One reason teachers leave the profession is surely that the profession doesn't feel all that professional sometimes. This is caused, in part, by poor professional development. (It is also caused, in part, by poor teacher attitudes around professional development… but that's a topic for another post.) In designing professional development that's good, I find the following considerations helpful. Please note that these are in no particular order.
What is good professional development like?
It prizes efficiency. The most commonly cited job frustration in my 15,000-teacher survey is “not enough time.” Teachers feel overwhelmed — they don't have time. And so in great professional development, this reality is kept at the fore, constantly. Good PD builds teaching cultures where the hours spent working aren't the measure of good teaching. Nope — hours spent teaching just signify a great work ethic. But all of us should have that. So, good PD prizes and teaches efficiency. Specifically, this looks like:
- Proposed new strategies are minimalistic. They get the job done without requiring the teacher to add yet another hour to their weekly workload.
- Time-saving and stress-saving strategies are always featured. It's easy enough to say, “Work smarter, not harder.” But great professional development takes this wisdom and makes it practical. It shows what “work smarter” looks like.
- It's not filling time. The PD facilitator aims to achieve something in the shortest amount of time it takes. The shortest path is best because our time is limited. If you have extra time at the end, feel free to have your teachers work to implement what they just learned!
It is humane. Efficiency alone can quickly take a staff down a dark path. What we're building in our schools are centers for the promotion of long-term flourishing — not factories pumping out test scores. One way to do this is to make PD a time for connecting and laughing, too.
It is coherent. Most teachers need a dozen new and random strategies about as much as they need a lobotomy. This is why it's so helpful to offer memorable frameworks within professional development. Learners must have a sense of how this detail fits into this concept that fits into this larger construct that fits into what we're ultimately here to do as a school. When I teach world history, I have to constantly move through these scales of understanding. If I don't, my students will find it much more difficult (and much less motivating) to learn. So too with adult learners.
It avoids buzzwords. Buzzwords are problematic because they mean too many things to too many people. This makes buzzwords poor communicative devices. The reason I call it “the effort belief” is because of how vastly misunderstood growth mindset is (despite Carol Dweck's attempts in recent years to fix misapplications). The reason I stopped writing about close reading was because of how blithely the term was being thrown around.
It honors everyone present. What I mean is that the music teacher and the mathematics department must not be ignored. This destroys a human being's morale. If the PD is for a whole secondary staff, then more than lip service must be given to the value of every department's role in promoting the long-term flourishing of the school's children. When in doubt, allow professionals to whom the PD doesn't apply to do something else that would develop them professionally. Is this more work for the PD planner? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
It aims at longevity in two ways. Teachers are dizzied by how quickly the tides turn in education. And no, changes in schools are often not explicable by the fact that the world is changing. More often, they are explained by the fact that people are fickle and with each change in leadership comes a change in vision, strategy, and so on.
- First, good PD planning starts with questions like: Can we stick to this new technique or strategy or topic for the next five years? Does it fit into what we are already doing? How? What would a skeptic say? How quickly will it be outdated?
- The shorter the shelf life of an idea covered in a professional development, the shorter the PD ought to be — if the PD ought to be at all.
- Second, good professional development always invites teachers into remembering why they teach and why the job is good and noble despite its difficulties. In short, good professional development reminds teachers that it's good to keep at it. (It must always be assumed that at least a few people in the room are considering quitting soon.)
It emphasizes the “professional” part. It's called professional development for a reason. Good teachers are not the same as good technicians. The kinds of people we want at the heads of our classrooms are clear thinkers who learn constantly — not automaton technocrats. These are the kinds of people who tend to produce optimal long-term flourishing results in and through classrooms. Some ways to do this:
- Have mixed groups of teachers read and discuss articles representing divergent views on a relevant professional topic.
- Have teachers read and discuss the latest Marshall Memo as a warm-up.
- Have slots at each PD where a teacher can share a brief video clip of a best practice in action in their classroom.
It cultivates collective teacher efficacy. The five key beliefs aren't just about motivating students, with the efficacy belief being particularly powerful when it's shared by a whole staff of teachers. (Collective teacher efficacy stands at the top of John Hattie's effect size list. It is nearly 4x as powerful as standard interventions.) All that means is that when a staff believes in their ability to positively affect students, that staff is bound to create outsized results given time and space. So, all good professional development aims at cultivating this key part of an effective school culture.
It allows for reflective application throughout. Teachers need time to take what they've learned and integrate it into what they are already doing. Good PD includes time for this. When we skip this part to save time, we end up losing time because the professional development is so much less likely to stick.
It is facilitated by credible people. There's no shortcut to credibility. We earn it day by day, as we demonstrate care, competence, and passion. This takes time, and so credible people tend to be very good with how they manage their time. If this is something you'd like help with, take a look at the all-online, schedule-friendly course I am creating.
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