Learning, a Lifelong Endeavor: A Look Inside Kearney’s Teacher In-Service Day

Learning, a Lifelong Endeavor: A Look Inside Kearney’s Teacher In-Service Day

By Tyler Dahlgren

Growing up, teacher in-service days meant one thing and one thing only: No alarm clock.

Remember the adolescent joys of sleeping in on a well-deserved day off from school? The Full House reruns and the tones of The Price is Right host Bob Barker’s oddly comforting voice. How about the microwaved Pizza Rolls and free reign of the remote control? Couldn't beat that.

Yes, those were the days. But weren’t you always a little curious of what actually went on at your school in your gleeful absence? These teacher in-service days, what did they look like? Maybe you thought about it for five minutes or so before surfing through the channels again. 

Well, no need to worry. It’s past time to put the curiosities at rest. We set off to find all the answers in Kearney, where we were taken behind-the-scenes of a teacher in-service day at KPS.

School districts typically hold two in-service days a year. Kearney is no different, and there’s was kick-started by a keynote from nationally-renowned speaker Dr. Adolph “Doc” Brown, who put a jolt into the crowd of KPS staff at the Merryman Performing Arts Center.

Shortly afterwards, five teachers gathered around a conference table in Director of Secondary Education Clint Edwards’ office to give us a behind-the-scenes look at a teacher in-service day. We wanted to find the value in professional development opportunities from an educator’s perspective, and we did exactly that.

“The best thing we think we can do is to try and support our staff, reinforce them, and give them all the tools and resources they could need, because obviously in this day and age, retention is key,” said Edwards. “We want to make sure that we’re providing our teachers with everything they need to be successful, which in turn benefits our students.”

For an administrative team, an investment in teachers is an investment in students. It’s foundational-type of stuff, and in Kearney they believe in it. The proof of its pay-off lives in the district’s excellent culture and track record for being one of the finest in a state that does public education as well as any.

“We certainly hope there’s a tangible payoff for days like today,” he continued. “We hope that it’s an opportunity for teachers to learn something valuable, to sharpen their saws so to speak, or to add something new to their toolbox. It’s also a chance to step back, reflect, and come back the next day or week and feel motivated to hit the second part of term one at full speed.”

On with the introductions:

Jana Piper: I’m Jana Piper, and I am a speech-language pathologist for grades 6-8 at Horizon Middle School. I originally started out as a psychology major in college, and was a little uncertain about that path until a professor talked to me about speech pathology. It caught my attention, and I decided to change my major. Looking back, I’m very happy I did. It’s been great.

Randi Kuhn: My name’s Randi Kuhn, and I teach 7th-grade geography at Horizon Middle School. I kind of just jumped into teaching. My grandma was an educator. It ran in the family, and I had some really inspirational high school teachers. When I came to UNK, I didn’t really know what I wanted to pursue, so I started taking some education classes, and I quickly realized that this is where I needed to be.

Dave Zimmer: I’m Dave Zimmer, and I teach 8th-grade American History at Sunrise Middle School. It really boiled down to one teacher for me, one of my high school teachers. We just listened to Doc Brown’s presentation about having an impact, and he was that person for me. I decided that’s the path I wanted to go down.

Stacie Pearson: I’m Stacie Pearson, and I teach 6-11 English at the Hanny Arram Center for Success. I would definitely say the reason I became a teacher is because of my mom. She was a teacher, and I just watched her and the happiness that education brought her working with her kids when I was young. I just always wanted to be a part of that.

Chelsey Jacobitz: I’m Chelsey Jacobitz, and I teach Special Education at Kearney High School. I was on the border between nursing and teaching my whole life. I had very influential people, including my father and many aunts, who were teachers, so growing up watching them loving what they do, I always liked that. I knew I wanted to work with kids in some capacity, whether that was pediatric nursing or teaching, and I went the teaching route because I had great teachers throughout my life and I wanted to have a similar impact on my students.

Believe it or not, before becoming teachers, the group was a lot like me. Sure, the ones with education entangled in the family tree had an idea of what went on during teacher in-service days, but the picture wasn’t exactly crystal clear.

