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Improving Professional Development

Despite the large sums of money that go into professional development for teachers, only 29% report that they feel highly satisfied with their PD experiences (according to the Gate's Foundation). That is a major waste of time and money. However, with some low resistance and high-leverage shifts, districts can get a better return on their PD investment for teachers and students.

A principal walks into a staff meeting and says, “Who’s excited for professional development?!” I am sure you can devise several punch lines for that joke. And it’s bad rap is not undeserved, just unfortunate. When utilized properly, it can take a school from good to great and significantly improve student outcomes. But instead, it’s become an education “four-letter word.”

So what happened?

It’s hard to say exactly. I can only conjecture about all the wrong turns taken along the way. However, observation and conversation have led me to two conclusions, likely accounting for most of the negative press around professional development.


PD days just sneak up out of nowhere!

Although calendars are approved well before the year begins, and clear dates are established for professional development, it becomes a last-minute event. Once the scramble ensues, you have already sealed the day's fate as an exercise in compliance versus a day of rich learning. It doesn’t mean the latter is absent, but it does mean it is not leveraged to its full potential.


Today, you will learn new strategies to teach reading that you must start tomorrow. But pay close attention and soak it all in because we will never have professional development on these practices again. Best of luck.

Perhaps that’s not said verbatim, but the spirit of that comment rings true for most professional development days. It’s a one-off experience that may or may not be explicitly related to district or school goals. And it may or may not directly apply to you depending on what you teach. (Can I get a ‘hell yeah’ from the P.E. teachers who have sat through a math program training).


PD does not have to be this way!

Some small shifts in our approach will make a difference and leave educators feeling empowered after strategic learning.

But first, we must shift our perspective and consider professional development as a means to specific results. It’s not just a “check the box” action, but rather an intentionally planned process where a specific goal is put into place and a plan is created to equip teachers with the necessary skills to meet that goal. This perspective shift will make the next three steps easier.

  • Set an improvement goal. This could be quantitative using students' scores, qualitative based on survey data, or observational based on specific teacher actions. This goal will now drive all professional development for a designated period (it doesn’t always have to fit into one school year).

  • Design the professional development for the designated period. Once the goal has been decided, you can start planning the steps needed to meet the goal. Look at the time scheduled in the calendar to accomplish this work and plan general topics that are intentionally sequenced. Then, determine who will deliver these sessions so you can plan to arrange for outside support if the capacity does not already exist within your organization. Planning ahead will also allow you to plan intentionally for all groups to ensure the learning is relevant to their work (i.e the aforementioned P.E. teacher).

  • Communicate. Tell teachers and staff the goal and how you plan to accomplish it. Have administrators engage staff in this work in staff meetings, PLCs etc. Tell the community, tell your friends, tell your Uber driver. The more it’s communicated, the more people are in the loop for accountability (the good kind) and support.

These three steps alone will pay major dividends for all staff. There will be less panic as the days get closer, staff will have the clarity they deserve from the beginning regarding the improvement goals and expectations, and this focus will garner successful results for teachers and students.

And what is more motivating than success?

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