Pitfalls of Professional Development, Part 2

[Link to Part 1]

In part 1, we took a look at four different pitfalls of professional development. Professional development, as it is currently presented, can have many fallbacks and failures. By exploring some of the pitfalls, educators can take a look at not only how they perceive professional development, but how professional development is perceived in the district as a whole. Without further ado, here are four more pitfalls of professional development!

Pitfall #5: Material learned in professional development sessions is not used outside of the session

Throughout the year, teachers will attend many professional development sessions. As always, some are good, and some are not so good. During the session, teachers will be blasted with a lot of information, and if they’re lucky there will be some kind of handout or website to use in addition to any notes that were taken. The problem is that after the session, the notes and materials often get shoved aside and forgotten, or even tossed into the trash. The teacher doesn’t plan to utilize the new knowledge in their everyday profession. In some cases, this may be because the session was bad overall. However, if the teacher is doing this with every session attended, then there’s a problem.

I’ll be the first to admit I did this all the time when I first started teaching, so I’m just as guilty as anyone else. Over time as I learned to manage my teaching better, I tried picking better staff development sessions. It was no longer just picking a session to get the hours, but picking one that would benefit my classroom and my students. I’ve now gotten to the point that I am at least able to reflect on my notes and the tool, and share it with any teachers who may also benefit.

Some good ways for educators to practice bringing their professional development back into the classroom are to become active participants and note takers. I always jot down notes now so that I can update my blog with what I’ve learned. Participants can use notes to help them integrate the new professional development into their classroom, begin planning ways to integrate it, or to pass the knowledge on to other colleagues who may
also benefit.

Pitfall #6: One size fits all professional development

How many of you reading this have ever been to a required session by the district where every teacher, no matter the grade band or subject area, was told to attend? I’m sure there were teachers who felt that the session was not beneficial, whether it was because the group was so large, the information meant more for a certain level or subject, or something else. If our teaching is to be based upon our own students’ needs, motivators, and engagement, then why not staff development for educators? Of course, the district wants to get their money’s worth, so if they only have a key speaker for a day, then chances are they’re going to make sure as many people as possible are exposed.

However, cramming an entire district staff into an auditorium and not considering the needs of the staff can be less than be beneficial, for many reasons. First of all, with such a large group, it can be hard to ask the presenter questions and hear answers. With so many staff, there’s a high chance that many won’t want to be there or the training isn’t geared toward them, and will not be listening to the presentation anyway. The presenter may have geared the majority of their presentation to a particular group, and may not have examples or relevant content for all grade levels.

Professional development runs more smoothly and has more of a positive impact when it is tailored to the needs of the group receiving it. Administrators and district folks who schedule professional development should talk to the staff and receive their feedback on what they need, and their suggestions to meet that goal. Consider who really needs to receive a particular professional development session, and move forward from there. If the session is truly going to be most helpful for middle school teachers, don’t force the elementary school teachers to attend as well. It’s not always going to be the most cost-effective, but if that is one of the main reasons for have the session in the first place, is the session truly meeting the needs of staff?

Pitfall #7: Learning is measured by seat time

As long as I show up for the session on time, stay the entire session, and act like I’m listening with minimal participation, I’ll receive my hours for professional development. I don’t even have to go back to my school and show that I’ve learned anything or use it in my classroom. The person next to me who not only stays, but actively participates, jots down notes, and then goes back to their school to share with other staff will also receive their professional development hours. Which person truly deserves to receive the hours though?

Professional development has always been structured this way. There are sometimes opportunities to go above and beyond, but these are often dangled as a reward, such as if you attend a conference and do so much work on the sessions you attend and turn all of that in, you’ll receive graduate credit. The motivator though is just to get the graduate credit, and the person still may not care about what they learned in a session, as long as they can remember what it was about.

This one is a bit trickier to change. If every professional development session required the work mentioned in the first paragraph of this section, then chances are even less people would attend. However, if staff were required to pick a few different sessions from the year and be able to demonstrate that the sessions helped them grow as an educator via evaluations, then it would be a bit better. Staff are less likely to choose staff development just because they need the hours, and the work from the sessions will benefit the schools. Of course, in order to do this, school districts that use Opening Day as a way for staff to get most of their hours would have to change things up.

Pitfall #8: Professional development is a one-time experience

In most cases professional development is a one and done deal. Granted, in some cases it is hard for professional development sessions to be more than that. If I travel to a conference or go to listen to a speaker, there’s a large chance that I won’t be able to follow up with those people, and will have to seek ideas on my own. In many cases, however, professional development is a one-time session. Go to it, learn, and then do your best to implement everything based on the one session alone.

Just as we shouldn’t expect students to fully understand and implement a concept the first time around, we also shouldn’t expect teachers to know and understand a topic the very first time. The entire session has bundles of information tossed at the participants, and it can be overwhelming just to keep up and take notes. Teachers need follow up sessions to help guide them through the rough spots. They won’t remember every little detail, or be able to execute any teaching strategy perfectly. It helps to have the opportunity to follow up and receive more information, clarification, or help in a struggling area.

There are a few different ways to follow up on professional development sessions. If possible, ask the presenter to give follow-up sessions on their topic. Make sure the presenter knows the needs of the group so that he or she can prepare appropriately. If getting the presenter in person is an issue, try to connect with them via email or video chat. They may have more materials or resources to willingly share on their topic. If multiple staff members attended the same professional development, then getting together as a group and discussing the topic, how to make any changes, or bouncing ideas off of each other can do a world of good. If all else fails, teachers can try to find other similar sessions being offered and bring their questions to the session.

Thus, we’ve now looked at 8 different pitfalls of professional development. These are not the only ones, and there certainly are more out there. Have you encountered a pitfall? Let me know, and perhaps there will be a part 3 to this in the future!