“I remember my grandma going to ESU training all the time, and she was always proud of those,” said Kuhn. “I thought ‘I can’t wait to be in meetings like that. PD day sounds amazing.’”

Piper’s father was an elementary principal. On in-service days, she’d stay home while he’d head into school.

“I would watch him plan and organize those things, so I knew that they were in meetings,” she said. “But I don’t think I ever knew the details of those meetings. I just knew they were there and we weren’t.”

So what really goes on during a teacher in-service day? Take today, for example, and walk me through your schedule and tell me what makes this time so valuable.

Chelsey Jacobitz: We always talk to our kids about growth and being at your best and being lifelong learners. PD days provide those opportunities for us to be those lifelong learners, to challenge ourselves and to grow as educators. If we aren’t at our best as teachers, we can’t expect our students to be at their best. PD days are really important as they provide opportunities for us to grow as teachers, as people, to better our kids and their success as well.

Randi Kuhn: I have a quote that I live by. It’s from a former administrator of ours who said “You are either ripe and rotting or you are green and growing.” That always just stuck with me. I want to be green and growing. I want to keep transitioning, learning new things and being at the top of my game rather than settling for the mundane.

Dave Zimmer: Kearney Public Schools has really changed the way they go about this the last several years. For a long time, it was just about your building’s focus, but now it’s much more of a district-wide focus. It’s given us a chance to get to know our counterparts across the district and it’s given us opportunities that we’ve never had before. We actually get to know some other people in this district, and collaborate and share ideas with each other. That’s been very beneficial.

Stacie Pearson: We started this morning looking at some data and breaking that down, looking at trends in student attendance and behavior and math scores, those types of things. This time gives us an opportunity to collaborate and really focus on that data, which will help guide us in making decisions down the road. After this, we’ll go back and have another staff meeting where we usually lay out specific building goals we would like to address. It’s always very intentional, which I appreciate. It also affects what we’re doing right now. It’s not just training that we’ll maybe pluck a thing or two from. We’re making decisions that will affect our students when they come back on Monday.

Edwards selected these particular five teachers to participate in the panel discussion on purpose. They’re all on the KPS mentorship team, and they all remember what it was like being a young teacher feeling your way out in a new profession that demands your best each and every day.

For clock-watching middle schoolers, the days can sometimes pass slowly. For teachers, not so much. Blink twice and it’s September 20th and the train’s barreling down the track at full speed.

“It’s nice to be able to check in on those who are new, because everyone’s just go-go-go all the time,” said Kuhn. “I remember starting out and getting in the trenches before settling into a groove, and it is nice to realize ‘Oh, you do recognize me as a person and you are concerned about me.’ We really are in this together. You’re not on an island. That’s always a good, positive reflection, especially for those newer teachers.”

In-service days are a productive reprieve for teachers seasoned and unseasoned, who often get the chance to intermingle. Those interactions are eye-opening and reassuring. Everyone’s in the same boat, Kuhn added. PD days prove it.

“It gives the new teachers especially a chance to breathe,” said Zimmer. “They’re five weeks into their first go around here, and it can be overwhelming at times. When they hear veteran teachers talk about some of the same concerts, the same issues they’re having, that tends to calm the nerves a little bit.”

Mentoring, Pearson explained, is important for veteran teachers, too.

“I’ll get asked questions and I really do have to reflect and ask myself ‘Why do we do things that way?,’” she said. “I feel like it keeps me sharp as I’m trying to bring the young teacher I’m mentoring along.”

Wednesday was also a day to celebrate early successes, in the classroom and beyond. Edwards said that in-service days are always designed to be enjoyable. Doc Brown’s keynote, the group agreed, was invigorating and inspiring.

“The word ‘Hope’ just keeps running through my mind,” Pearson said. “It’s a really important job. We might be the only hope for some of the kids that walk through our doors.”

That’s a heavy proposition, agreed Piper and Kuhn, but they don’t have to bear it alone.

