Learning by doing: How professional development opportunities changed one teacher’s perspective

Alia

Alia Wedderburn shares Excelsior Community College’s proposed private sector pitch with participants of the Advance Program Grant Writing Workshop.

Written by: Cait-Amoi Goulbourne

Introducing a new program in any training institution means both faculty and students must be prepared for the new curriculum. This preparation, however, entails much more than building skills in course development and delivery.

For Alia Wedderburn, head of the School of Aesthetics and Cosmetology at Excelsior Community College, professional development associated with a new program has come in various, sometimes unexpected, forms under the USAID Advance Program. Advance is working with three technical tertiary institutions to help bridge the skills gap between training institutions and industry – an issue often faced by recent graduates. A part of Advance’s work has been the development and introduction of new, industry-responsive, technical training programs in these schools.

Teachers from Excelsior Community College, a member college of the Council of Community Colleges of Jamaica, participated in various professional development activities. These include subject-matter workshops; grant writing and private sector engagement; and a study tour to Mexico to observe the best practices in delivering tertiary technical programs. For Wedderburn, the professional development benefits started at the very beginning with the Advance baseline survey conducted at the inception of the roll-out of the Health and Wellness Tourism Program at the college.

“Advance asked us to assist [with distributing the survey] and invited us to the training. This training was for the survey but has been useful to us in a general way as it enables us to measure who we started with, what changes we can see and how much has changed. Other than building our research skills, it made some of the things you learnt in teacher training much more realistic. Typically, in Jamaica a school introduces a course and we do it in a vacuum.” Wedderburn said in training, teachers are taught about the importance of using surveys and other methods ot consider students’ needs and understanding the demand for certain skills. “But you really need to do this,” she continued. The baseline survey activities meant Wedderburn got a chance to put all the theory she had learned into action. “You were actually able to follow the process.”

The study tour to Mexico for teachers and administrators was also an invaluable experience for educators, and an eye-opener for Wedderburn, who said it was “the perfect opportunity to observe schools offering technical programs, working with industry, and responding to labor market research. They do studies telling what market demand will be, and they modify or introduce courses based on the findings of these studies.”

She enthusiastically describes going to “different universities and colleges that offer technical and vocational programs every day” and meeting with “a wide range of persons in each facility – academics, administrators, marketing and administration personnel and students.”

The schools’ close partnership with industry was also something that the Jamaican educators were able to observe first hand. “One day we even got to participate in a meeting between the school and representatives from an accounting firm that had approached the school to find out how they could better support students because graduates were needed to work in the firm!” she added.

“We did visit a school that offered health and wellness related programs and were able to visit their training room. They had a fully functioning physiotherapy facility which was operating as a commercial entity and operated by current students,” Wedderburn affirmed. After returning from Mexico, Excelsior staff changed an existing salon in the School of Aesthetics and Cosmetology into a fully functioning enterprise-based training salon staffed only by their current students. They also hope to do the same for the institution’s health and wellness center.

While the study tour was definitely a high point for learning and exposure, Wedderburn also pointed to other workshops and training sessions that took place under Advance and have helped both teachers and administrators at Excelsior. For example, training for recruitment and marketing staff has helped the school prepare its outreach and promotional activities to recruit the second cohort of students for the Health and Wellness Tourism program.

The 2019 training in grant writing and private sector engagement, as well as guidance on developing a resource mobilization strategy, have also been useful in helping staff gain new perspectives on their work and identify possible opportunities that can benefit the school and students. “What I liked is that the work around resource mobilization has helped us look at things in a different way. For example, we get a lot of requests from the government and private organizations asking us to participate in things like their expos and health fairs and provider our services. Now we are looking at monetizing these services to see how we can reap some benefits,” Wedderburn explained.

Wedderburn’s experience provides a holistic picture of professional development under Advance – capacity building, information exchange, experiential learning, field-based training and opportunities for practical application of all she learned.