Professional Development For Teachers Doesn’t Have To Suck

Rebecca Gray Education, Homeschooling, Teachers Leave a Comment

Design with Intention

How many times have you felt as though you “wasted time” at a professional development session?  Redundant, poorly planned, or ineffective professional development for teachers isn’t just a waste of time – it’s a waste of resources.  An hour of continued education that has no lasting effect is an hour of missed opportunity to deliver something great to our educators.

If you’re an administrator or a curriculum director tasked with lining up continuing education opportunities for your faculty this year, don’t let this time go to waste.  Design professional development with intention, and plan to make the most of each hour of growth.

Over the past few years, we’ve talked with thousands of educators, administrators, and curriculum directors from schools nationwide.  Hurdling professional development with our own curriculum here at Thimble was done with careful planning.  Teachers have reiterated hours spent in professional development sessions designed by their own administrators that were:

  • Ineffective
  • Outdated
  • Irrelevant (Often not applicable to their grade level/subject matter)
  • Poorly planned
  • Generally boring and difficult to engage with

Despite good intentions from planners, the consensus among teachers seems to be the same:  they aren’t learning very much during these bits of training. 

After hearing this time and again, we decided to use what we’ve heard, observed, and researched to offer some guidance to administrators and members of other state agencies responsible for PD sessions.

What is Professional Development for Teachers and Why Is It Important?

Professional development is the term used to describe educational opportunities provided to teachers to keep them abreast of the latest teaching methods, curriculum, standards, and technology available to them.  Sometimes professional development looks like curriculum training and classroom management – but sometimes it looks like sensitivity or de-escalation training.  It’s a broad umbrella.  Sometimes participation can span over months at a time in a “series” of development sessions.  Often teachers participate in “one-time” classes, courses, or sessions.

Why is professional development important?

These courses, classes, coaching, and online sessions are intended to help teachers with every facet of their profession.  Not feeling confident in the classroom?  There’s probably a PD course for that!  Struggling with classroom management strategy?  There’s a course for that!  Having trouble leading project-based lesson plans?  You guessed it – there’s a course for that!  These courses are all necessary to keep teachers sharp and on top of their game.

Professional development keeps educators passionate, sharp, and up to date on the most relevant best practices.  Things change – year to year and generation to generation – and our educators are remiss to not stay on top of that. 

Why Do Educators Dread Participating in Professional Development?

In most states, a certain amount of continuing education hours are required to keep a teaching license current and valid.  With these requirements in place almost nationwide, there’s no way for teachers to avoid experiencing the good, the bad – and the ugly.

Less than a decade ago, the Boston Consulting Group, at the urging of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,  conducted a study into the topic of professional development for teachers to identify areas that can be strengthened or overhauled to improve our national education system. Interviewing roughly 1300 educators to find out what they want, need, and think helped create a picture of what’s working, and what barriers exist.  What are some of these barriers?

According to the data collected from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), there are some commonly reported barriers to professional development.  The top four are:

  • Not enough hours are built into educators’ schedules for PD.
  • School leaders don’t have enough time to spend on PD with mounting administrative tasks.
  • School leaders don’t have enough time to support teachers with their professional development.
  • School leaders aren’t adequately trained in developing and designing a PD program.
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

4 Tips for Effective Professional Development Design

At the end of the day, all school leaders want is for their PD to be valuable, practical, and most importantly yield results.  Check out some of these handy design tips that we think will touch on some of the pitfalls and barriers to great professional development for teachers.

  •  Make it relevant by making it specific.

Don’t stick the librarian into a professional development session that’s going to focus primarily on the effective use of math manipulatives.  It seems like common sense, but so many times teachers complain about sitting through continuing education hours that had little to nothing to do with their day-to-day classroom life.

Give educators options so that they can choose to focus on things that will address their own professional struggles.  Make sure the titles, descriptions, and expectations of these courses or sessions are clear and specific.  Educators need to have an accurate idea of what they’re getting into before the professional development session even begins.

  •  Get participants invested in the outcome of their training.

Whether they’re standing in front of an elementary school classroom, or a high school classroom, all educators want to be the best they can be.  They want to be impactful and efficient. Inspiring and confident.  Patient and organized.  

But not all teacher’s needs are the same.  Try to figure out how to get teachers to set reachable goals for themselves.  What do they want to see happen in their teaching career in the immediate future, and in the long term.  Encourage them to map out training sessions that will help them reach those goals.  If each session, series, class or course helps them get to an end-goal that is important to them, they are invested in their own success.

  •  Continuity is key.  Make your PD efforts ongoing.  

You know that saying, “The buck stops here?” It refers to the idea of passing responsibility on to someone else.  Trust us when we say it has no place in continuing education.  Though teachers are responsible for carrying their newfound strategy and knowledge into their classroom and utilizing it – it is still a school leader’s responsibility to follow up.

