Supporting Head Start Teachers through Professional Development

Jamie Sheehan

By Jamie Sheehan

Over the years, Head Start teachers have been the cornerstone of their programs. Head Start teachers have been, and still are, responsible for guiding children's learning experiences in the classroom. How we support our teaching staff is essential to children's learning.

Today, many programs are taking a different approach to supporting teachers by developing ongoing professional development systems. These systems are designed to support a variety of professional development strategies versus "one-time workshop" events. Evidence strongly indicates that "one-time workshops" are ineffective. We now know that adding certain training components relate to better outcomes in knowledge, skill, and continued use in the classroom by teachers. Who wouldn't welcome that? These components include theory and discussion, combined with training demonstration, practice and feedback during training, and follow-up coaching in the classroom.

As a former early childhood teacher, center director, education manager, coach, and training and technical assistance (T/TA) specialist, and now as an Office of Head Start (OHS) early childhood program specialist, I know firsthand the importance of professional development opportunities. At OHS, one of my passions is the identification of strategies that promote workforce and professional development efforts. Our goal is to increase new knowledge, skills, and practices to promote school readiness through opportunities for higher education, credentials, high-quality feedback and instructional supports, and T/TA. One of these professional development strategies is coaching.

I have been lucky enough to see and hear from programs about their coaching models over the years. One program's coaching model was piloted to fit their program quality improvement goals. They looked at their data and recognized the need to improve Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS®) scores and environmental rating scale scores. Supervisory staff needed coaching skills to help teachers improve practice, and center-based classrooms needed environmental improvements. After a year and half, their success was evident. Some outcomes of their coaching were increased CLASS® domain averages, higher quality classrooms, increased staff morale, enhanced supervisor skills, and increased family and community engagement interaction. They also saw improved child outcome data, especially in Early Head Start. Based on the success of the coaching pilot, there was an agency-wide commitment for sustainability and making coaching a priority.

Another program took an innovative approach to coaching home visitors. They began videotaping as part of their observations and reflections. Home visitors introduced the technique to families and explained that video participation was voluntary. The home visitors started taping five-minute routines that the families chose. The coach met with each home visitor twice a month and they reviewed the videos together. They discussed each family's goals, what was working, what they would like to focus on, and made time to reflect on their practices. In a few months, home visitors became more comfortable videotaping themselves even in challenging situations. The progress the home visitors made was collected and the program saw improved outcomes for children and families. They also noticed an increase in staff morale and teamwork.

I am aware of only a small percentage of coaching and other professional development strategies in Head Start programs. I'd love to hear more. This is my favorite part of the job! What is your program doing to support ongoing professional development for teachers? Share your story.

Jamie Sheehan is an Early Childhood Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start.