fulfilled in her career.

“I really missed being a student,” she said. “Professional development has allowed me to have more balance in my career between teaching and learning.”

Some school districts help their teachers get advanced degrees.

McDaniel said in Woodstock, teachers are reimbursed $269 per credit hour and can be reimbursed for up to 15 credit hours per school year.

“At points during their masters program, teachers are able to move up in pay lanes. After receiving a master’s degree, teachers in my district usually make a little more than $8,000 more than they would have a with a bachelor’s degree.”

When McDaniel was accepted into Harvard, “it was one of top three happiest days of my life. I screamed and danced around the living room with my two kids.

“I wasn’t just excited for me, though. I was thrilled for my students and the opportunities my degree would create for them.”

McDaniel was accepted into Harvard in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Harvard’s campus was closed. She was able to keep her job and attend classes remotely.

“This is not often the case with HGSE students,” she said. “Often people take a sabbatical for a year to pursue their degree. This was not a feasible option for me, a single mom of two.”

McDaniel has continued her professional development since graduating from Harvard, including a cultural literacy project with teachers from Turkey, Greece and Croatia.

Vera attended a week-long Teachers’ Institute at the Supreme Court of the United States through the Street Law educational program. He met former justice Sandra Day O’Connor and current Chief Justice John Roberts there.