For most occupations, routine continuing education is necessary to keep current with new and changing policies, procedures, and technologies and is critical to job expertise and career advancement. Why is it, then, that educators too often view professional development (PD) opportunities with a touch of dread and angst? From our conversations with teachers, we know these feelings are often rooted in concern about the relevancy of the PD and a lack of time to apply what’s been learned. In this post we offer a few suggestions for PD planners to address those challenges, based on our experiences working in schools and districts.
As mentioned in a previous blogpost, PD sessions ideally should be spread across the entire school year, giving teachers time to absorb the material and integrate what they are learning into their classrooms in a more meaningful way.
We also know that developing positive and open classroom environments helps students learn. Setting these same standards for teachers’ PD encourages a more meaningful and engaging adult learning experience, helping teachers feel more comfortable with sharing ideas, less anxious when struggling with new concepts, and at ease in acknowledging what they don’t know.
Building relationships and developing trust between the PD leader, teachers, and administrators is key, especially when multiple PD sessions will occur throughout the year. Begin developing those relationships prior to the first session by planning one-on-one meetings with each key stakeholder in the building or by scheduling an all-staff meeting. Encourage building administrators to attend the PD sessions to demonstrate that the learning is a priority and that teachers will be supported as they learn and apply their new skills in the classroom.
Consider these strategies for setting a positive tone in PD sessions:
- Elicit teachers’ strengths and expertise by asking what they already know about the subject.
- Encourage teachers to consider new ideas on the subject. Very few people know everything there is to know about a subject; keeping an open mind is essential to trying out new ideas and strategies.
- Ask teachers what is important to them as learners and as program participants.
- Ask teachers what concerns they have about the PD program. Even if there are factors out of a PD leaders’ control, at least teachers will know their concerns have been acknowledged.
We used these key strategies when piloting and field testing McREL’s mathematics formative assessment program, the Assessment Work Sample Method (AWSM). Middle school teachers attended twelve 45-minute sessions throughout the school year that were embedded in the school day. Over the course of the AWSM pilot, PD leaders developed a sense of trust and openness with teachers by taking time to build relationships and inviting administrators to attend sessions. Teachers shared their thoughts and concerns, related what they knew about formative assessment, shared strategies they used in their classrooms, and considered new ideas about formative assessment.
Developing a positive learning environment does not happen in one session—making time for these conversations throughout the year will further strengthen the trust and openness that are key to an engaging and meaningful PD experience for teachers.