SHEBOYGAN – Debbie Burke is convinced that obtaining her Professional Development Certification (PDC) was the right move for so many good reasons – first and foremost, her special education students.

Not only have their fluency skills improved, her passion toward learning has been re-ignited, and she is certain that it has made her a better, more creative teacher.

“I love working with all the students and enjoy the challenge,” said Burke, who is a special education teacher at James Madison Elementary School in the Sheboygan Area School District, working in the Kidship program for children with Emotional Behavioral Disabilities. “Traditional education has failed these children, so I enjoy being creative in trying to reach and teach them on a social, behavioral and academic level.”


The PDC is an individualized, self-paced program of professional development that is offered by the Institute for Learning Partnership at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Like many school districts, the Sheboygan schools offer a salary incentive for educators who complete the PDC program. It took Burke about 15 months to complete her PDC, and she stepped-up three lanes on the district salary scale.

A major component of the PDC is an action research project that is developed by the educator and peer reviewed by a panel of master educators.

“The focus of my PDC was to find a framework that would allow me to teach language arts to multi-grades and increase differentiation of instruction,” she said. “After researching, observations, and interviews I decided on the “Four Blocks” framework that consists of guided reading, working with words, self-selected reading and writing.”

The early results of Burke’s action research project are quite promising. Each of her special needs students improved their fluency scores and became more involved in their learning.

“Through my PDC process I expanded my instructional strategies, increased differentiation, and definitely got students more involved in their own learning,” she said. “The results being happy, motivated, productive students and teacher.”

And it’s a lesson that has stuck, even after the coursework was completed.

“The PDC has taught me the value of consultation with colleagues,” she said. “I have learned so much from my associates throughout the PDC process through mentoring, team teaching, consulting, sharing ideas, plans and outcomes.”

It also made Burke reflect upon her teaching methods and strategies. “It made me stop and reflect on my strengths and weaknesses. I had to ask myself ‘how do I get kids and parents more involved?’

“I began researching best practices, reading everything I could get my hands on concerning reading, frameworks, themes, behaviors, and self-monitoring,” she said. “And I came out of this (PDC) more organized, purposeful and focused.

She jokes that the PDC challenged her to address a particular weakness – technology.

“Through working with my computer mentor and taking numerous technology classes I began to feel more confident,” she said. “Students loved working on the computer and were making good use of their time. The PDC has helped me broaden my horizons, although I know I have a long way to go. The difference being, I am no longer afraid to attempt new avenues on the computer.”

And as her confidence has grown, she’s begun to look at other courses that will make her a more creative teacher.

Burke recently completed a class in “Classroom Management Strategies That Teach Responsibility” and is working on other classes on “Yoga for Instructors” and “Why Gender Matters.”

“In summary, the PDC process has been a catalyst in stimulating and renewing my thirst for knowledge as well as an incentive to increase my instructional practice and ensure success of my students,” she said. “The PDC has been a challenging journey, but definitely worth taking.”