This week I struggled through a particularly ineffective inservice day. As I sat in the room looking out across a sea of teachers who were just doing their best to endure the experience, I reflected on my own somewhat low expectations over many of my teaching years regarding PD. Having worked in multiple districts, I thought about all the times I had endured experiences like this week’s.
Being more on the delivery end in other schools’ PD efforts now, I’m more mindful of the precious few opportunities we have to advance change or inspire teachers, because inservice days are rare. I’m also mindful that it is a true challenge to plan for the learning of others and we always have room to learn, so this isn’t about pointing fingers. There is just a delicate dance between forwarding district initiatives, inspiring teachers, and empowering them as learners, but it is a dance we need to do better.
Here are 10 ways we can improve PD for teachers in school districts:
1. Include teachers in the planning process.
- Teachers are professionals and perfectly capable and knowledgeable enough to offer pertinent advice about what their colleagues need to/want to learn and how that might best be accomplished effectively. Teachers are capable of leading and planning their own learning and empowering them makes for powerful learning opportunities.
2. Enlist your connectors.
- Every district has campus level educators who are well-connected online. Exploit their connections to find meaningful and powerful presenters. Grass-roots suggestions can tap into the pulse of the teachers as well.
3. Be transparent.
- Do teachers know who planned the inservice or why it was planned? Do they know how it fits into the district long term goals in a very transparent, collegial way? Do they know how much it cost or have input on how much gets allocated for their learning opportunity? Empower teachers as part of the process.
4. Prepare teachers for the inservice.
- Are teachers prepared for the speaker(s) and familiar with their work? Do teachers(counselors, librarians, other staff) have time ahead of time to think about the topic? How do we build the “anticipatory set” for learning?
5. Set presenters up for success
- When inviting speakers, set them up for a successful experience. Is the audience size an effective one for real learning to occur? Do they know details about your district? A recent district for which I did PD had a dinner meeting and outlined details about their district goals, employees, the audience, etc. so I was well prepared for my time with them. (Also it is helpful to do this well in advance so the speaker can prepare properly). As a speaker, I also feel speakers bear some responsibility for getting more information about the audience, too.
6. Think globally. Act locally.
- Sometimes the best professional learning opportunities are the ones right in front of us. Every district is filled with a wealth of teacher expertise — teachers who can share and discuss the difficult questions they face in the classroom–teachers who innovate — teachers who have developed successful strategies — teachers who are gifted teachers. How can a district enlist and empower their own teachers in events like Edcamps or teacher-led PD? Are there leaders in the district that can better meet the needs of teachers on a given topic? Are we modeling the world-connected teaching that we hope teachers are using in their classroom? Is the learning experience for teachers connective?
7. Think formal and informal, suited to teacher needs.
- Be open to what teacher learning can look like. Consider alternatives that are meaningful to teachers and that different teachers have different needs. Teachers are willing to learn on their own time, but are appreciative when that is honored.
8. Think long term.
- Does the PD offer an opportunity for long term reflection or engagement with the rest of the teaching community beyond the given day? How can the learning be extended? Even if the speaker doesn’t extend the learning, who within the district can build opportunities for that ongoing reflection, possibly in a connected(online) format? It’s clear from research that this makes the learning experience more “sticky.”
9. Follow up.
- Even without long term engagement opportunities, how can the district follow up with teachers about the PD experience? Are there more resources that can be shared out in a structured way each time? Are there follow up opportunities, books, upcoming conferences, webinars, etc. that can be shared?
10. Measure and reflect.
- Give evaluation forms, also, to find out if the learning opportunities met the needs of teachers involved(formative assessment in action). Reflect on the comments shared. Make sure your environment is one that welcomes this sort of feedback loop and not only reflects that to teachers in words, but in deeds as well. Without trust and acceptance and collegial relationships, a district will not get the honest feedback they need. Teachers also bear a responsibility in speaking up and offering helpful evaluative information. Both involve remembering that all who work with students are colleagues working towards the same goals.
As long as teachers feel that professional development is something done to them, instead of something done “with” their own empowerment and learning in mind, they will be, by the very nature of things, passive participants. Teachers also have a responsibility to step up and offer to lead their own learning.
But if we are going to change teacher PD, if not now, when? Changing how we lead teachers is just as imperative and urgent as changing how we “do school” for our students. The more we seek to engage educators in their own learning–be it formal or informal, the more meaningful the time spent will be and ultimately the most impact we will have on the students we want to serve better.