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Development By Teachers, For Teachers

July 08, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Two of the most groan-inducing, but potentially powerful, words in teaching are “professional development.” It’s easy for professional development to be a waste of time and money. Certainly I remember plenty of mostly-useless cases when I was still teaching. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Whenever teachers don’t change their practice—because the topic wasn’t relevant to their needs, because they weren’t given time or support to make changes, because there was never any sustained focus on the topic, or because of any other reason—an opportunity has been missed. The classic example of this is the sit-and-get lecture approach to professional development, where an expert is brought in for a day (or even just a couple of hours) to deliver a slideshow. As it turns out, most one-off development sessions, even if they’re more interactive, tend not to be as helpful as focusing on the same idea for a longer duration of time.

Beyond sustaining attention to a topic beyond a single session, it’s also important for teachers to be heavily involved in designing and delivering professional development. Those familiar with the practice of teaching are in the best position to know what does and doesn’t make sense in the classroom context. This is obviously one of the more common issues with technology-related professional development, where teachers are given a tutorial on the mechanics of the tool and maybe shown a couple of cool ideas for how to use it, but with no broader sensibility about using the tool meaningfully in instruction.

The importance of teacher-led professional development goes beyond technology, of course. Theory is always better when informed by practice, so those leading development sessions will have more earned credibility when they are still close to the classroom. Additionally, seeing teachers leading group development sessions encourages a sense of ownership over personal professional development. If I’m an individual teacher struggling with a topic, it can be reassuring to see someone who’s gone through similar struggles and been successful, and I’ll also be more likely to think of areas where I’m already an expert and could contribute to colleagues’ growth.

The value of teacher-led development is also affected by how similar the leading teachers’ experiences are to those of the audience. A presentation on what works best for classroom management or family engagement by a teacher from Los Angeles probably won’t be as helpful for teachers in Bemidji as it would be to other LA teachers.

Locally determined professional development can be more responsive to local needs, and knowing that the presenter has experience with “our kids” builds credibility. Keeping professional development local also increases its sustainability and the ease with which the topics can be revisited and supported over the course of the year. It can be embedded in coaching observations, Professional Learning Communities, and other facets of school life, and it means that the experts are much closer and more accessible.

Keeping a significant share of professional development teacher led and locally driven, then, is key to ensuring that development time, money, and effort are well spent. It encourages a sustained sense of shared responsibility and builds awareness of where accessible expertise already exists. This fosters a culture of growth for all teachers, empowering them and creating positive feedback loops for improving professional practice. As this grows stronger, schools and districts become better able to respond to emerging local needs.

Laying the groundwork for local, teacher-led development requires that teachers (and their unions) be able to provide high-quality professional development, including time for reflection and improvement so that the quality of teacher-led development is continuously improving. Many teachers and union leaders are already strong in this area, but it must remain a point of emphasis. In particular, professional development offers an opportunity to build relationships with local experts and communities and turn development sessions into opportunities for collaboration on supporting students both in and out of the classroom.

Many educators have found ways to create opportunities for local, teacher-led development, even when their school or district leaders have been uninterested or unsupportive. Many unions have been excellent at supporting this work, and the more they can do to build their own capacity for professional development, the better off they’ll be.

Ideally, local and teacher-led development wouldn’t just happen at educators’ instigation. School and district leaders should do more to invite this type of development and to offer support to teachers interested in creating development opportunities for their colleagues. Too often, teacher-led development is seen as competing with district-directed preferences. A more helpful approach would be to view professional development as a partnership between teachers and administrators to provide as much high-quality support as locally as possible.

It’s easy to get cynical about professional development, especially when bad experiences often create more lasting memories than good ones. We should do more to transform development into a chance to recognize the excellence that local teachers already bring to the table, to appreciate the hard work many have put into becoming genuine experts, and to create a professional culture of constant improvement without harsh judgment.

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  • Chuck Handlon says:

    July 14, 2014 at 9:25 am

    I believe that PD is important.  However, the PD should be “discipline focused” and “practical”.  To much time has been spent chasing the pendulum of “educational reform” the past 15 years.

    I would also like to call attention to an “unintended” but serious consequence of the change in funding for PD.  A couple of years ago the legislature gave control of PD to districts, taking teacher choice out of the implementation.  As a result organizations like the Minnesota Science Teachers Association has seen drastic declines in attendance at their state PD conferences. 

    It seems that many teachers are finding difficulty in attaining funds to attend PD.  So now teachers are either not attending or paying out of pocket.  Districts often select their own “pet reform” PD to fund.

    I suggest Minnesota 20/20 do a follow up on this.  No one has surveyed to organizations or teachers to determine whether this is widespread.  A possible “legislative solution” might be to designate some of the statewide school PD funding as “grants” which organizations could apply to use for “teacher scholarships” to attend state PD conferences.

  • Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D. says:

    July 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm

        Some years have passed since teachers were able to choose their own professional development according to preference based on individual-intrisic interest, exploration, or dedicated skill development.  When PD became the school administration directed activity or union committee approved according to narrow criteria, the personal incentive for personal professional development along a career ladder was curtailed.  When administrators and/or a curriculum committee agree that faculty as a whole (or just certain grades or departments) are to be trained, that is an approach that is tooling for specific intended results that depend on teacher practice. Quite another approach, however, is the giving teachers the freedom to pursue personal aspirations related to the career ladder where the training is sought rather than imposed.  When the administration supplies the training a period of orientation and buy-in by the faculty is necessary and follow-up with supervision and coaching for quality implementation according to a rubric of practice.  The teachers are being led through a process of installation of the technology (practice is technology—applied science that is not limited to computers). 
        When teachers choose professional development based on personal incentives the results can be messy.  One teacher may want to pursue training in a specific skill or curriculum that may take several years of training and application experience to achieve at a master teacher level. The personal PD considerations are long-term and may involve a series of trainings in different areas in order to achieve a certain array of skill sets.  In the old and now abandoned PD model, teachers merely met a college-credit requirement for lane changes. The Dallas, Texas, Independent School District 50 years ago was famous for the high number of teachers who completed school counselor certification for lane changes while never aspiring to become counselors.  Band directors from Texas flocked to a practical and explicit post-graduate training at a school for band directors in Chicago.  The program was so practical and well-respected that the legislature passed a bill restricting lane change credits to Texas institutions only even though the content and quality of offerings in Texas colleges was unattractive and inferior.
        A few teachers would/will pursue frivolous courses in order to meet the credit quantity requirement, but most teachers are conscientious and would rather take summer workshops intended to improve their classroom skill or curriculum interests.  Personal PD is best put in context by comparison to other to traditional career ladder stages progressing from initiate/apprentice, journeyman/bachelor, master, and teacher/doctor/trainer of trainers.  Current published research studies in classroom education fail to find much evidence for increased teacher effectiveness resulting from earning a master’s degree in education.  Some teachers through personal interests have been able to transfer some credits from explicit training into the electives allowed for the degree. 
        The biggest change in PD was the shift from personal initiative and intrinsic motivation for training, to the wait and see transfer of motivation to satisfying the external administration interests.  How to blend the intrinsic and extrinsic to create the most value professionally for both personal and institutional/administrator interests is the challenge of PD.  Can it be done?  Somewhere this blend of interests must be working.  If so, please share the process with us all.