Teachers are expected to keep honing their craft throughout their careers, keeping up to date on the latest research and new instructional approaches.
But often, doing this work comes at a personal cost.
Districts provide a handful of in-service professional-development days a year. Outside of those, though, many teachers say they have to pay for their own PD: buying books, taking courses, or attending workshops and conferences.
Sometimes, they’re required to take personal or sick days for professional learning.
Teachers say access to PD is an equity issue: They know best what their students need—and they need the flexibility to seek it out.
But the amount of time and money involved makes this impossible for some—such as teachers near the bottom of the salary schedule or new moms who have used all their sick time for maternity leave.
“Anyone who needs extra time to take care of someone else, … it’s just harder and harder to grow in your skills and grow in your profession,” said Leah Michaels, the English department chair at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.
Michaels, who has been an English teacher for 20 years, went to the National Council of Teachers of English conference for the first time this November—but only because it was held less than an hour from where she lived and she wouldn’t have to pay for a flight. She paid the several-hundred-dollar registration fee on her own.
“It would be nice if you didn’t feel like you had to make those kinds of choices to train yourself,” she said.
Still, others say that focusing PD dollars on coordinated district efforts—so that they have the same skills and knowledge—can even the playing field for students.
It’s reasonable that schools might not pay for additional PD outside of that, said Paul Fleming, the senior vice president for standards, states, and equity at Learning Forward, a national professional learning organization.
"[Districts] may really be providing expensive training in the name of equity,” he said.
Michaels did eventually get time off to attend the NCTE conference.
This year, she said, her district set aside a pool of leave specifically for the event, as it was in the local area—10 days total in a lottery, open to the thousands of teachers in the school system.
But how much flexibility a teacher has to attend out-of-district PD depends on where she teaches, and policies vary district to district.
The National Council on Teacher Quality tracks some of that information through its Teacher Contract Database, a comparison of contract terms in 145 large districts across the country. Many of those districts offer paid leave for professional events, like conferences.
But some prescribe how that leave should be used, noting that teachers can only take the time for school observations or staff meetings. And other districts require teachers and administrators to share a communal pool of days, like the one Michaels drew from for the NCTE conference.
Many of the districts NCTQ tracked also offer full or partially paid sabbaticals, but generally teachers can’t take those until they’ve worked in the district for a specified period of time—usually at least five years.
Still, in some districts, policies make it all but impossible for teachers to attend anything that takes place during the school year work week. In Los Angeles Unified, for example, teachers can take paid leave to attend conferences and conventions—but only if doing so doesn’t require a substitute teacher.
Anji Williams, a secondary English teacher in Los Angeles Unified, said the policy is understandable. She gets a lot of useful training already from the district on such topics as trauma-informed instruction and teaching English-language learners. And she understands that the city’s schools have more pressing priorities right now than funding off-site PD, she said, referencing last year’s teacher-strike demands for more nurses and librarians.
Even so, Williams wishes she had more opportunities to swap ideas with teachers outside the district and the state—to break out of her “echo chamber.” And she worries that there are consequences to teachers in city districts having to sit out these events. Big education conferences are dominated by teachers from suburban, majority-white districts, Williams said.
When her colleagues can’t attend these kinds of teacher convenings, the work that they’re doing to support English-language learners, students of color, and students from low-income families doesn’t get highlighted, she said. As a result, she said, these students’ needs aren’t always front and center in the national conversation.
Even when teachers aren’t looking to travel for a conference, they still might have limits on how much they can shape their own professional learning, said Marian Dingle, a 4th grade teacher in the Atlanta area.
Dingle has been teaching for more than 20 years. Through past experiences in her previous districts, she saw that teachers have varying degrees of autonomy in charting their own growth. In schools that were deemed underperforming, “your PD is pretty much mapped out for you,” Dingle said. Teachers weren’t encouraged to do things like start book clubs or professional learning communities—or they didn’t even know that they could take on those projects.
In those districts, it felt like administration was singularly focused on raising test scores, rather than helping teachers improve their practice. “You lose your agency,” she said.
Balancing Structure and Choice
There’s an inherent tension to giving teachers choice in professional learning, said Fleming of Learning Forward.
Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, districts face increased pressure to make sure that PD is evidence-based. As a result, more districts have moved toward a curated set of options, Fleming said. High-quality professional learning, as defined under ESSA, has to meet six criteria: sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused. And research has shown that instructional coaching can raise student outcomes.
“At the same time, there are teachers understandably saying, ‘I want to go to this conference on the other side of the country for learning how to use microcredentials,’ and the district says, ‘There’s no money for it,’ ” he said.
In Sullivan County, Tenn., a coordinated approach to PD has been a major factor in improving reading achievement, said Robin McClellan, the district’s supervisor of elementary education.
The school system redesigned its English/language arts PD process, so that professional learning was closely tied to the district’s curriculum. Teachers would master working with the specific materials in front of them, instead of learning general reading or writing strategies.
Now, the district surveys teachers quarterly, asking questions like: What are stumbling blocks? What do you need to move forward? Teachers’ problems of practice set the focus for professional learning. That allows for more targeted support for teachers, but it also “honors their struggle,” McClellan said.
“There’s a way to blend in teacher voice in a way that’s still grounded in the curricular work,” she said.
Getting high-quality PD around instruction is “huge,” and an equity concern for classroom teaching, said Dingle, the Atlanta-area teacher. But throughout her career, it hasn’t been her only goal for professional growth.
“It’s also about: ‘How do I build bridges? How do I get along with people? How do I motivate my colleagues?’ ” she said. This past summer, she attended and presented at All Y’all, a professional-development series focused on social-justice education in the South.
Unlike a lot of other offsite PD, All Y’all is free. That’s a central tenet of the program’s philosophy, said Rebekah Cordova, the director of All Y’all and a researcher at the University of Florida.
In-service teachers don’t get a lot of access to the education research world unless they’re seeking graduate degrees—an expensive endeavor—or their district has enough money to contract with a university for PD, Cordova said. Teachers in small, rural districts can lose out on the opportunity to learn from academics and each other.
“There’s no shortage of conferences, workshops, webinars, speakers that charge a lot of money,” said Cordova, who facilitates All Y’all with colleagues from other Southern universities. “We want to be accessible to teachers who are doing the hard, hard work of teaching.”
Sessions cover topics like culturally responsive teaching, supporting transgender students, and the school-to-prison pipeline. The series has a local focus—it’s come to small cities in the region where big national conferences generally don’t go, like Dahlonega, Ga.
“We not only want to be monetarily accessible to people, but we try to bring the series where people are,” Cordova said.
She says teachers need some choice in how they grow professionally, even as, at the same time, they all may need to have the same training around curriculum or piece of software used in classrooms.
Especially for issues like culturally responsive teaching, which aren’t always at the top of districts’ priorities lists, she said.
Students and communities need teachers who are wrestling with these questions of equity in the classroom, Cordova said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Access to Quality PD Is an Equity Issue, Teachers Say