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The Problem with Professional Development in Today's Schools

opinion

Ideally, professional development aims to continually inform teachers and make them better at their jobs. The problem with professional development is that there are a few pitfalls that are often repeated, yet easily avoided, as we'll discuss here.

One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Delivery

Teachers know that there are many different types of learners in their classrooms and that they must teach in a way that, preferably, helps everyone learn the information. A one-size-fits-all approach generally doesn't work over the long term.

However, professional development (PD) hasn't really gotten that memo. Generally, information is disseminated in only one way: verbally in a room full of educators. There might be a PowerPoint, but rarely is there an opportunity for teachers to be involved in the presentation. Typically, there are few visual aids, worksheets, or discussion/break-out groups.

Topics

Not only is information delivered using a one-size-fits-all approach but also tends to focus on just one topic at a time, instead of offering a choice of topics. Maybe it's the hot subject in education at the moment, or the presenter's specialty. But that does not mean that it is the most useful information for the teachers or school to which it is being presented.

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Teachers with a lot of experience have different needs than those that are in their first semester. One teacher might be very comfortable with the new online classroom portals, while others might want additional help. Needs vary across grade level and subject matter. If schools considered offering options for professional development, where teachers could pick the areas in which they need additional development, similar to a conference structure, everyone would benefit.

No Option to Learn From Each Other

Outside 'Experts'

Often, a professional development session is packed with outside presenters, be they representatives from the school district or board, or specialists in some area of education. As mentioned earlier, the topic being discussed isn't always the one that is the most useful to the attendees.

For example, a recent in-service I attended included a presentation by specialists who talked about 'Generation Z', the next generation of students. We were told that they talk on the phone a lot and that they are very involved in social media. I don't think we needed paid experts to tell us that information. It was not a good use of money or time.

Teachers Teaching Teachers

Generally, teachers say that their best in-service experiences occur when they are learning from their peers. Your peers have an understanding of the students, school, and community that an outside expert rarely possesses. As teachers see each other on a fairly regular basis, in-service sessions also give us the option to follow-up individually after the presentation.

PDengaged

After the in-service presentation mentioned above, the next semester we had presentations from our fellow faculty, who discussed how they teach online, and from our specialized faculty about classroom behavior modification. The faculty were engaged with these presentations, and overall the in-service session was much more successful.

Lack of Connection and Input

Connection

In education, we value assessment and closing the loop. Often, professional development sessions address different methodologies. An idea might be introduced at one session, never to be heard from again and likely to be forgotten by the attendees. Was the methodology effective? No one will ever know.

If professional development days addressed one theme a year, or maybe over several years, it is likely that the content would be remembered from one PD day to the next. Follow-up peer presentations by educators who implemented something new in their classrooms based on a past presentation could also be useful.

Input

I would be willing to bet that if teachers had a say in what their professional development theme(s) were, they would be more invested in their in-service days. Instead of a strict administrative or district prescription about what teachers should learn, they could be asked what they want to learn. As such, topics would be more relevant and meaningful and likely not considered a waste of time. Consulting with teachers beforehand also takes the guesswork out of planning professional development: Why guess at what people want to learn rather than just asking them?

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Additionally, all in-service days should be followed by an assessment to determine what teachers found useful and what changes might improve the next professional development day. A short survey would go a long way towards improving professional development.

Final Thoughts

Just like one-size-fits-all pants don't actually do so, neither does one-size-fits-all professional development. Information should be presented in a variety of ways and include a variety of topics. Teachers should teach each other and be asked what they want to learn and how professional development can be improved. If schools and districts avoided these common pitfalls, they might have fewer teachers working on crossword puzzles in the back of the room.

By Michelle Garrigan-Durant
January 2017
opinion professional development

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