How do you follow up with educators who participated in your professional development session?  Sure, you could email a ‘brief survey’ in the form of a Google Doc.  But is that enough?  Teachers need a high level of support to ensure that they fully understand the presented topic and that they are utilizing it without struggle.  Make sure you have a plan to offer continued support, or better yet – additional sessions on the topic that allow for feedback and adjustment.

  •  Make sessions engaging – and practice what you preach.

Teachers are watching your delivery.  Nobody’s judging your teaching harsher than a room full of teachers – so make sure you don’t bore them to death!  Try to be hands-on without being patronizing.  Recognize that they are adults but that learning new concepts can be difficult and engagement translates to retention.  Allow them to put methods into practice.

And for goodness sakes – practice what you preach.  We once spoke with an educator (proudly using Thimble kits to inspire her engineering students) who gave us this candid review of an ironic professional development session experience:

“…and I can’t even make this up. We sat through a lengthy development session for our STEM department on how lecture-style teaching should be kept to a minimum in engineering classes. [They] Presented data on how lecturing is ineffective when inspiring kids to love to tinker. [They] Told us how kids aren’t receptacles for knowledge to be dumped into. But the entire session was a lecture. Complete with powerpoint slides.”

9th Grade Teacher
Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

7 Modern Skills That Can Be the Base of Great Professional Development

Teachers love to talk about the benefits of “going back to the basics”.  There are some basic skills that separate good teachers from great teachers.  Those skills can be the cornerstone of valuable, meaningful content for education series for teachers.  Sometimes these “basics” can reignite an educator’s passion for their profession with some quick self-reflection.

  • Leadership

See what we did there? We led with this skill.  It’s so important in every profession, but responsible leadership is essential for teachers as they wear so many “leader” hats.  Educators lead their students to success, but often lead teams of colleagues as well.  

  •  Technology and Innovation

Technology brings change and innovation to the classroom.  Some veteran teachers resist this kind of change because “Why fix what isn’t broken?”.  But these technology upgrades and learning platforms open the doors to new and more effective teaching methods.  Being innovative in the classroom can bring 21st-century skills to modern learners.

  •  Lifelong Learning

The best teachers aren’t just creating lifelong learners out of their students – they are lifelong learners themselves.  They strive to be better and are always open to new teaching methods, management strategies, and pedagogy if they can help their students. 

  •  Communication 

Communication is a foundational part of every corner of teaching (and life).  Communicating with colleagues, administrators, school leaders, parents, and students is going to be part of an educator’s everyday life.  Trust us, there’s a good reason that almost every major in college is required to take a “communications” class.  While keeping those lines of communication open all the time can get tiresome, poor communication can be devastating to a person’s reputation as a teacher and a colleague.

  •  Flexibility

A teacher’s routine can change from day-to-day and year-to-year.  These changes can stem when new policies, learning platforms, grading software, and/or curriculum are introduced.  It’s important that teachers “roll with the punches” and be flexible about adopting new methods and handling a “change in plans”.  Handling changes poorly, and being inflexible will eventually affect student learning.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
  •  Student Engagement

Student engagement is one of the most important parts of retention and success in the classroom.  Without it, performance and achievement are not going to reach potential.  Teachers need to constantly be in tune with excitement levels in their class. They should learn new ways of altering teaching practices to refresh engagement.  

  •  Organization and Time Management

No one wants to be the hot mess member of the faculty.  While rookie teachers are notorious for flubbing up these two important skillsets – even veteran teachers can sometimes lose their focus in these areas.  Organization improves your state of mind, your teaching methods, and ultimately student experience.

Consider Creating Annual Professional Development Plans that are as Individual as Your Teachers

Every faculty member is as individual as the students they are teaching.  They all have different subjects, class sizes, and age groups.  They have different goals, strengths, and weaknesses. Because of this, their professional development should not be uniform. Many school leaders find it beneficial to create “Individualized Professional Development Plans” for faculty members on an annual basis.  Goals are set according to teachers’ needs and desires, as well as district plans.  

At the end of the year, teachers meet with school leaders to revisit those goals.  They can map progress and prepare to adjust their annual goals for the following year.  When planning continuing education for teachers this way, an educator’s professional growth isn’t static.  It builds upon itself each year and leans into what each teacher needs most to benefit their unique student population.

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

Own Up to Professional Development that Sucks – and Commit to Change

Take an honest look at your current professional development programming.  Do you feel like it’s what your faculty wants and needs?  Could it be better?  If you’re unsure – pull aside a few of your seasoned, trusted teachers and ask them for an off-the-record chat about what they are experiencing in their own professional growth.  Are you meeting their needs? Do they have realistic suggestions that are sound and attainable?  

Your district will grow as it’s faculty does – so make sure that professional development for teachers leading the children in your community isn’t falling short.  Commit to setting new goals, and making the changes necessary to create professional development that doesn’t suck!

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