by Joel Zarrow
Just as a teacher has to create conditions that support and encourage student success, school districts have to support teachers’ professional development.
Today, professional development runs the gamut from one-shot workshops to more intensive job-embedded professional development, which has teachers learn in the day-to-day environment in which they work rather than getting pulled out to attend an outside training.
However, the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education report, “Teaching the Teachers,” notes that most professional development today is ineffective because it neither changes teaching practices nor improves student learning.
Professional development for teachers can fall short in numerous ways, including:
- Too many (and sometimes conflicting) goals and priorities competing for teachers’ time, energy, and attention.
- Unrealistic expectations of how much time it will take schools and teachers to adopt and implement goals.
- Professional development training events that are inappropriate in size, scope, or structure to support learning new ideas or skills. Gathering 100 teachers into one room for a training event will never give them the time they need to reflect on the material, ask questions, listen to their peers, or go through activities to enhance their comprehension.
- Lack of support for teachers’ implementation of new instructional practices. Research shows there’s an implementation gap in teachers’ professional development. They may learn, understand, and agree with a new idea or technique presented in a workshop, but it’s hard for them to implement that idea without ongoing support.
- Failure to provide teachers with feedback about how implementing new skills impacts student learning.
How Districts Can Turn Professional Development for Teachers Around
Just as every student learns differently, teachers have many different learning styles and face a variety of circumstances in the classroom. The CPE’s report asserts that any professional development initiative must recognize that “teaching is inherently complex and nuanced” and promote the empowerment of teachers via professional learning communities.
According to the report, effective professional development offers:
- Ongoing instruction for a significant duration of time. Continual professional development gives teachers time to learn and implement new strategies. According to the report, studies have concluded that teachers may need as many as 50 hours of instruction, practice, and coaching before a new teaching strategy is mastered and implemented in class.
- Support for teachers during the implementation stage. According to “Student Achievement Through Staff Development,” teachers take an average of 20 separate instances of practice to master a new skill, and this number may increase if the skill is exceptionally complex. Providing support addresses the challenges associated with changing a classroom practice.
- Active learning opportunities for teachers. These activities can include readings, role-play, open-ended discussions, live modeling, and classroom visits. While many forms of active learning help teachers decipher concepts, theories, and research-based practices in teaching, modeling the new practice has been shown to help teachers understand and apply a concept and remain open to adopting it.
School districts can improve the effectiveness of their professional development for teachers by following these basic guidelines:
- Keep it simple. Each year, identify and focus on one or two instructional priorities — effective instructional practices that the district wants teachers to learn, refine, or improve. Ideally, districts should select the priorities with input from the teachers themselves. They should clearly communicate these priorities and expectations throughout all levels of the organization.
- Organize all available district support to help teachers implement these instructional priorities. Our organization believes that introducing teachers to a new way of teaching reading or writing without the proper follow-up support only confuses and frustrates the teacher.
- School districts should make a deliberate effort to support teacher implementation of instructional priorities through training events, coaching, principal observation, staff and grade-level meetings, and evaluation systems. But ultimately, the best professional development comes from teachers teaching one another. If schools can establish a collaborative, intellectually stimulating environment for teachers, that’s a place where children will learn.
- Create a feedback loop to help teachers monitor implementation. Once districts define the outcomes they want to achieve, they should use teacher observations and student data to provide teachers with information about whether changes are having an effect on student achievement. Teachers may need help learning how to conduct related assessments, analyze and interpret the data, and adapt their instruction in response to the data.
- Realize that change takes time. Too often, districts work on something for a year, then revamp their priorities and launch a whole new set of goals for the next year. Administrators must realize that teachers will still need support when implementing changes the second year.
At the end of the day, teachers, districts, and parents all want the same thing: to improve student learning. But many teachers simply aren’t equipped with the professional development they need to make real changes in their classrooms. Districts can’t hope for sweeping improvements by sending teachers to workshops and seminars a few times a year; teachers need continual professional development with active learning opportunities, feedback, and support built right in.
Children’s Literacy Initiative is the premier national nonprofit working with teachers to transform instruction so children can become powerful readers, writers, and thinkers. CLI focuses on early literacy in urban schools and districts. Joel Zarrow is the executive director and can be reached at [email protected]; image attribution flickr user globalpartnershipforeducation