I’ve had the privilege of working for a school district that places a high value on staff development and staff training. Many resources and a lot of time is spent on research, training, and implementation of professional development initiatives. Overall, we have a wide range of learning opportunities for teachers and staff from the optional evening book study to the required, day-long sessions prior to the school year that we lovingly call “fall workshop.” I have also been fortunate enough to be presenter in many of these development sessions over the past five years. I have presented on everything from classroom management to best teaching practices that target literacy in math to google and technology training. I try to make every session unique and recognize that my audience is comprised of professional adults. I’ll get into individual sessions in a later post. However, through all of my experience I cannot get over the fact that something is missing from the K-12 development experience in most schools. Here are the top five things that have bothered me about professional development.
As a teacher, think about the time of year when you have the most time to reflect on your practices and change or tweak things about your teaching, curriculum, or materials. My guess is that you’re thinking about summer vacation or possibly spring break. Maybe there are other breaks throughout the year between semesters. Basically any time other than when classes are currently in session. Our time is taken by planning specific lessons, creating materials, IEP meetings, or grading and paperwork. Who has time to implement big, new ideas or learn about new technology when there is a class arriving in 8 minutes.
Now think about when staff development is scheduled. For our district it is the week prior to the start of fall semester, one day during the three-day fall break, and MLK day. Fall workshop falls after I just had two months worth of time to prepare to implement the ideas presented there. Fall break and MLK day staff development occurs as I am preparing to finalize my grading and feedback for the term and am in the middle of teaching a class that has already-established routines and structures. Administrators should reexamine the scheduling of professional development (especially when technology or new ideas are being introduced) to occur prior to extended breaks with time built in for implementation.
2. The Sessions are Too Long
This should be self explanatory. Most of the information from a staff development session can be shared in half the time that is actually used. It is not uncommon to attend 3 hour sessions in our district. We all know what the research tells us about the attention span and retention over that period of time.
A better use of this time would be a quicker informational session, some Q & A, and the time given to teachers for implementation or development of their own. I have always been intrigued by the new trend of hackathons used mainly by technology firms like Google and Facebook. Employees can choose their own topic and spend time learning and developing in that area. It may look different for teachers but the innovation and productivity would be much higher than a 3 hour lecture about how to teach vocabulary.
3. Developed for the Least Common Denominator
This is a trend that I am seeing more recently and tend to happen with technology training. Any innovative or forward-thinking educator will tell you, when it comes to technology the best way to learn is by doing and experimenting. But when we plan staff development for a new piece of tech we pack as many teacher into and auditorium as we can and go step-by-step. These steps turn into: “this is how you log on,” “this is which browser you use,” and stopping every 10 minutes to help those that cannot keep up or do not have even the most basic tech skills. The worst part…THIS IS REQUIRED!
It is abundantly clear that basic tech training can be and should be optional with more advanced sessions being offered at different times with tech-savvy teachers sharing ideas and hacks that they have learned by playing and experimenting in and out of the classroom. You cannot approach 21st century skills with traditional staff development techniques.
4. No Support or Follow-up
This is a scenario in which many teacher find themselves. They spend three hours or more different sessions over a staff development day (or multiple days). They go back to their classroom or building and begin looking over their materials. If it was technology training they log on and begin experimenting. Whoops…something went wrong. They didn’t think about this scenario in their classroom and are unsure how to approach it. They have an idea and aren’t sure if it is possible or how it fits with the new idea.
The session was taught by a fellow teacher that has no experience beyond what they shared during the session or perhaps someone from another department or building. They have their own classes to prepare and cannot offer the follow-up training or support for these types of problems. If there is not a system to support the staff development after the session then the likelihood of success is very low.
5. Adults are Taught like Students
Believe it or not, adult learning differently than high school students. Adult should have different expectations than high school students. Adults should be held to a different standard. First, they are self-directed learners. An overview of information and available support is often all that is necessary. The rest is up to the adult to explore the topic and learn what they feel is relevant to their situation. This is their career. They are paid to expand and strengthen their expertise. External motivation and strict oversight is not required and may undermine the process if they do not feel like they are being treated as professionals. Second, they depend highly on the relevance factor of the information. Young learners are in school to explore many different topics and grow their requisite knowledge base to be prepare for many careers. Adults require a more focused approach with information that can be used now.
If staff development is schools is taught like an extension of the high school classroom, you are devaluing your professional employees and they will become disengaged. Some of these five items are still present in the district in which I currently preform and participate in staff development while others are slowly getting better. A school can have the best information presented by the brightest employees but it must be done in a way that makes sense to the timeline and expertise of the staff as a whole.