The group Wavelength proves that professional development can be fun and full of substance. Using skits, music, and improvisation, the troupe zeros in on hot education topics. Included: Descriptions of Wavelength presentations.
Many professional development programs that provide comic relief do that well, but don't provide much content. One popular program, though, gives educators the chance to laugh and learn.
Called Wavelength, the group, founded by a former teacher, uses humor to tackle tough education topics and helps teachers see the value of employing humor in their work.
"Our goals are to provide awareness of the issues and concerns of teachers, boost morale, laugh at things we have in common, and generate esprit de corps," said Wavelength president Jim Winter. "It can be very therapeutic; it's a chance not to take things too seriously."
Winter was a high school English teacher when he took an improvisational class at The Second City, the theater in Chicago that hosts comedians and offers workshops. "I saw the connection between improvisation and teaching," Winter said. "Good improvisationalists and good teachers use the same techniques."
Winter got together with members of the class who persuaded him to do professional development for educators, and Wavelength was launched in 1980.
The Chicago, Illinois-based group now has 25 members, including several other former teachers, who divide into four or five teams that tour the U.S. Wavelength gives about 100 presentations a year and has appeared in 49 states.
"Folks like this use comedy and music and are fun, but in the midst of their humor, they have really good substance," said Fred Morton, superintendent of the Henrico County Public Schools in Richmond, Virginia, who has used Wavelength in his current and former district. "They are right on the mark. The issues they raise are issues of substance and go right to the core of the issues we face."
Morton added that he has attended about 15 Wavelength presentations -- including five in districts in which he was working -- and the presentations received standing ovations each time.
Wavelength is busiest right before school opens; troupes often are called on to set the tone for the new school year with a lively presentation on topics such as "The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Educators" and "A Funny Thing Happened Leaving No Child Behind."
"It's a chance to reflect on practical matters through humor," noted Winter.
Group members write their own scripts for professional development programs, collecting material for their workshops by reading professional development journals and attending education conferences to stay up to speed on current topics.
"I read a lot more now than I did when I was an educator," Winter said. "When you focus on education, you never run out of material. The government just keeps supplying us with more material."
"Wavelength uses humor to relax the brain and then address educational issues and dilemmas," noted Bobb Darnell, director of staff support for Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and a former teaching colleague of Winter's. "They incorporate educational and leadership research into their presentations. They engage the audience in looking into a window on education."
Troupe members also leave room for improvisation in their presentations. "Teachers improvise every day; some even join us on stage," Winter told Education World. "Some have a knack for it."
One of Wavelength's goals is to help educators look at issues differently. The concept of multiple intelligences is reviewed in a skit where people wonder, "but doesn't everyone learn the same way?"
"It's about how to adapt to change, when people are saying, 'We've always done it this way,'" said Winter.
The chance for educators to laugh and unwind also is invaluable. One group that particularly appreciated Wavelength's humor was the Gulf Coast Education Initiative Consortium, located in Wiggins, Mississippi. Wavelength members donated five days of professional development workshops last fall for coastal Mississippi educators who were still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
Dr. Tom Clark, executive director of the consortium, had been planning to contact Wavelength last year, but then "Hurricane Katrina blew my office to the sea -- brochures, equipment, and everything gone," he told Education World. Winter happened to contact a colleague of Clark's about donating a week of training to South Mississippi educators.
"A major part of our mission is to provide relevant professional development for our educators," noted Dr. Clark. "However, I wanted to provide some fun to these very storm-weary educators in South Mississippi. We did not want to provide fun without substance -- even though we need just plain fun sometimes -- and it was my understanding that Wavelength could provide substance and content in a humorous way. And did they!"
More than 400 educators attended the five days of professional development training in five different locations, Dr. Clark said. "This program would have helped staff both professionally and in terms of morale under normal circumstances; however, during the aftermath of the worst natural disaster to hit the United States, the program was very therapeutic and informative for all who attended."
Dr. Clark added that he would not hesitate to recommend Wavelength to other administrators. "They produce exactly what they say," he said. "After the workshop, educators walk out feeling great about their career and the training they just received."