Special Report
Student Well-Being

What Are the Blind Spots in Teacher PD?

By Madeline Will — May 14, 2019 6 min read
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Teacher professional development is a multibillion-dollar industry that every educator will participate in over the course of his or her career.

But often, it’s a source of teacher frustration. Nearly all educators can name an example of professional development that wasn’t relevant to their work, did not inspire lasting change, or was just plain boring. And according to a 2016 Education Week Research Center and MCH Strategic Data survey of teachers, 42 percent of respondents said they have little to no influence on the professional development available to them.

To shed some light on that disconnect between what’s offered and what teachers want, Education Week reporter Madeline Will asked educators about what they saw as the biggest blind spots in professional development. They brought up a dearth of training on effective grading practices, classroom technology, and social-emotional competencies, and many expressed desires to have more personalized professional learning.

Here are some of their responses, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity:

“Unfortunately, professional development is often done to, rather than with or by teachers. It can lack continuity and be disconnected from classroom realities. The way PD is taught matters. Just as good teaching differentiates instruction, good PD is personalized to fit teacher needs. It is assessed throughout the process, and the content is continuously adjusted to fit the pulse of the group. Rather than being lecture-based, quality PD actively engages participants in learning something relevant and meaningful for them that can be directly applied to the classroom.

Ideally, curricular goals are aligned with instructional methods and assessment and then looped back into professional development in a continuous feedback loop. This needs to be an ongoing dialogue, not an event. The feedback loop is a huge blind spot, particularly when schools operate in survival mode and aren’t long-term planning their PD alongside teachers.”

—Linda Yaron, National Board-certified teacher, Los Angeles

“I’m in my second year of teaching [as a] career changer from my role as a pharmacy technician for the last decade. One major thing I have noticed is the lack of investment in training teachers on technology. For example, I’ve never received training (not even during my preservice requirements) on how to use my smartboard.

Another example: Our district has licenses for apps and software, but most staff aren’t aware that we have access to them. And the technology we are aware of, we aren’t properly trained on how to use it.”

—David Kaler, high school business teacher, Halifax, Pa.

“One big blind spot for PD is around the social-emotional learning of teachers—our own EQ [i.e., emotional quotient] and skills in handling our emotions and stress, which is actually such a huge part of the job and our impact on students.

I think principals might feel hesitant to address this topic in PD, because it might not seem to have a direct impact on student achievement, but I think that’s a false assumption. ... Without an emotionally mature—or really quite enlightened—person leading the group of students, seemingly sound methods can fall flat.”

—Ariel Sacks, 7th and 8th grade English/language arts teacher, Jackson Heights, N.Y., and an edweek.org columnist

"[Blind spots for PD include learning] to support colleagues who are struggling with depression, anger, multiple jobs, or addiction. How do we reach peers who have personal trauma?

[Also, learning] strategies for dealing with angry students. Trauma is multifaceted, but helping teachers recognize how to help students self-regulate and practice mindfulness are important skills and allow teachers to respond without creating power struggles in the classroom.”

—Marcia Powell, gifted facilitator for grades 5-12, Oelwein, Iowa

“We seem to take a long time in our education system to realize that what’s good for kids is often good for adults. Example: We know that differentiation is important for students based on their academic abilities and interests. Yet PD for teachers is so often one-size-fits-all. A first-year teacher, 10th-year teacher, and P.E. coach are often sitting through the same trainings at weekly faculty meetings or even during professional learning communities.

I’d love to see us build systems of PD that are shaped to teachers’ abilities, needs, and interests, with space for teachers who may want to teach for 30 years and continue improving every single year.”

—Justin Minkel, 1st and 2nd grade teacher, Springdale, Ark., and an edweek.org columnist

“Teachers struggle with time management—both for their students and in their personal lives as well. Within our classrooms, there is such a focus on pushing content as much as possible that we often forget how important it is to give kids time and space to work on homework or projects as a way to lead to real inquiry. ... Best practice for this, though, does ask teachers to implement benchmarks and reflection for students on their process, so providing training and example structures on this would be important.

Teachers also need support managing their own personal time, particularly when it comes to classroom work and grading. This means best practices for grading large assignments—the paper pile-up that secondary English teachers deal with as far as essays is ridiculous—as well as when and how to grade. Learning that you don’t need to, for example, grade every exit ticket, or focusing on only one aspect of an assignment are key tricks that can help make our work feel more manageable and intentional, but [it] isn’t talked about as often as it should be.”

—Christina Torres, 8th grade English teacher, Honolulu, and an edweek.org opinion blogger

“Much of the professional development that focuses on 21st-century skills, jobs of the future, design thinking, and project-based learning has a common flaw: Most teachers don’t get to work in the ways we’re supposed to help students work.

Too few teachers are entrusted with opportunities to brainstorm, experiment, fail, redesign, collaborate, et cetera, but it’s trendy to move classrooms and schools in that direction. I think the irony is lost on many PD consultants and administrators when they tell us how to foster creativity instead of fostering our creativity.”

—David B. Cohen, high school English teacher, Palo Alto, Calif.

“Trauma-informed pedagogy should be a PD priority for schools that serve students who experience high levels of stress outside (and inside) their school building. It’s about creating an environment that acknowledges students’ traumas (current and/or historical) and provides support or interventions when necessary. ...

Due to the delicate nature of these interactions, teachers need specialized training if they’re frequently interacting with a high-stress population of students. As a teaching community, we are growing more familiar with social-emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching, but trauma-informed pedagogy builds upon both of these and can be worked into daily classroom interactions as well as the curriculum. We must first concentrate on resolving students’ anxieties and emotional needs before we can truly have a healthy classroom environment where students are engaged productively in their learning.”

—Hannah Hollins, high school English teacher, District of Columbia

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Takes: PD Blind Spots

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