When Professional Development Underperforms

When Professional Development Underperforms

By
Mary Jo Madda

“Professional Development.” PD. When this phrase is introduced into teacher circles, many teachers cringe with thoughts of poor instruction, time wasted on doing and learning things that do not apply to them, or initiatives that will go away with the next administrative change.

But then again, there are teachers who do look forward to similar sessions with excitement because they learn so much and use that knowledge when instructing their students. The rapid increase of educational technology tools dictates that teachers need time and proven strategies to use the tools in the classroom. The time and strategies can be included in current PD sessions, yet still be relevant to the core subjects.

What are some of the factors that cause this divide? What can you do to help change how PD is viewed in your district?

Let’s start with what PD is not.

Effective professional development is not “sit and get” time

Professional development should not be a time to “sit and get.” Who is actually being developed during a sit and get? More than likely, the presenter is the only one who “gets” anything (specifically for their pocketbook, if you catch my drift), unless there are some great inspirational pieces that are simple for educators to take back and apply within instructional practices. Even then, the participant has to take what was presented and do the application without the support of the expert. As you may know, teachers have so much on their to-do lists already that this will not be done with fidelity, if at all.

Effective professional development is not irrelevant to an educator’s practice

Let’s look at another viewpoint of what professional development is not. Having lived in the Midwest plains of Kansas and Minnesota, I know what silos are. They generally stand beside barns as storage for bulk farm materials. I’ve been inside a few silos, and the smell alone made the experience memorable. In agriculture, the silo can be used for storing fermenting feed, silage; the silage is then processed into animal feed or into biofuel feedstock. During professional development, teachers are given information and it is stored away for later relevant use. If teachers do not use the information in a timely fashion, the information begins to ferment and cause additional issues.

As a sidenote, silage produces a corrosive liquid, which could contaminate the ground around the silo and groundwater, unless it is collected and treated. Professional development is the collection of teacher nutritious information that should be handled carefully, or else the buildup of information and time spent in PD sessions will be seen as irrelevant and insignificant. Teachers will become resistant to future sessions even though the sessions might contain essential strategies for for effective instruction.

Effective professional development is not a one-time learning opportunity

One more aspect of what professional development is not deals with frequency. PD is not a one-time opportunity for learning. Anyone who wants to develop a new skill or talent knows that a one-time practice session is not enough. Even Allen Iverson knows frequent practice is important (for all you NBA fans out there).

Do the sessions allow for appropriate practice of the skill, or at least for the opportunity to be observed and given feedback? If not, then the current model of professional development needs to be changed.

Many teachers feel as though the PD cast upon them is not useful nor appropriate for them because they "know" the information already or feel that it doesn't apply to them at all. I’m sure you have heard similar statements from teachers.

Here are a few questions that I share with teachers if they think a PD session is worthless to them.

  • Have you spent the time researching the topic yourself?
  • Do you know the agenda is for the session?
  • Do you have the knowledge base to present the material?
  • Have you contacted the facilitator to discuss your background and what you might get out of it?

As a facilitator, I take these interactions to heart and try to design my sessions to address these concerns and questions. I also do my best to check in with those who are less than excited to attend for whatever reason they have. Relevance to the classroom and teacher instruction is a major factor in my formation of PD sessions.

As a leader in my school district, I want teachers to become advocates for themselves. In my role, I do my best to provide the knowledge for developing solid self-advocacy and being a broker of information that is important for its growth. I may be a ”tech guy,” but I also coach teachers to use the knowledge and tools around them to be even better teachers for themselves and for their students.

Candid conversations with teachers who attend professional development should uncover what teachers think doesn’t work for them. Armed with this information facilitators can construct learning opportunities their participants find helpful, relevant, and even fun to attend. What are some other aspects that professional development should not be? What analogies do you have for what constitutes great professional development? Let me know in the comments section below!

NOTE: This article is part of EdSurge's Fifty States Initiative (representing the state of Arizona).

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