“Sometimes you feel the weight of that, and your mind races with all of this stuff you have to do, but it’s reassuring to know that ‘Hey, I have my buddies right next to me,’” she said. “That’s really helpful.”

What do in-service days do for staff cohesion, both district wide and inside your own buildings?

Jana Piper: The support and collaboration are huge. You get a chance to bring to the table things you have questions about and to receive feedback from others. It's a time for reflection, but you’re doing it as a group. Then you’re able to move forward and put it into practice as a team. That’s important.

Chelsey Jacobitz: Collaboration helps build the culture of your building and your district. Because we’re a larger district, there are teachers who have worked together for three or four years that don’t really know each other. This brings us together, and if we’re all in this together then our culture just grows. And any parent wants that positive culture for their children.

Learning is a lifelong endeavor, especially for a teacher, right? Why is that an important mindset for an educator?

Randi Kuhn: You’ll never know it all. You really won’t, and I think that growing with the kids and showing them that you’re capable of making mistakes and learning from them can make a huge impact. When we grow together, we learn together, and I think that’s huge. I never want to give that up. That’s the bait for me. I will continue to try to reach for that.

Dave Zimmer: That’s what education should be about, is growth. It can’t just be one-sided. It just can’t be growth for the student. It’s got to be growth for us as well. It can be pretty easy as a veteran teacher to become a little stagnant sometimes in the classroom, and days like today hopefully help to keep things moving in the right direction.

Chelsey Jacobitz: Change is okay. Change is constantly happening in the world, and it’s okay to change what we’re doing. It doesn’t have to be done like we did it 20 years ago. We change with the times, change with our practices, change with the kids. Also, from year to year, your needs in the classroom are going to change. So you can continually be learning how to overcome those challenges and work through them.

I haven’t asked you about your students yet, but I was working my way there. Why is it so easy for you to make investments in them? Because today is an investment by your district in its staff, but it’s also an investment by all of you in your kids.

Dave Zimmer: To me, it’s pay it forward. Because someone did it for me, and I’ve had a lot of people impact my life. Here’s my chance to pay it forward.

Jana Piper: And it’s trust. Those kids are coming to you, trusting that you are going to give them what they need to move forward. And their parents who are sending them to you each morning, they’re trusting that you’re going to give them what they need. That’s what we’re here for.

What makes Kearney Public Schools so special? Why do you choose to teach and to serve students in this district?

Jana Piper: I feel like this district has always given me the opportunity to grow. It is a forward-thinking, forward-moving district. We know that there's going to be support behind us, whether it's classroom supplies, whether it's an opportunity to talk through a situation, whether it's a need in another way, but the support is there and it's forward-thinking and forward-moving.

Randi Kuhn: For me, it's knowing that I'm not alone. My first job I was at a really small district and kind of just felt all alone and on an island. And I came to Kearney Public Schools and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is what I signed up for, this is why I went into teaching.’ And I felt almost like a parent-type of situation where they still have their arm around me, they are not necessarily protecting you, but they're here to watch you grow, watch you spread your wings. And they're encouraging you, and I feel like that. I've never been shushed, and they do such a great job at just supporting us.

Dave Zimmer: To me the district has always had a growth mindset. It's been academics or activities, one of the growth of the district, I just think of the new buildings that have gone up since I've been here. I mean, why is that happening? There's a reason that that's happening. It seems like if you talk to a lot of people in different parts of the state, they're almost envious of you. Because we have a very good reputation throughout the state.

Stacie Pearson: I'm a Kearney girl. Born here, raised here, graduated from Kearney high, and I'm just proud of being a part of that history. I also just feel, like these guys said, just so supported. I feel like I've grown so much because I've worked for excellent administrators. The district has always just encouraged me to be the very best teacher that I can be. I've never felt like I've been held back from anything that I've wanted to pursue.

Chelsey Jacobitz: I drive an hour here every day. And you could ask, why do you do that? Well, because I love it. I feel like what I do matters, I feel like the district as a whole encompasses that. Not only do the kids matter but the teachers matter and we have great administration. I just feel like part of it and not just a teacher in a district. Everybody's working towards the same goal and it’s awesome being a part of that.