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The Problem with Professional Development (Part 1)

Have you ever had the misfortune of attending a professional development (PD) session that had little interest or value in your current role? Have you walked away feeling like those were hours of your life you'd never get back? Or maybe you came away feeling inspired to ensure that given the opportunity to facilitate a PD session you’d make sure the same thing never happens on your watch.

There is so much variety in professional development options as they lend themselves to recertification, knowledge of best practices in education, or unpacking the curriculum. However, school divisions would be remiss if they didn't begin to count the cost of tapping into what teachers are saying they need.

Are we meeting the most important needs of today’s teachers? Are we developing resilient teachers? If so, how do we know?

The problem with professional development is that in many instances it functions as a requirement of an organization, as a means to recertification, or as some other form of box to be checked. While there may be some semblance of options in topics, the choice often comes down to session availability and personal or organizational time constraints. Many times we settle for a PD session simply to meet the requirement and hope to walk away with some new learning, but too often we walk away frustrated thinking about what could have been.

Simply put, the problem is that choosing PD seldom includes INPUT from its intended audience.

If nothing else, the changing global landscape and world events of recent years have necessitated the need for flexibility in thinking and how we meet the needs of our workers.

Nearly every industry has maintained shortages in staffing which have impacted the supply chain, increased the workload for the employees who show up in their current roles, and impacted the quality of customer service. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce examined these shortages in greater detail in Understanding America’s Labor Shortage: The Most Impacted Industries. The graph below is from the article.

The burden of this new reality has created a level of overload that permeates all systems. Assuming positive intent, employees are doing the best that they can with the current circumstances as well as in their present level of training and support.

In the world of education, classrooms are seemingly the same but the issues for teachers have amplified. Teachers are feeling that the strategies they employed previously are no longer effective. Add to that the need to spend their personal time to research, read, and learn new instructional techniques to facilitate with fidelity has become too much for many. Sadly, we see that passionate teachers are walking away from the profession.

A recent article in EdWeek, What Staffing Shortages Look Like Now proffered, “While policymakers may focus on the dearth of overall applicants, experts said the variety of staffing shortages means school and district leaders will need to undertake more targeted solutions than simply to increase recruitment across the board.” Education leaders are looking at various school models and engaging with business leaders and community members to innovate next-level learning spaces to support the changing needs of their employees.

So why should professional development be any different? There is a growing outpouring of educators who desire something more from their PD offerings. These professionals are seeking spaces that thrive on innovation, fresh ideas, and the inclusion of their voices. They are looking for spaces where all can genuinely feel seen, valued, and heard and contribute in a way that suits their interests and needs. I like to think of it as personalized learning for adults.

In talking about PD, the National Education Association notes that professional development is an intentional practice to refine educators’ skills and professional judgment through factors such as “the changing landscape of issues and needs that educators must address in working with students, families, and communities.”

The face of PD must change. Today’s educators are calling for something new, not just novice teachers but teachers who have passionately pursued this path for decades. Many are craving a space that looks nothing like a required session.

They need something more personal and affirming. They need something that reconnects them to why they became teachers in the first place. They need a community of others who share their needs and concerns, where they can find support and realize that they are not existing alone in a silo. Educators are leaving because they see no end to “all the things” that are daily stressors. Very little is offered or available to provide them with some semblance of hope for change.

In 1991, a marketing and psychological expert named Ernest Dichter coined the term focus group. Focus groups are “meetings held with a small group of participants with the objective of discussion,” and have proven valuable in many industries, including education, for eliciting real-time qualitative data to inform diverse issues and programming needs.

While working with several focus groups of teachers via a learning community titled The Teacher’s Lounge, I posed this question: What type of training would best meet your needs in your current role? Their responses were:

  • Real strategies for dealing with challenging behaviors

  • Maintaining joy on the job

  • The art of subtracting

  • Navigating the intersection of professional responsibility and self-care

  • Ongoing personalized coaching/support

Surprisingly, in none of our conversations did content or curriculum emerge as a need. These conversations included both new and veteran elementary school teachers from across the country. One group was specifically for novice teachers. For the purposes of the focus groups, novice teachers were teachers with one to three years of experience and veteran teachers were teachers with four or more years of experience. My third group was open to all teachers. In each group the conversation starters were the same.

Having worked as a teacher for decades I am extremely passionate about school environments and what teachers need to support and sustain them. Most importantly, I know that when teachers are happy and learning, so are our students.

I will talk more about what emerges from my conversations with teachers in my follow-up post. Also, look for Edjacent’s professional development offerings and The Teacher’s Lounge learning community, which will become active on our site in a few weeks. I’d love to have you be part of the conversation.


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