Many have said that professional development for educators isn’t very useful. They claim that, despite the best intentions, there is no real evidence that suggests that efforts made by schools and districts have enabled educators to improve student achievement. In fact, arguably the majority of educators has at least one story that they could share about a professional development experience that did not go well for them. Educators often criticize being required to attend professional development sessions that they feel are not effective. They say that they would rather spend that time working in their classrooms. Although no school or district deliberately plans to waste time, effort, or money on professional learning opportunities that don’t create change, this seems to occur on a large scale within school districts across the nation. (Strauss, 2014)
Designing effective professional development for educators is not an easy task. It requires a lot of preparation, planning, and patience. However, there are training strategies that have proven to increase the effectiveness of professional development. These strategies require schools and districts to be purposeful with what they do before, during, and after the training experience.
Before the Training
Strategy #1: Connect the Professional Development to a Vision, Mission or Plan
When participants find out that they will be involved in a professional development session, one of the first questions that will come into their minds is “Why?” or “Why now?” Educators want to know how the professional development experience aligns to the work that they are already doing. They also want to know how what they will learn will make their jobs easier.
When schools and districts have not connected professional development to their vision, mission, or plan, they greatly reduce the buy-in of the participants and increase the chances of ineffectiveness. Not only must the school or district be clear on how the professional development connects to the vision or plan, the participants in the professional development must be able to clearly see and articulate this connection.
Strategy #2: Assess Participants and use the Results to Differentiate
In most schools and districts, participation in professional development is required. Educators do not always have the complete freedom to register for these professional development experiences as they would when attending a professional conference. Consequently, this greatly impacts their level of engagement and commitment to the experience.
One way schools and districts can get ahead of this is by conducting a pre-assessment to reveal the participants’ levels of understanding, experience in the content, learning styles, apprehensions about the topic, and many other factors that may influence how effective the experience will be for them. After collecting this information, schools and districts should use this data to customize or differentiate the professional development sessions for educators.
Strategy #3: Flip the Professional Development Experience
In traditional professional development sessions, the presenter functions as the content expert who has the sole responsibility of delivering information. Participants are generally expected to “sit and get” this information as if they are dry sponges soaking up water. This usually produces information overload and provides few opportunities for participants to grapple with the content as they process.
Schools and districts should try flipping this traditional approach. As opposed to waiting until the participants arrive to unload tons of new information on them, districts and schools should require presenters to provide this information to the participants prior to the session. This would allow the participants to begin processing the information at their own pace and readiness level. It would also place a reasonable limit on the amount of content participants are given to digest. Alternately when the session occurs, instead of only hearing the presenter deliver the content while participants passively process, you will see the participants responding to and engaging with the content.
During the Training
Strategy #4: Keep Participants Engaged
Participants must play an active role during professional development sessions. When they are disengaged they are not internalizing the content in ways that will influence them to improve their practices. There should be many opportunities for participants to verbalize, demonstrate, and actively show how they are internalizing what they are learning in the session. Opportunities for participants to speak and collaborate with their colleagues should be intentionally embedded in the sessions. Presenters should provide opportunities for participants to present what they know, lend their expertise on the topic or even discuss their experiences with the content being presented.
Strategy #5: Ensure Immediate Take-Aways
During professional development sessions, participants must see the relevance of what they are doing immediately. One way presenters can do this is by purposefully infusing elements that participants are able to put into practice after the session has ended. When the content is practical and easily implemented, there is higher probability that the participants will open themselves up to modify and improve their practices. Tedious content that takes a lot of effort to implement is not very likely to be put into practice by the participants.
After the Training
Strategy #6: Provide Systemic Support
Even after thoroughly planning and smoothly executing professional development, there is still a large chance that the professional development will not yield the expected returns. This is largely due to fact that schools and districts fail to support educators during the steepest stage of the learning curve: implementation. Even the most skilled educators need to have at least 20 separated instances of practice before a new skill is mastered (Strauss, 2014). During this stage of learning, educators need to have consistent support that is systemic and targeted to their needs. This systemic support should incorporate feedback loops and periodically assess the progression of the educators as pedagogical capacity is expanded.
Strategy #7: Implement Follow-up Sessions
It is essential that educators receive follow-up professional development sessions. The “one shot” model for professional development relies on the notion that one professional development experience will be adequate for educators to shift their practices. It is unrealistic to believe that educators will modify their behaviors after one moment of professional development. It is also unrealistic to think that a presenter can provide everything that an educator needs to know in one session.
A more realistic approach is to provide professional development that is ongoing for educators. Ongoing professional development would provide multiple opportunities for participants to synthesize and practice the implementation of content. Educators are then more likely to successfully internalize what has been presented to them. This will ultimately increase the likelihood that a positive impact will be made on educators that will in turn make a positive impact on student achievement.