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Stuart Chapman Hill: “Creating” Better Professional Development

Heather Vaughan-Southard      

If you want to get a group of educators chattering in a hurry, walk into a teachers’ lounge and toss out a favorite educational “buzz” word or phrase. One of my favorites, as a middle school choir teacher, was “professional development,” an idea that seemed so unimpeachably good on its face—what teacher wouldn’t want to keep growing and learning—but that so often came wrapped in unappealing packages that it prompted more eye-rolls than anything else. What does meaningful professional development look like? And what’s MAEIA got to do with it?

Our Study
Recently, my colleagues Ryan D. Shaw and Cynthia Crump Taggart and I presented a study about MAEIA at the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE) Arts Assessment Symposium. All three of us, in our own experiences as MAEIA item developers, felt that the work of writing and editing assessments for the MAEIA project had strengthened us as teachers—and we wondered whether other item developers had experienced the same. In short, we wanted to know whether serving as item developers had functioned as a form of professional development for the teachers involved.
We recruited six music educators involved in the MAEIA project—two from the elementary team, two from the middle school team, and two from the high school team—to be interviewed about their experiences as item developers for MAEIA. We talked to these participants about how their experiences developing these assessment items had influenced their work in the classroom and we invited them to reflect on the “nuts and bolts” of the process. After jointly reading and analyzing the transcripts, we found that the participants’ commentary cohered around three themes: looking “inward,” looking “outward,” and reflections on the experience.

Looking “Inward”
The first theme, looking “inward,” refers to the reflection and growth that happened on an individual level for teachers involved in developing assessment items.

For several participants, the writing process presented a renewed opportunity to learn about national and state music standards and think about how to align instruction with them, as described here by Jessica (please note that all names used here are pseudonyms):

[Here are] the standards, here’s what we want the students to know, and so, instead of just picking a bunch of songs and then finding things to pull out from them and hoping that it’s good, I feel like, as a choral director, I’m going—Hmm, I should look at what they should be doing. I need to look at my colleague above me, see where they’re going. And I need to look at these standards and see if I’m gonna be able to meet those standards through this, and assess those through their performing and their learning of these pieces.

Some of the teachers, like Emma, felt that the process had strengthened their knowledge of assessment practices:

I got a much better understanding of what testers and assessment professionals are looking for…I know what music teachers are looking for when they listen to things or watch or do assessments, but then to have that other professionalism added in there, it made me feel like, I guess, what we were doing was a little more—I don’t want to say valuable, ‘cause that means what we were doing before wasn’t, but just a little more elevated, so that I knew going forward if I was to write my own or design my own assessment for my own classroom, I had more of these tools at my finger tips.

Many of the teachers simply described how the process had, in a more global sense, prompted them to turn a critical eye on their own teaching and assessment practices.

For Anne, an experienced band teacher, this opportunity for reflective practice might as well have been the aim of the entire project:

What I remember distinctly was it forced me…to think about what I’m already doing and also best practice, which I hope is one in the same, but it really does force you to think about that and to align, and to be very introspective about, “Am I aligning with best practice as much as I possibly can?” And I gathered through the whole process that that’s the goal, is to ask teachers who are willing to be introspective as they go clearly to get data about what’s going in their classroom but ultimately to be introspective and take that hard critical look, “Am I aligning with best practices as often as I can?”

It seems, for these teachers, that writing assessment items for MAEIA was an important part of their reflective practice as educators, strengthening their knowledge of state and national standards and giving them a constructive venue for self-evaluation.

Looking “Outward”
Teachers in this study noted how the MAEIA process made them view the larger music teaching profession, and their positions within it, differently—a process of looking “outward.”

Anne reported:

“it was really easy for me to have a bigger picture outlook…I was thinking now pretty globally about how to fit these assessments into a wide variety of music classrooms across the state.”

Several teachers acknowledged the sense of empowerment they felt, strengthening their sense of legitimacy as educators, advocates, and leaders of their colleagues.

As Sally, an orchestra teacher, explained,

We can show [administrators without arts experience] and say, “Look, this is what you’re going to be looking for in my class. This is how I’m going to collect data.”…And, because I showed the document to my administrators, they were like, Oh! … I see what you’re doing. I see that there is real teaching going on here.

Sally also described her enthusiasm for sharing MAEIA materials with arts colleagues in her building and district, joking that she feels like “the person who’s planted zucchini. People in my department run from me.”

Andrea, a middle school choir teacher, felt strengthened in her conviction that music education matters and that projects like MAEIA were an important instrument for advocacy:

What we do is really important. And to validate what we do, I think we need to be doing these hard things. I mean, this took a lot of work, but, you know, no one understands us, no one understands why what we do is important, just for people, for students, for humans. And I think that this … kinda puts that stamp—I mean, everyone knows, well, math is important. This is important. … I think it brought to the surface just how intricate music education is.

These “bigger picture” reflections helped teachers not only to see how they function within the larger music education world, but also to feel renewed commitment to their work and to advocating for their field.
Reflections on the Experience
Finally, teachers offered reflections on the experience of being a MAEIA writer in general. They shared that having the opportunity to work with colleagues in an authentic professional learning community was productive, helpful, and even joyful.

Sally said, “MAEIA—I tell my students, it’s like, imagine being part of a group project where everybody in the group is equally passionate about their subject and equally informed. And it’s so rewarding.” Participants enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate and walked away with new ideas to implement in their teaching.

Not everything was perfect, of course, as the newness of the project made it a learning experience for all. Some participants hoped for more specific training in how to write a good item. Others pointed out that it was hard to keep up with changing procedures as the process evolved. And, for many, it was challenging to keep up with MAEIA work and deadlines while also tending to the responsibilities of their full-time jobs at their schools. Still, these bumps in the road seemed outweighed by the enjoyment and inspiration that teachers were able to derive from engaging in this thoughtful, collaborative work.
What can we learn from these teachers’ insights? Although the pat on the back for the MAEIA project is nice, that perhaps is not the moral of the story. The model of collaborating on the MAEIA team to write assessment items differs from many typical professional development activities—conferences at which teachers listen to sessions and keynote speakers, school-level professional learning communities in which teachers discuss a common reading or the latest teaching fad.

One important difference here is that these teachers were engaged in the process of creating something together, a hands-on experience that prompted valuable critical reflection and real inspiration for classroom practice and advocacy.

In addition to creating valuable assessment tools for arts educators, projects like MAEIA may furnish a helpful model for schools and districts to use in designing meaningful, high-impact professional development activities for teachers.

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