Making Professional Development a Priority in Schools

Professional development

The terms conference, seminar or workshop can fill an educator with excitement. This is an opportunity to learn something new, collaborate with colleagues or listen to a well-respected educational author.

At the same time, these terms can fill an educator with dread. This is an opportunity to lose valuable classroom time, listen to information that isn’t relevant to them or fall asleep at the back of an auditorium.

Classifying professional development

Professional development can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Thomas Guskey, an educational reformist and University of Kentucky professor, recognizes professional development as the key to meeting the educational demands that confront teachers. “One constant finding in the research literature is that notable improvements in education almost never take place in the absence of professional development,” he wrote.

Teaching is a complex job that requires constant development of skills to ensure that students are ready for college and career. A solid background of continuous professional training can help fill in the gaps regarding current progress in subject-area content, use of technology, changes in laws and student learning needs. This content cannot be attained in the classroom.

No money, no training?

Teachers may feel like they don’t have the opportunity to gain valuable professional development because their school or district lacks the funding to send them to high-priced trainings.

What we fail to recognize is that some of the very best learning opportunities can be found in neighboring classrooms. Informal professional development, such as observing a colleague’s classroom discipline procedures, collaborating vertically with subject-area teams, or local faculty book study groups can offer a wealth of support and knowledge at a minimal cost. The end result could be greater collegiality within a school and a more closely aligned curriculum plan.

More than a label

It is not enough to simply offer professional development opportunities. Districts often set aside workdays specifically designed for in-service, team-building or education task forces. Visit different school sites, and you may see faculties together discussing changes in testing requirements, responsibilities for various committee members or generalized gripe sessions. While these are valuable conversations, they don’t fall under the umbrella of professional development.

Teacher and author Randy Miller believes that professional development should fit under the who, what, why and how of teaching. “In order to grow in the profession, we teachers need to recognize and understand our population, our content area, our delivery and our purpose,” he wrote.

It may sound great to bring in a popular guitarist to play a few songs and relate them to improving test scores, but is this really the best way to utilize a teacher’s valuable time? An administrator should strive for an organized professional development plan that supports the mission of the school. If there is not substantial growth to be gained, it is not worth the time.

Characteristics of beneficial professional development

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory created a professional development checklist, which can help a school or district develop the most meaningful training program. Among the items on the checklist:

  • Strong leadership to advocate for ongoing support and to motivate staff and others to be proponents for continuous improvement.
  • Adequate time during the workday for staff collaboration to accomplish the school’s mission and goals.
  • Scientifically based content with proven effectiveness in increasing student learning and development.
  • The necessary follow-up to ensure improvement.
  • Ongoing support and guidance during implementation.

One of the most important, and often forgotten, aspects of a solid professional development plan is the continuous support of an initiative. Whenever a new process, curriculum or practice is introduced through professional development, it is critical for the success of the program to follow up with consistent training throughout any implementation process. It is unrealistic to expect success for any new program without frequent support and skill development.

Promoting teacher retention

Meaningful professional development is beneficial for any educator, but it is crucial for new teachers. Although new teachers may enter with a strong collegiate experience, having your own classroom can be very intimidating without consistent support. A new teacher is often lacking the basic teaching tools for success: strong sense of subject-area mastery, consistent classroom management, ease of parental communication.

These gaps can be filled through formal and informal professional development. Involving new teachers in regular training and mentorship can take them out of the “sink-or-swim” philosophy and lead to longer teacher retention.

Time spent on professional development is not wasted as long as the focus is on high-quality subject-matter content. Given an extended opportunity to understand student learning and improved teaching practices, an administrator can easily boost the performance of both teachers and students.

Dr. Jason Perez is the executive director of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Oklahoma State Department of Education with 14 years of educational and administrative experience at the elementary level. He also serves as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.

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