Professional Development Opinion

What This Former Administrator Wishes She Had Known About Teacher PD

The wrong kind of professional development can hold teachers back
By Renee Gugel — August 01, 2023 4 min read
Image of teachers walking away from school, each has a different form of PD icon superimposed before their face.
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Just five short years ago, I was an administrator in charge of professional development for my high school. But now, after teaching teacher leadership full time at the university level, my wish is that I could travel back in time and have a very important conversation with myself. The reason? I have now worked with and learned from hundreds of teachers who are more than willing to tell it like it is.

Think back to your first year of leadership and what you might tell yourself if given the opportunity; that’s what teaching graduate-level education has done for me. Boy, what I would have done differently with my professional development plans in 2018 if I knew then what I know now.

I regularly teach a course called Leading Teacher Development and Student Learning, and in this course, we discuss all things PD. Graduate students are honest. Brutally honest.

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

When I left my 20-year service in the public school system, I was afraid that I would somehow feel disconnected from the “real world” of education. Exactly the opposite has happened. Instead of having a perspective informed by the three districts I personally worked in, I now see PD in action in hundreds of schools. I have in-depth conversations with teachers about their experiences and, yes, how well they feel their administrators are doing their jobs.

This can be cringeworthy for me when they vent about the very things I was doing as I planned professional development for my building. I’d like to use this opportunity to share with you what they have shared with me.

Teachers want to grow. Most of them want to collaborate. And oftentimes, what we are doing (inadvertently) as we plan professional development is holding them back—exactly the opposite of what we’re intending to do.

In my class, we start the term with a deep reflection on the PD process in each teacher’s school. We share the processes with one another and we talk about what is working and what needs improvement in our buildings. Then, each teacher puts together a survey to gather information from teachers at their schools to better understand the big picture of how teachers feel about PD.

When we come back together as a group to analyze their survey results, we find that regardless of size, location, economics, or any other demographics, the results are strikingly similar. As instructional-coaching researcher Jim Knight articulated more than a decade ago in Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction (ASCD, 2011), teachers feel that PD is something that is done to them, not with them. It really is that simple.

In every class I teach, most of the teachers surveyed say that the majority of their professional development comes from the top down, and they have little or no involvement in the process. They understand, of course, that sometimes PD needs to be universal and involves information that all teachers need to learn as a large group. But when every single PD session falls into that category, they feel as if they don’t matter as individuals, that their unique abilities are not being respected. In short, they want their voices to be heard as PD is developed. They want to be a part of the process.

Next, teachers want PD that is customized to their content and their needs. In our surveys, teachers overwhelmingly share that they are “forced” to sit through PD that doesn’t apply to them.

In every class, there is always at least one teacher who works at a school with amazing professional development. It is eye-opening to hear their classmates ooh and ahh over their experiences. Teachers are longing for PD that is meaningful to them, and they are jealous when they hear about teachers who are getting those experiences. (Yes, “jealous.” Their word.)

To summarize, teachers want voice and choice—exactly the same things we make sure our students in our classrooms are receiving. Yet, somehow, we often fail to give those same options to our teachers. What’s interesting, too, is that many leaders I speak with know their PD may not be as meaningful for teachers as it could be. But when institute days and PD opportunities sort of sneak up on us along with the millions of other things we’re responsible for, it’s easy to see why PD ends up being something we do to teachers instead of with them.

So what’s a school leader to do? Here’s what the teacher-leaders I have taught recommend:

  1. Ask them. Every school year, send teachers a survey asking them what their PD needs are and, as difficult as it may be to hear, what has and has not worked for them in the current system.
  2. Be transparent. Share the results of the survey with your staff. This may take some vulnerability on your part as some of the results and comments may be negative, but transparency is key.
  3. Form a professional development team. Give teachers the opportunity to be a part of the team that builds and designs PD. Plan your PD calendar for the upcoming school year with your team, using the survey results as a guide.
  4. Think in percentages. The majority of PD should be customized for teachers and allow for choice in learning opportunities. If this is new, aim for 51 percent and grow from there.

As you share with teachers their survey results and the collaborative plan for the upcoming year based on those results, the culture in your building will begin to shift immediately. They will recognize their own words in the results and will see a plan that has taken their ideas and their unique needs into consideration. And most importantly, they will see you being vulnerable as you listen to their suggestions and make real and meaningful changes from past practices.

As leaders, we must make the planning of meaningful, high-quality PD a top priority. Your teachers are longing for it; just ask them.

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