Two of the most groan-inducing, but potentially powerful, words in teaching are “professional development.” It’s easy for professional development to be a waste of time and money. Certainly I remember plenty of mostly-useless cases when I was still teaching. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
Whenever teachers don’t change their practice — because the topic wasn’t relevant to their needs, because they weren’t given time or support to make changes, because there was never any sustained focus on the topic, or because of any other reason — an opportunity has been missed. The classic example of this is the sit-and-get lecture approach to professional development, where an expert is brought in for a day (or even just a couple of hours) to deliver a slideshow. As it turns out, most one-off development sessions, even if they’re more interactive, tend not to be as helpful as focusing on the same idea for a longer duration of time.
Beyond sustaining attention to a topic beyond a single session, it’s also important for teachers to be heavily involved in designing and delivering professional development. Those familiar with the practice of teaching are in the best position to know what does and doesn’t make sense in the classroom context. This is obviously one of the more common issues with technology-related professional development, where teachers are given a tutorial on the mechanics of the tool and maybe shown a couple of cool ideas for how to use it, but with no broader sensibility about using the tool meaningfully in instruction.
Theory is better when informed by practice
The importance of teacher-led professional development goes beyond technology, of course. Theory is always better when informed by practice, so those leading development sessions will have more earned credibility when they are still close to the classroom. Additionally, seeing teachers leading group development sessions encourages a sense of ownership over personal professional development. If I’m an individual teacher struggling with a topic, it can be reassuring to see someone who’s gone through similar struggles and been successful, and I’ll also be more likely to think of areas where I’m already an expert and could contribute to colleagues’ growth.
The value of teacher-led development is also affected by how similar the leading teachers’ experiences are to those of the audience. A presentation on what works best for classroom management or family engagement by a teacher from Los Angeles probably won’t be as helpful for teachers in Bemidji as it would be to other LA teachers.
Locally determined professional development can be more responsive to local needs, and knowing that the presenter has experience with “our kids” builds credibility. Keeping professional development local also increases its sustainability and the ease with which the topics can be revisited and supported over the course of the year. It can be embedded in coaching observations, Professional Learning Communities, and other facets of school life, and it means that the experts are much closer and more accessible.
Encourages shared responsibility
Keeping a significant share of professional development teacher led and locally driven, then, is key to ensuring that development time, money, and effort are well spent. It encourages a sustained sense of shared responsibility and builds awareness of where accessible expertise already exists. This fosters a culture of growth for all teachers, empowering them and creating positive feedback loops for improving professional practice. As this grows stronger, schools and districts become better able to respond to emerging local needs.
Laying the groundwork for local, teacher-led development requires that teachers (and their unions) be able to provide high-quality professional development, including time for reflection and improvement so that the quality of teacher-led development is continuously improving. Many teachers and union leaders are already strong in this area, but it must remain a point of emphasis. In particular, professional development offers an opportunity to build relationships with local experts and communities and turn development sessions into opportunities for collaboration on supporting students both in and out of the classroom.
Many educators have found ways to create opportunities for local, teacher-led development, even when their school or district leaders have been uninterested or unsupportive. Many unions have been excellent at supporting this work, and the more they can do to build their own capacity for professional development, the better off they’ll be.
Too often seen as competition
Ideally, local and teacher-led development wouldn’t just happen at educators’ instigation. School and district leaders should do more to invite this type of development and to offer support to teachers interested in creating development opportunities for their colleagues. Too often, teacher-led development is seen as competing with district-directed preferences. A more helpful approach would be to view professional development as a partnership between teachers and administrators to provide as much high-quality support as locally as possible.
It’s easy to get cynical about professional development, especially when bad experiences often create more lasting memories than good ones. We should do more to transform development into a chance to recognize the excellence that local teachers already bring to the table, to appreciate the hard work many have put into becoming genuine experts, and to create a professional culture of constant improvement without harsh judgment.
Michael Diedrich, who taught English for two years as a Teach for America corps member, is a master of public policy student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where he is pursuing a concentration in education policy. He is also an Education Fellow at Minnesota 2020, on whose website this article originally appeared.
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