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The Dos and Don'ts of Professional Development

teacher professional development

We’ve all been there. It’s the last week of the marking period and suddenly, everything has taken on a sense of urgency. Papers that are still ungraded sit in piles, students rush to make up missed work, and teachers do their best to close out one unit of learning while simultaneously planning for the next. To say the least, life is a little bit hectic.

And then, just when everyone feels pushed to the brink, teachers are summoned to a meeting after school to engage in professional development. Never mind that the timing is less than ideal, and that pleas to postpone have proven futile. Even more upsetting, the topic of the training comes completely out of left field, something that no teacher in the building has expressed an interest in learning. However, school leaders have decided that it’s necessary, and that it must happen immediately.

The scenario above is fairly common, and it’s almost always a surefire recipe for disaster. As a result of what I call the “empathy gap” between administrators in the front office and teachers in classrooms, the implementation of in-house professional learning is often misapplied, which results in broad resentment. Leaders may see teachers as uncooperative and unengaged in the learning while teachers shake their heads at training plans that seem irrelevant to the true needs of their daily work. Without better communication and some adjustment to strategy, professional development is doomed to fail. However, by keeping just three important questions in mind, administrators can change the narrative around how teachers receive opportunities for growth.

Is this the right time?

Ideally, the best time for professional development is during the summer when people are not completely overburdened with work, but there is still a need to provide training throughout the school year. To figure out if teachers are in the right mindset to receive PD, administrators should consider the role of the calendar. Are grades due anytime soon? Have there been a lot of interruptions to instruction, like pep rallies or assemblies? Is this a time of year when people tend to be distracted, like the holiday season or the week before or after a break? If the answer to any of these questions (or questions in the same vein) is “yes,” then it’s not the best time for professional learning to take place. Any learning that feels urgent to leaders might not feel the same way to teachers, and that dissonance must be explored thoughtfully before making the decision to disturb people at the wrong time. At the end of the day, it is mutually beneficial for school leaders to pick the most ideal time to train teachers. That way, everyone will be far readier to dig in and explore the ideas that are presented. 

How relevant is this PD?

It is not unusual for administrators to swear up and down that a particular instructional focus is exactly what teachers need, while the teachers find that same focus to be off the mark. Regardless of who is correct, the relevance of any PD will be held in question if the expressed need for a particular topic of focus is not grounded in strong data. Too often, leaders decide that a gap in expertise exists based on limited anecdotal data that comes from a relatively small number of classroom observations. For example, an administrator may visit a few classrooms, note that students are not engaging in enough active learning, and decide that the problem exists throughout the building. However, it’s also entirely possible that this pattern is a limited one, and that plenty of teachers are practicing the desired state of instruction already. If a broadly designed PD is applied to everyone, those who do not need this training will find it irrelevant, and they will resent engaging in what feels like a waste of time.

Have we picked the right experts? 

It is standard for schools to decide that when a training need exists, the best thing to do is bring in outside experts to visit the building and share their knowledge. However, this strategy backfires frequently for several reasons. For one thing, any unfamiliar face is (at first, anyway) not considered trustworthy, and suspicions are only affirmed if an outsider comes in, conducts training, and then leaves without any follow up or subsequent shoulder-to-shoulder work with staff. In addition, there are often plenty of experts within the building who can help train their colleagues with more rapport and a better knowledge of their school’s climate and culture. Ultimately, it behooves administrators to consider whether the best of both possible worlds is to bring in outside consultants to collaborate with in-house experts for a joint facilitation that includes multiple perspectives and skill sets.

Creating ideal conditions for professional development may not be easy, but it is an entirely doable proposition if administrators tune in more fully to the messages teachers send about their learning goals. Even better, explicitly asking for teacher feedback on a regular basis is a far better way to ascertain where interests lie, which is a far more transparent and productive strategy than hypothesizing about what people need behind closed doors. To create a school community that genuinely values the process of professional development, a strong communicative process between teachers and leaders will help ensure satisfactory results.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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