Too often, training sessions fail to account for teachers’ experience, ignore their expertise, and use tactics that are counter to instructional best practices

By Sarah Schwartz

May 14, 2019

Many teachers share a common complaint: Professional development doesn’t actually treat them like professionals.

Mandatory seminars often have no relevance to their particular subject area or cover skills that they mastered years ago.

Facilitators from outside groups introduce new instructional practices and don’t inquire about, or even acknowledge, teachers’ current strategies. “That feels like a slap in the face,” said Brittany Franckowiak, a biology teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md.

And some say there’s a certain irony to workshops delivered in a way that ignores best practices around teaching and learning. Teachers are asked to sit through hour-long lectures and slideshows, for example, “and then [facilitators] say, ‘Well, don’t do this with kids, though,'” said Nicole Donato, an instructional coach at Big Spring High School in Newville, Pa.

PD like this, teachers say, doesn’t respect their experience, expertise, or time.

“Teachers are the ones that are in the muck with students the most. They know the most about what’s happening and what should be happening in their classrooms,” said Mandy Flora, a fellow at Teaching Lab, a nonprofit that supports teacher-led PD. But when it comes to school- and district-level decision-making, including around PD, teachers “often have the least amount of power in making decisions,” she said.

Some school leaders are trying to change this, offering teachers options that give them ownership over their own PD—from in-house professional learning communities to un-conferences, in which teachers set the PD agenda and learn from each other.

But providing teachers with more choice can clash with another objective: ensuring that PD addresses school and district instructional goals.

At Big Spring High School, Donato is trying to strike a balance between these competing priorities.

“When I first got here, it was not teacher choice at all,” said Donato. Teachers were required to meet with her twice a month during their planning periods. Everyone with the same planning period was in the same PD group, with no separation by subject area or grade level.

Cherie Powell, a business teacher and the business department chair there, remembered hoping a session on assessment would introduce evaluation strategies for the project-based learning that she does in her classes. But most of the other teachers in the PD group were in tested subjects. “I was like, okay, this is a waste of my time,” said Powell.

Realizing that teachers were disengaged, Donato worked with the school’s principal to develop a new system with what she calls “best practice groups.” Each semester, teachers choose to work on one area of the school’s instructional framework—literacy strategies, for example, or scaffolding and differentiation. They also pick the format for their twice-monthly professional learning. Cross-curricular planning, one-on-one coaching, and group lesson study are some of the options.

Now, Powell is in a group with other business teachers, working on a plan to improve students’ collaboration skills. Collaboration is part of the school’s instructional framework, and it’s also an essential skill in her business incubator class, in which students work together in groups to develop and market a new product.

With best practice groups, PD is more “real time,” said Powell. Sessions are focused on problems she’s actually facing in her classroom at that time, and she can take back concrete solutions to test out. The work doesn’t feel divorced from her day-to-day, she said.

Tim Kireta, a social studies teacher at the school, said the groups also help differentiate PD for teachers at different stages of their career.

Kireta has taught for 19 years—16 of them at Big Spring. But even as a veteran teacher, he still struggled to design project-based learning assignments that his students were able to successfully complete. “I would create these assignments and feel so good about them, and then the results would be like, ‘Why can’t [students] do this?'” he said. In one-on-one coaching sessions, he’s worked with Donato on scaffolding to provide students with supports along the way.

Best-practice groups haven’t turned everyone at the school into a PD enthusiast. “There are a handful of teachers that, no matter what option I give them, I can’t hook them in on a growth mindset,” Donato said, referring to the popular educational approach emphasizing that ability can be improved with effort.

But the personalized focus and ongoing feedback that this new method provides have changed the culture around PD at Big Spring, said Kireta. “It gets people to trust professional development,” he said, and it highlights professional expertise.

“Teachers are getting recognition through best practice groups that they weren’t getting before,” he said.

Still, not all schools have dedicated coaches who can meet with every teacher, drawing on their expertise and targeting individualized goals for growth. And sometimes, school and district leaders can feel like they don’t have a choice when it comes to how they deliver professional development, said Flora of Teaching Lab.

Checking the Box

Often, administrators are presented with a state-mandated instructional initiative or given an earmarked set of funds. Finding the time to deliver intensive, ongoing PD isn’t easy, and they may not have the bandwidth to develop such a plan.

Selecting providers to conduct one-off trainings “checks that box,” Flora said, even if it may not always be best practice.

Barbara Gottschalk, a retired teacher, remembers the “edutainers” that her large district in Michigan used to bring in for presentations at the beginning of the school year.

“You get a little motivated,” she said. But the presenters, speaking to a group of about 500 teachers in an auditorium, didn’t offer suggestions on instructional practice. Generally, she said, they told stories about their careers and made a few jokes. “Teachers felt a little bit talked down to,” she said.

Michelle Blanchet, the founder of The Educators’ Lab, a PD consultancy, recalled one especially disrespectful PD experience. Blanchet, who used to teach high school world history in Manassas, Va., was required to attend a day-long professional development on graphic visualization techniques that she already understood how to use. “It was literally circle maps and Venn diagrams,” she said.

The PD wasn’t tailored to her content area or her students’ needs. No one had asked before the training whether she already knew the information, or what she hoped to learn. “No one involves [teachers] in that decision making process,” said Blanchet.

When that’s the case, said Flora, teachers should involve themselves.

As part of its work, Teaching Lab trains teachers to become professional-development leaders. The group introduces teachers to power mapping—identifying the people in their school or district who teachers could talk to about their concerns, hopes, and priorities for professional learning. In her experience, Flora said, school and district leaders are generally receptive to these conversations.

The question becomes, said Flora: “Who does make the decisions around PD, and can you have coffee with them?”

Vol. 38, Issue 33, Pages 3-4

Published in Print: May 15, 2019, as What Do Teachers Really Want From PD?