The benefit of professional development (PD) for teachers is well known: improving teaching practices means greater student achievement. What’s less frequently acknowledged is that PD programs are often so wracked with issues that they’re rendered ineffective, if not downright detrimental.
Impractical, infrequent, identical—teachers’ complaints about PD programs run the gamut. Unless school administrators address these problems, they risk wasting not only time, energy, funding, and other scarce resources, but squandering the unique opportunity for teacher growth and student advancement.
Below are three common issues that teachers have with PD, as well as suggestions for how administrators can tackle them. Consider it a starting point for optimizing your school’s approach to PD.
Issue # 1: PD programs are impractical
Educators, administrators, researchers, and reformers agree that most PD opportunities are “of little use when it comes to improving teaching,” according to a paper from the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan think tank.
One reason for this is that PD programs fail to focus on practice. While imparting new knowledge about novel teaching techniques is a worthwhile objective of PD, that knowledge will never be put to use if it’s not contextualized in the classroom setting. Furthermore, a single-minded preoccupation with the latest educational research will overshadow the importance of refining traditional teaching methods, which continue to be used each and every day in classrooms across the country.
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Solution: Make sure programs include opportunities for practice and feedback
For PD to focus on its goal—the betterment of teaching practices—the Center for American Progress recommends that programs “be accompanied by insightful feedback.” Complement new techniques with real-life opportunities to use them and build in reflection time. A simple rule of thumb could be to pair each study-oriented segment of the program with practice- and review-oriented segments.
Issue #2: PD programs are infrequent
Although practice is important, that isn’t to say research has no value. A Center for American Progress study found that PD programs “had to include more than 14 hours of professional development for student learning to be affected.” Unfortunately, most PD programs are one-off affairs, lasting a day or two. This needs to change if PD is to be worthwhile.
Solution: Make PD a year-round focus, with regular opportunities to exercise new skills
But wait! Don’t go planning three-day PD marathon sessions just yet—that isn’t the most efficient solution. Rather, programs with regular, year-round elements are the way to go.
As a report from the Center for Public Education (CPE), a part of the National School Boards Association, reveals, “[I]t takes, on average, 20 separate instances of practice before a teacher has mastered a new skill.” Accordingly, PD sessions should be routine occurrences. A simple formula could be bi-weekly classes alternating between theory and practice. This not only has the advantage of making PD a normal feature of school life, but it ensures that teachers will have more opportunities to apply what they learn to their actual work.
Issue # 3: PD programs are identical
Another issue identified by the CPE is the ubiquity of the workshop. According to a survey of educators, the workshop is by far the most common form of PD, “even though research shows it is ineffective.” New models of PD must be embraced—if not for efficacy, then at least to alleviate teachers’ boredom!
Solution: Ditch workshops for other methods, particularly mentorships
The CPE recommends mentorships as “highly effective in helping teachers implement a new skill.” Connecting experienced educators with novices creates a natural system for transmitting knowledge and building a relationship of trust that can be the foundation for continued growth. The mentorship model also nicely complements the other solutions above: Following lessons with guided practice and critique is easier once there is an established relationship, as is meeting regularly throughout the academic year. Try pairing each new or struggling educator at your school with a successful veteran. As time goes on, this should create a network of mentors and mentees, further building PD into your school in a systematic fashion.
How to get started
While these ideas may sound great, you may be tempted to write them off as impossible. Where to find the time, energy, and other resources—especially the money? But, as the CPE points out, effective PD does not cost more than ineffective PD; it just allocates funds in a more intelligent way.
Reorienting your existing approach to PD to be practical, year-round, and diverse is a question of organization. Start by getting your teachers together to discuss what isn’t working. The issues above are but a few examples; they will probably have more. Then consider how systemic changes can help you make the necessary improvements (and consider educating yourself in the art of “systemic change”—you’re one key constant in your teachers’ lives, after all).
As has been asserted throughout this article, PD should be an integral component of school life, not an afterthought. Accordingly, it will take all of you—administrators, teachers, and maybe even students and their parents—to come up with the right PD program for you.