Special Report
School & District Management

When the PD Plate Is Overfull

By Evie Blad — May 14, 2019 6 min read

Kristen Record, a physics teacher from Stratford, Conn., wanted to spend her professional development time collaborating with other science teachers on implementing the new standards, creating lab projects, and thinking through approaches to social-emotional learning.

Instead, at a professional learning day a few years ago, she sat through lengthy PowerPoint presentations on a range of topics like suicide prevention, reading strategies, and drug awareness.

Much of it was required to fulfill state mandates for teacher training, passed by lawmakers over the years. All of the topics were important, Record said, but not all of the training was meaningful, and not all of it felt essential to her work.

For instance, a school safety presentation included details on where a helicopter would land on campus in the event of an emergency, Record recalled. She saw no need for every teacher and staff member to learn those kinds of details that would likely be handled by a team of administrators.

“The opportunity to dig deep into topics of direct interest to me and my students gets curtailed when the statutory requirements become burdensome,” she said.

As schools work to confront the non-academic factors that can stifle students’ chances at success, teachers around the country must also comply with a growing list of training requirements.

Those requirements—often mandates by state legislatures or district administration—call for professional development about everything from responding to signs of sexual assault and stopping bleeding in emergency situations, to recognizing warning signs of human trafficking.

At the same time, schools are facing urgent calls to address academic issues—like rethinking reading instruction, implementing new learning standards, and tackling the achievement gap—that all require training time as well. “It’s kind of like you have a plate that’s filled with food, and all of the food is good for you,” said Kate Field, a teacher development specialist for the Connecticut Education Association. “But no one is looking at how not all of the food goes together, and the plate is getting more and more heaped and more and more unwieldy.”

Fields was involved with an effort to scale back Connecticut’s teacher professional development requirements, which some administrators had called unwieldy.

The effort was conceived by an unlikely alliance of groups—teachers’ unions, the state’s department of education, lawmakers, and organizations representing school boards and district leadership. All agreed: The state’s statutory teacher-training requirements, while well-intentioned, could be streamlined.

Connecticut administrators estimated it would take 90 hours to adequately train teachers on a list of state-required topics—everything from sexual abuse awareness and food allergies to identifying safety threats and adolescent risk-taking behaviors.

Most districts only had 19 or 20 hours of professional learning time in their schedules, and that left many out of compliance with state requirements or rushing through a list of topics to keep up, said Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. Some also complained that they didn’t have the resources to provide meaningful training on some issues.

So in 2016, the coalition worked with the state’s legislature to create a task force charged with making recommendations to amend state laws and clean up the requirements.

Among their recommendations: Some annual training requirements could be taught less frequently, some could be targeted at smaller groups of employees, and some could be combined.

The group also proposed eliminating some statutory requirements and giving districts a year to adopt future requirements.

Connecticut lawmakers largely adopted those recommendations, but they turned down a plan to create a review board of teachers, union representatives, and education groups that would give feedback on any future proposals for new training mandates.

A Cohesive Approach

Doreen Merrill, an elementary special education teacher in Woodbridge, said she hopes the changes give schools and teachers more choices in what they learn.

Merrill has seen the evolution of professional development and in-service training in her 38 years as an educator. “Back in 1980 when I first started, it was more curricular types of things,” she said. “No one talked about trauma in children, and no one talked about suicide prevention.”

Increased flexibility will allow schools to give their teachers in-depth training on issues like student trauma, which some urgently need, Merrill said.

Field agreed. Issues like cultural competency, implicit bias, suicide prevention, and trauma can all have connecting threads that are difficult to recognize when they are treated as discrete issues, she said, and teachers crave time to compare notes on those issues and have practical discussions, rather than absorbing presentations.

“When you’re talking about teaching the whole child, teachers want that space,” Field said. “The best work that came out of our task force was creating that space that allows a more cohesive approach.”

Done right, professional development on issues like student trauma takes time and resources, teachers around the country said.

For example, teachers at Nashville’s John Overton High School spent a day learning about research on adverse childhood experiences, which examines how events like parental incarceration and exposure to violence can affect students’ learning and brain development, teacher Meredith McGinnis said. Of the school’s 2,000 students, 39 percent are refugees or immigrants who’ve experienced family separation, interruptions to their education, and violence. Research shows that such experiences can interfere with learning and drive up levels of the stress hormone cortisol, essentially putting students in a perpetual state of fight or flight.

At the training, Overton teachers dug into those studies, learning how to identify the effects of trauma, and reviewed sample student profiles to determine how their out-of-school experiences may affect their behavior in the classroom, McGinnis said. Among the strategies she’s adopted since then: Celebrating small, incremental victories for students who may feel defeated by the difficulties they’ve lived through. For one student, success may be getting an A on a paper. For another, it may be bringing up a test score by a few points.

“I try to show them new patterns of success where before they were just seeing difficulties,” she said. “You’ve got to make the small things big for them because the world seems so huge. Their experiences have been so defining for them.”

That training was much more meaningful to McGinnis than an annual suicide-prevention training, which she completed by flipping through a computer module and taking an online test, she said. It’s not that the issue isn’t important to her; it’s that the training has become sort of rote.

The Connecticut task force hopes its work will make way for less cookie-cutter professional development and more meaningful conversations between educators, like the work the teachers in Nashville did.

“Every time an issue arises or a tragedy occurs, it focuses the attention on that issue, and the legislature wants to be responsive,” McCarthy said. “They want to say, ‘Of course we need to make sure our educators have these skills so that they can help support students.’ But if we’re adding one [requirement], is there anything else that can be taken away?”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2019 edition of Education Week as When the PD Plate Is Overfull

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