Note: The examples that follow are from the experience of the editor of this section, and come from Lowell, Massachusetts, an old mill town with the mills long gone, a depressed economy, and a tremendously diverse population.
Example # 1: The Greater Lowell Mental Health Training Consortium (GLMHTC)
There were a number of mental health-related agencies in town, and a lot of mental health issues for them to deal with. Although there were individual working relationships across organizations, the organizations themselves each operated in its own orbit. There was no conflict, but no cooperation, either, and no incentive or structure for it.
Someone -- it's not clear who -- proposed that the group get together to talk about common training programs. We were all pretty small and poorly funded, and the training we did ranged from not very much down to none. So, that first meeting was pretty well attended -- not surprising, since most people will come to one meeting of almost anything.
More surprising was the fact that, through good leadership (and the fact that the leader had the time to devote to the project), the group stayed together. After doing a training needs assessment of the member agencies, it planned and held a variety of community-wide mental health training events. There were at least three or four, and all were well-attended. There was a reasonable fee for some of them, to make sure the group didn't lose money, and people got continuing education credits for attending.
The group went so far as to give itself a long-winded name, the Greater Lowell Mental Health Training Consortium, or GLMHTC. As a result, people working in the member agencies got to know one another better. GLMHTC published a directory of its 30 or so members, with a description of each organization's services. And it formed a working Board of Directors, which met monthly. It had fairly big plans.
As it happens, those plans never materialized. The group lasted for about three years, and then unraveled. Some of its work folded into institutes sponsored by the local university. But, in reality, jobs change and people move on; such is life. Any group like this one would have needed continued strong leadership to survive. That is hard to come by.
But I count this experience as a success, not a failure. It was good while it lasted, and it shows what can be done. Groups like this can happen if the need is strong enough and if the leadership is there. The power to create excellent community-wide training programs lies within ourselves, if we are motivated enough to utilize it.
Example #2: The Battered Women's Shelter
Our agency was involved in a lot of community outreach, and we also wanted to create more visibility for ourselves at the same time. How could we do this? Well, one way was to sponsor training programs that could attract a lot of people. But you had to have the right topic.
The right topic then in our community was domestic violence. There were incidents reported in the papers. Services for battered women in our region were just getting off the ground. In our community, though, we had no services at all. We thought we could help make them happen.
What we did was invite the organizers of a battered women's shelter in another community -- 25 miles away -- to come up and talk with us. They agreed. We publicized this event widely in the community, with the pitch that seating was limited for this important event; we asked for an R.S.V.P. from those wanting to attend, somewhat ironically, since hardly anyone had attended any of our training events before.
To our genuine surprise -- you could say shock -- we got about 100 replies. We could barely fit everyone in the room. The training event itself was a terrific success, but more than that, it prompted the development of an informal group to plan for a battered women's shelter in our own community. We learned that a well -planned training event can have impacts extending far beyond the training itself. Maybe that should sometimes be a goal.
This local group applied for a small grant to get a shelter up and running. The grant was awarded. Six months later, the shelter opened. It's been open now for more than 20 years, and at this point is one of the best-established social service agencies in the city. But it wouldn't have happened -- or at least it wouldn't have happened as easily or as soon -- without that initial training event.
Example #3: The Literacy Project's Staff Development Program
The Literacy Project (TLP) is a western Massachusetts adult literacy program that I worked in and directed for several years. It presents not a model to imitate, but rather a fairly typical example of the evolution of staff development in a small organization without a lot of money.
The Literacy Project really sponsored two strands of staff development. The organization had always allowed release time -- at the staff member's discretion -- for conferences, workshops, and other ongoing education and training. Later, as the organization's finances became healthier, TLP allowed each staff member a certain amount of funding and travel reimbursement for these ventures. That strand continued -- in later years, with some coordination -- throughout the life of the organization.
Internal staff development was always an issue for the organization, but, for the first few years, there was no real plan or schedule. Staff development offerings came as the need arose, or as a particular training opportunity became available. When the staff of 4 grew in one year to 13, and expanded to four widely separated sites, we realized that -- among many others -- the staff development issue was one that had to be addressed.
The director talked to each staff member individually about her priorities for training, and then made up a list that he circulated to everyone. At a weekly staff meeting, the staff decided on the areas they wanted to cover in the next three or four months. They also decided that staff development should be institutionalized: regular sessions would take place every other week, alternating with staff meetings.
It was left to the director to arrange and coordinate staff development. He envisioned it as staff members teaching one another, and, in fact, conducted the first few sessions himself, at staff request. Over time, people grew bored with the format, and less willing to take responsibility for preparing sessions. At that point, it became clear that the staff development program needed to be renegotiated.
The possibilities were expanded to include simple sharing of experience (not to be sneered at as a component of a staff development program, especially in an organization where staff members worked in four very distinct and different communities), and some multi-session activities on issues important to particular staff members. These included such topics as diversity, mediation, and learning and other disabilities.
The staff also experimented with a different staff development schedule, attempting to incorporate an hour of staff development activity into each weekly staff meeting. This quickly became an issue, because regular staff meeting concerns too often encroached on staff development time. A satisfactory staff development program continued to prove elusive.
Over time, some guidelines developed that moved our organization closer to the goal. Staff members decided to meet every other week without the director, in order to make sure that staff development time was just that. Several staff members collaborated with one another and with folks from other programs on participatory research projects, on the design of assessment tools, and on learner-generated curriculum. Individuals found intensive training in areas that interested them -- learning disabilities, for instance. A study circle, including the director as well as line staff, developed around learner issues and the participatory classroom.
Ultimately, the staff decided on a format similar to that of the writing groups that many of them conducted with learners. They decided on priorities for the next several months, and each took on some coordination responsibilities for a particular topic or session. Every other week, staff members met, discussed what they were doing, shared concerns, and presented papers, lessons, or activities they had agreed to prepare. Out of this grew many conference presentations and invitations from other groups, as well as significant amounts of curriculum and classroom activities.
All in all, the staff development program at TLP was never perfect, or even totally adequate to the needs of the people involved. It did, however, accomplish its real purposes, which were to expose all staff members to a range of different ideas; to make sure that everyone shared what they were doing in the classroom; to develop individuals' expertise in particular areas and their skills in working with learners; and to keep the program developing and changing in positive ways. In my last two years there, no fewer than six TLP staff members -- out of a teaching staff of eight -- were in demand as presenters and experts in the field.