What Do Teachers Want from Professional Development?

Whitney P. Gordon
Whitney P. Gordon
English Teacher; Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership, Thomas University, GA

Planning time is a rare, peaceful treasure for teachers. We brave the classroom trenches daily, juggling multiple roles and tending to the diverse needs of our students. While the best teachers have student-centered intentions, every teacher can agree that the stillness of planning time, whether for an hour or a full day, is something to look forward to. In fact, the only thing teachers look forward to more is receiving a message indicating that this planning time will be spent in professional development (PD)!

Clearly, that last part is the antithesis of truth. If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve experienced the collective sigh, whether audible or inaudible, amongst your colleagues upon hearing the words “professional development.” To be frank – teachers are just too busy. While we naturally understand the value of lifelong learning, we desire training that is relevant and applicable. Professional development is necessary, but only effective when executed correctly.

Why Professional Development Matters

As our students evolve over time, our instructional practices should do the same. As the ever-popular educational buzzword “differentiation” suggests, our students are diverse in learning styles, abilities, and skills. Because we consistently encounter new students with unique needs, it is important to continue developing our craft.

Furthermore, at its core, education is a study of the mind and pruning of character. We seek to understand how learning functions and cultivate competent and compassionate citizens. This meaningful pursuit is a labyrinth with no end. You’ll always need new strategies and practices to guide your path. This is where professional development serves its purpose.

What is Wrong with Professional Development in Education?

So, PD is unequivocally important, but it is often broken. Many teachers are receiving training sans the benefits of PD that is effective and relevant. Here are some reasons why:

Ditching Learning Engagement

During PD, teachers are learners. When facilitating learning, it is paramount to consider learning engagement in your delivery. Sessions that are full of “sit and get” instruction tend to yield low retainment, yet many PD sessions follow this traditional, lecture-style training. Making your sessions more interactive and considering the participants’ learning styles are sure ways to boost engagement. Furthermore, teachers have diverse needs just like our students. Thus, effective PD should also implement differentiation strategies. Not only will this engage teachers, it will also model effective differentiation for the classroom.

Is it fresh?

Just like you check the date on your milk before consuming, you need to check to ensure that your PD is fresh before delivering it to your staff. Most teachers are constantly seeking strategies and lessons both individually and collectively. When planning PD on a specific topic, proactively assess what your teachers already know and implement. Plan PD that builds on prior knowledge.

Consider the Students

You must consider the students that your teachers serve during every PD session. If strategies were effective for a school across the state or even across the street, that doesn’t deem them effective for your students. Take time to understand school culture and embed it into every PD. If some teachers who serve English Language Learners and/or Students with Disabilities are in your session, make sure to include information specific to their students as well.

Data Driven Instruction

This term indubitably sounds familiar as it mirrors a teacher expectation. PD should be specifically based upon teacher and student data. What are your teachers’ areas for improvement, and what are their students struggling with? This should drive your PD. This means that your entire PD calendar should not be written in stone when the school year begins. When you find neat ideas to share that don’t align with the data, you can share them through email or optional sessions.

Email

Speaking of email: use it when you can. I can assure you that very little vexes a teacher more than sitting through surface-level PD that could be expressed through a quick email. PD should be a time for interaction, modeling, and actual practice. If you are just relaying information, there is no actual development. Send an email instead and relinquish the teacher planning time.

Low Reinforcement

I have found that many leaders expect teachers to retain information at a more advanced rate than most other learners. Here’s the truth: teachers learn at varying rates and are human. Delivering information about new processes and strategies on one day and through one method often proves ineffective. Reinforcement will always yield higher retention. Sending “cheat sheets,” offering optional refresher courses, or even one-on-one sessions for those who need it will help teachers retain information from PD.

Activating Teacher Voice

Without setting foot on your campus, I know that your teachers are unique. No other school has the exact mix of experience, strengths, and weaknesses that your faculty possesses. As such, your most powerful tool when making PD effective is teacher voice.

Listen to your teachers! Here are some ways that teachers can provide input to improve PD:

Just Ask

Plain and simple – ask your teachers what they need. This can range from a quick survey to an in-depth focus group. Whatever method you choose, don’t neglect to ask your teachers what support they need from professional development. Teachers are professionals and should poses self-reflection skills. If they can’t self-reflect, train them to do so in PD.

Utilize Teacher Strengths

Often, a teacher will show strength in an area where many other teachers have room for growth. Use these teachers during your PD to train other staff members. They can model strategies, and it is often refreshing to learn from someone else who is in the classroom. This is also a great way to identify and leverage teacher leaders.

Encourage Honest Feedback

Always provide opportunities for teachers to provide feedback after PD. Encourage honesty by making feedback anonymous, and outright soliciting teachers’ honest opinions. Use this information when planning future training sessions. This will ensure continual improvement.

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