Pitfalls of Professional Development, Part 1

Professional development is something every teacher is familiar with- every year staff find themselves required to get so many hours of professional development. Every district is different with the amount of hours that is required. My district, for example, requires 18 hours of professional development every school year. Staff can attend district professional development (required or not), submit certificates from trainings or outside professional development sessions, provide proof of attending a conference, take a graduate course, etc. Many options exist, and teachers have the entire year to collect their 18 hours. If a staff member fails to collect 18 hours before the year ends, they are required to attend sessions at the board office during the final days of teacher clean up before summer. I’m actually not sure what happens to a staff member if they fail to meet this requirement.

As I’ve gained experience in the education field, I’ve noticed a few “pitfalls”, so to speak, when it comes to professional development. In my opinion, these pitfalls hold professional development back and can keep it from being meaningful. They can make professional development just “another required thing”, and something educators dread attending. And of course, having a set requirement of hours is nice, but it can also give others the false comfort of thinking that once the required hours are in, then they don’t have to do anymore professional development the rest of the year.

Let’s take a look at some of the pitfalls featured in professional development across the landscape. Some of these may occur more often than others. Many of the pitfalls, if not all, I’ve experienced firsthand.

Pitfall #1: Opening Day/s presentations and meetings count toward required professional development

Every year, our staff are required to attend the opening days sessions. Day 1 is at the high school. It includes opening statements from the superintendent and the teacher of the year. Typically, a guest speaker has been brought in to talk on a particular topic. Usually the talk lasts about 2 hours or so before we are all given a break for lunch. After lunch, it’s meetings with our assigned schools to go over the usual beginning of the year items. These last all afternoon. The next day is much of the same: meetings with the assigned school all day, including faculty senate. Sometimes different departments from the board office come in to review topics or update staff with new information. If teachers are lucky, they might have some time to work on setting up their classroom.

While the information provided during these sessions is beneficial and very necessary, it shouldn’t count as professional development. How does this information help educators grow? Is it presented to a targeted group? What have the staff learned that they can take back to their classrooms and use to help their students grow? Sure, some of the sessions might be worthwhile professional development, but not every single session. And yet, my district gives every staff member who attends 12 hours of professional development.

Yes, the opening session information is necessary and required. It needs to be in order to make the school year successful for the district. However, just because the sessions are required does not mean it should be counted as professional development.

Pitfall #2: The belief that once the required hours are met, no more professional development is needed

It’s probably been heard before: the staff member who sighs with relief because they’ve finally met the last of their required professional development hours for the entire year. For some, this occurs at the beginning of the year. Others, near the middle, and still some not until the end of the school year. Regardless of when it’s said, the person doesn’t seek out other sessions. If they waited until the end of the year, chances are that some of the professional development they attended wasn’t even something they were interested in. They only went to complete the remaining hours.

Professional development is a never-ending process. Professional development is part of being a lifelong learner and having a growth mindset. One should always seek out opportunities to learn something new to better themselves as an educator. Educators should never stop learning because we’ll never learn everything there is to know. Professional development spread out over the course of the year helps to encourage educators to continue to better themselves and their teaching methods. Administration should also encourage staff to attend professional development throughout the year. This can be done through meetings, or by sending emails to staff who might be interested in certain professional development topics.

Pitfall #3: Lack of staff designing their own professional development to present

There’s a belief that floats around that only experts should be the ones to present staff development. Some staff feel as though they aren’t knowledgeable enough in anything to create staff development. Others wonder how they could fill an hour’s time with enough information. Then there are those who prefer to leave it to the professionals. Whatever the reason, it’s clear to see that there’s very little variety on the staff development website when it comes to presenters. Chances are, the same presenters are almost always listed.
While these are most likely great people, they aren’t the only voices in the school.

It’s time for other educators to take a stand and share their knowledge. It can be nerve-wracking the first time one stands up in front of a large group to do a presentation. It’s the same way that many students feel their very first time. However, we all must start somewhere. Educators may find it easier to start small and present with their PLCs or their grade level teams. From there, they could move on to presenting in front of groups from all over the district. I don’t know how many times I’ve come across an educator who is very knowledgeable on a topic and hasn’t shared that with anyone. Teachers hold valuable information that can benefit their fellow colleagues. Presenting a professional development session allows them to get that information to others and benefits the growth of the school community bond.

Pitfall #4: District fails to provide options for professional development throughout the year

I’m not sure how many others have experienced this, but I have seen it each year in my current district. When the year first begins, there are a multitude of options for professional development. Different topics across subjects and grade bands can be found, and there’s something for most staff out there. However, once late fall hits, options for staff development trickles down to nearly nothing. Once second semester starts, good luck finding any options in the district to attend.

Part of this pitfall does fall back on staff, and goes back to #3 above. Staff have a multitude of knowledge, and should be encouraged to share and present that knowledge. Administration should encourage staff from their schools to try to host a professional development session. Not only will it assist staff in the district, but it also helps the presenting staff to see how others learn about the topic and how to tweak it to improve for next time. If each school had at least 2 sessions presented during the course of the year,
think of the difference it could make.

The other part of this pitfall does fall back on administration, not only at the school level, but also at the board office. Part of the vision for staff should be continuous growth and development of the educator, continuous being the keyword. The superintendent, for example, might model this for the staff of the district by hosting professional development for all of the administration at each school. These would be different than the monthly meetings principals may already attend. By modeling, the superintendent
would set the idea in place that yes, professional development is important and should be occurring throughout the year.

So far, we’ve only looked at four different pitfalls of professional development. Of course, these aren’t the only pitfalls. There are still more to come in a future blog update. Stay tuned for Part 2!