Improving Professional Development Programs for Teachers

You’ve been in that conference room, right? You can hear the buzz of the fluorescent lights… smell the coffee going stale… hear the click of the presenter’s laptop as they scroll to Slide 57 of 70. Mention “Professional Development” (PD) to teachers and this might be what pops to mind. Here are some of my less-than-successful PD experiences: sitting through a 90 minute lecture on a tech tool with which I was already fluent; engaging with all my energy in a new curriculum program that was axed halfway through the year; watching an admin scroll wordlessly through patronizing slides prepared by a district employee who had never been in a classroom.

The thing is, PD can and should be awesome. Being a “good teacher” isn’t a badge you achieve and then retain for life. Rather, it’s a continuous process of engaging with new techniques, evaluating new tools, and re-examining current practice. The world our students live in continues to change swiftly, and I don’t see that stopping any time soon. Teachers need ongoing PD to understand new developments in education and in the workplace, and to continue to develop their own personal skill sets.

The best PD is personalized, sustained, interactive, and creates a conversation among staff. This sounds like a tall order, but I’ve seen this nirvana. It does exist. Here are some approaches to PD I’ve seen that have effected actual change.

Personalized: What I needed as a brand new high school math teacher was probably not the same as what the veteran first-grade teacher down the street needed, but districts often provide top-down PD requirements that treat us all the same. Shrinking groups and allowing teachers to help decide and direct PD creates buy-in and more effective outcomes.

For example, one of the best PDs I ever did was a lesson study. It was intense and effective because it was focused on my school, my classroom, my kids, my colleagues. A group of teachers planned a lesson together (on a topic and with a focus of our choosing), taught it in one classroom while the others observed (yes, we needed funding for substitutes), and then discussed it. A discussion protocol is absolutely key, because it can feel quite vulnerable to open up your classroom to the light of day.

Sustained: At one school where I worked, the whole staff read a book and discussed chapters of it throughout the year. This provided real development of ideas and encouraged camaraderie and collaboration. As a staff we talked about what good teaching looks like and brainstormed concrete actions to take. It created continuity for students because the whole staff was focused on the same thing, and put us all on a shared page of pedagogical understanding.

A side note: please, please, please don’t let PD become punitive. I have heard too many horror stories of teachers being berated in front of their classrooms for not hewing to the PD goal of posting daily learning targets, or whatever other technique-du-jour was in play. This does the opposite of making everyone feel like they are learning together.

Interactive: It’s true; teachers are the worst students. We are used to being very active during the day: moving around, engaging with our students, sprinting down to lunch and back in the 25 minutes we’re allotted. So providing us with a lecture is one of the worst ways to teach us. We’re at our best when working together and sharing ideas. If there is material that we simply need to absorb (and there often is), try the “flipped classroom” method of having us watch a video beforehand, or read through the PowerPoint slides ourselves and then discuss them at the meeting.

Conversation: At the end of the day, consultants will come and go, but our colleagues will remain. The best PD invokes the expertise and brain power of the staff. One interesting conversation starter I participated in was a teacher-led workshop conference fully contained within our school. Teachers signed up to lead sessions on topics for which they had expertise, like technology, discussion techniques, grading schemes, or classroom routines. We could choose what sessions to attend, and we could follow up through the rest of the year with our expert colleagues.

Teacher quality plays a huge role in student success. PD at its best strengthens and renews the teaching community. We owe it to our students to make it the best we can.

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