What was happening in the United States the year you started teaching?
For me, the year was 2002. The first cellphone with a camera was released. The iPod could hold a whopping 20 gigabytes. And we were introduced to our very first American Idol. Can you imagine? Prior to that year, there was no feasible way to take 21 gigs worth of selfies with Kelly Clarkson. Ack!
All joking aside, I know what you’re thinking. “So what? What does this have to do with me and education?” Well, if you take a deeper dive into all that has changed since the very first year you entered the profession, you’ll realize that the world, our culture, and the children who inhabit it have changed dramatically.
Just take a look at a basic timeline of the history of U.S. education. You can see a snapshot of some pretty significant changes to education even within the last few decades: the rise of personal computers, the shift from card catalogs to Google, No Child Left Behind and its well-intentioned ideology that fell flat in practice, and the impact of the Common Core State Standards.
We work in an environment directly affected by ever-evolving sociopolitical and cultural change—change that happens regardless of whether we adapt, too. And when we think about all that has changed since our first years teaching, we must also think about how we have adapted our own professional practice to best serve our students.
Our young students deserve teachers who have access to a means of professional growth. Because of the unyielding momentum of change in education, it is imperative that all districts provide their educators with professional development that is timely, purposeful, and progressive.
Want to Increase Student Outcomes? Increase Teacher Quality
In any industry, including education, the notion that one must develop his or her craft over time in order to maintain a competitive level of achievement is far from revolutionary. While school districts must efficiently allocate funds to ensure the success of students, not a single other factor has a greater impact on student growth than teacher quality.
This is no secret to anyone involved in education, which is why most states have specific recertification requirements up to and including documenting professional growth. Illinois requires teachers to log 120 hours of continuing education every five years. And research indicates time and again that the key to retaining high-quality teachers is through quality support and leadership.
When districts focus on providing meaningful professional-learning opportunities, teachers will not only remain in the profession, but also maintain a high level of job satisfaction because they feel supported by their administration. Teachers seek out support that will help them build success in the classroom. And success in the classroom means increasing student outcomes.
While it may seem like a chicken or egg proposition, it really boils down to the need for sustainable, incentivized professional growth to support a teacher’s development throughout his or her entire career.
PD When It’s Needed Most
Want to maximize professional-development opportunities? Provide specific content that suits teachers’ most pressing needs—when they need it most. In order to ensure relevancy, teachers must be able to use the new insights they’ve gained right away. We’ve all been to those summer conferences where, despite our best efforts, we misplace or forget that fantastic strategy or idea. Districts face the challenge of having to know not only what is most useful for their teachers to learn, but also when to offer the content. For this reason, teachers must be an integral part of the planning process when it comes to developing and delivering professional development.
One strategy is to build a team of teachers who represent all disciplines within a school: a math-teacher leader, an English/language-arts-teacher leader, an art-teacher leader, etc. Those representatives can seek out the challenges facing each of the teachers within their respective departments. Perhaps it’s student-engagement techniques or diversifying content-specific instructional strategies. Either way, the next important step is determining when that support is most needed. For example, maybe there’s a common agreement that teachers struggle most with student engagement right before a long break. So professional development about keeping kids engaged might be important around December and March.
Timeliness for PD matters not only throughout the year, but throughout a teacher’s career. As co-coordinators for our new educator induction program, my colleague and I have learned over the years that the kind of support we provide our nontenured educators is important, but that when we provide it makes all the difference. For example, we learned that professional development on implementing technology into a lesson plan is more useful for our second- or third-year teachers, whereas first-year teachers require more support with classroom management. Both kinds of support are, of course, integral, but the timeliness determines how relevant it is to the teachers engaging in that learning.
Answering the ‘Why’
The purpose for learning is as important as the learning itself. As teachers, when it comes to professional learning, we are quick to ask “why.” Most teachers do not intend to suggest they do not need the PD, they just want to know how the content or skill fits their professional needs. It’s a fair question—one that district leaders or presenters of PD must be deliberate in answering. Chances are they have an answer, but it just might get lost in translation.
Here’s a simple analogy. As teachers, we know exactly why we’re teaching the lessons we teach to our students. But do our students know? It’s one of those things that gets taken for granted. If you need a quick test, ask your students what you did in class yesterday and why they’re learning it. In fairness, kids occasionally forget, but we can help them remember. When students know exactly how the work they’re engaging in at the moment connects to a bigger concept or idea, then they’re more apt to find that current work useful and meaningful. The same is true of teachers when they learn.
When professional development is purposeful, chances are it will generate a desire to continue learning because teachers find inherent value. This notion of learning that leads to learning is what makes the professional development progressive.
Progressive Pays Dividends
In our district, professional-development time is sacred because the formal learning occurs only once a month. So the best PD is the kind that encourages further self-guided learning. In other words, if the learning ends as soon as you walk out the door, then it was not well-invested time or content. If you’re not sure whether it’s progressive, ask yourself these two questions: Will the learning lead to additional strategies that will make my professional life or my students’ academic lives easier? Will it lead to additional ways to increase student outcomes?
When the answer is “yes” to either or both of those questions, teachers are more likely to continue their learning. The key to the question is “additional.” Perhaps a district offers PD that could increase student outcomes, but is the strategy “one and done"—as in, can that tool be used in one particular way and then nothing else? Those are the kinds of PD sessions that teachers tend to see as the latest initiative to come and go.
Here’s an example. I provide district professional development on Google Applications for Educators, including Google Drive, Docs, Chrome, etc. While teachers come in with a range of knowledge, the majority are unfamiliar with the basic functionality of the productivity suite. In any case, the professional development does not focus on “how to.” If the PD sounded like this: “Here’s how to open a new doc. Here’s how to save sites on Chrome. Here’s how to add a question to forms. Here’s how to ...,” then yes, teachers might know how the applications function, but the learning would end there. In part, there’s no purpose, but there’s also no impetus to continue the learning.
Instead, I demonstrate the functionality through application. Google Forms is a perfect means of formative assessment. Or perhaps I show the “favorite and folder” features of Google Chrome as a place to curate resources and activities. If a teacher knows how to use forms for formative assessments, maybe they might be more inclined to look into additional ways to leverage the tool. When they can manage and organize their own content through Chrome, perhaps they’d be more likely to use that resource a colleague sent three months ago. In either case, the learning is continuous.
And that’s the key. Continuing education is supposed to be just that—continuous. If professional development exists in a box, we’re likely to just check it off and move on. States are doing their jobs by requiring continuous learning for relicensure, but it is up to school and district leaders to ensure that the learning is authentic.
The conditions for continuous learning exist because teachers are inherent learners; they crave knowledge gained through meaningful learning experiences. Districts can offer the kind of meaningful professional learning teachers deserve by ensuring that it’s timely, purposeful, and progressive. By doing so, it will make teachers’ professional lives easier, and it will positively affect student outcomes.
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.