The goal of professional development (PD) for educators is improvement: Improved instructional strategies, improved teaching, and improved outcomes for students.
Too often, however, teacher PD is simply a waste of time. “Teaching the Teachers,” a report by National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education, indicates that most PD neither changes teaching practices nor improves student learning.
This is because PD typically:
- Focuses on too many goals, which are sometimes conflicting
- Is not relevant or meaningful to teachers
- Is delivered in an ineffective lecture style
- Does not involve ongoing support or feedback for teachers
- Is often associated with unrealistic expectations for implementation time, outcomes, etc.
Effective Teacher Professional Development That Works
But effective teacher professional development is possible. Here’s how to make the most of your PD to drive positive change.
1. Set goals
Much like planning a lesson, start with your target outcome. What problems at your school do you want to solve? What student learning outcomes need improvement?
Encourage teachers to provide input during the goal-setting process. PD needs to address issues that are relevant to your staff.
2. Narrow it down
Ultimately, you’ll choose just one or two instructional practices to focus on each school year.
Research has shown that brief, one-off workshops make little to no impact. In fact, teachers often need up to 50 hours of instruction, coaching, and practice to master and implement a new instructional strategy.
Effective teacher professional development must be continual and ongoing. If you want your teachers to actually use a strategy and use it effectively, give them time.
3. Make it hands-on
Lectures aren’t effective in the classroom, and they aren’t effective for professional development either.
Instead, provide hands-on opportunities for teachers to practice new strategies during PD sessions. Give teachers the chance to learn by doing.
4. Foster collaboration
Another way to make learning active is through collaboration. Break teachers into small groups to discuss what they’re learning and how they can use it in their classrooms.
When possible, group teachers by subject area. Research shows that PD is best delivered in the context of the teacher’s subject area. Teachers don’t find information on generic topics useful.
However, they do benefit from analyzing how the skill or strategy applies to their content. This approach is well-received by teachers and has been shown to improve teacher practice and student learning.
So, even if you can’t offer separate professional development for each subject area, allow teachers to meet with their grade level/content area to discuss and process new information.
5. Develop something usable
Effective PD can be immediately practiced in the teacher’s classroom. Immediate success is unlikely, but immediate practice is essential.
At PD sessions, guide teachers in creating related activities or lesson plans that they can implement within the next week or two.
6. Provide coaching and mentoring
Teachers may like and understand a new strategy, but implementation is tricky. As teachers begin implementing new strategies, they need support.
Visit classrooms and offer non-evaluative feedback on your area(s) of focus. If you can’t offer feedback or it isn’t your area of expertise, call on instructional coaches or master teachers.
When some teachers pick up the new strategy more quickly than others, assign them to mentor other teachers. Create opportunities for teachers to visit “model” classrooms and see the new strategies in action.
In addition, encourage teachers to share their experiences implementing the new skills in their grade level or subject area meetings. Tell them to send any questions your way, or choose an expert in the area(s) of focus to field questions.
Teaching a new strategy once or twice does not promote change. Ongoing coaching, support, and troubleshooting is essential for effective teacher professional development.
7. Revisit goals
Throughout the PD process, your staff should be aware of the goals you set for the school year. These goals should be referenced on a regular basis.
In addition, teachers should be provided with strategies to monitor progress toward these goals. Use student data and teacher evaluations to see whether changes are having an effect on student achievement.
Next, give teachers opportunities to discuss their data with others. Brainstorm ideas and develop plans in response to the data.
8. Be realistic
Remember that successfully implementing new strategies takes time. Provide ongoing support, even into the following school year.
One reason school initiatives fail is that they are quickly abandoned. Commit for an extended period of time. Continue providing support and tracking progress. You will gradually see improvement.
Final Thoughts: Effective Teacher Professional Development
Often, teachers aren’t big fans of professional development. It’s probably because PD rarely leads to actual change or improvement.
By following the tips in this article, you can change that. Remember to:
- Set specific, student-oriented goals
- Narrow your focus down to 1-2 goals
- Make learning collaborative and hands-on
- Provide support throughout the implementation process
- Revisit and track goals
- Have realistic expectations
You’re busy, and so are your teachers. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time with PD that accomplishes nothing.
Try these tips, and you’ll see improved teaching practices and better student outcomes. Now that’s time well-spent!