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The Problem with Professional Development (Part 2)

In part one of this blog series, I focused on my conversations with elementary educators related to their self-reported professional development needs. This installment reports on my discussions with secondary teachers as they talked about their day-to-day realities.

Secondary teachers shared that many of their challenges are centered around filling in learning gaps, rebuilding student routines from before the pandemic, increasing parental involvement, and motivating students to take a more active role in their learning.

Further, secondary teachers were concerned about student achievement resulting from the aforementioned challenges as a barrier to graduation. Adding to the problem is the teacher shortage, which has led to an increased number of inexperienced and subpar teachers, along with teachers who have seemingly given up on doing what it takes to ensure their students’ success.

Teacher stress, which leads to burnout, continues to be a concern for both elementary and secondary teachers, especially since the pandemic began. Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground blog posted a piece that pointed out how the pandemic revealed fundamental weaknesses in our educational institutions.

DeWitt’s post asserted that through joint determination, complex changes in education can be made. Joint determination refers to those in authority and those in a problem situation working together on solutions. Are we listening to what teachers have to say regarding their professional development needs?

In the piece, one teacher reported that colleagues who had been highly involved in the school community by facilitating extracurricular activities were now less inclined to participate. Circumstances such as this have led to the need for additional assignments, courses, and clubs for the teachers who do show up. Though teachers report being passionate about their students’ success, many are feeling like the realities they experience in today’s schools are too much to bear for their own well-being.

A research brief titled Structural Supports to Promote Teacher Well-Being, part of a series by EdResearch for Recovery, provides an evidence base for K-12 education leaders and stakeholders to undergird discussions on addressing the current needs of students. The brief posed a relevant question: “What does the research say about structural supports that enable teacher well-being?”

Three key insights were covered in the brief:

  1. Breaking Down the Issue

  2. Strategies to Consider

  3. Strategies to Avoid

Under Strategies to Avoid is a statement that is germane to the present blog post: “Although school leaders set the direction in the school, prescribing practices without teacher involvement and monitoring compliance often result in low levels of teacher buy-in and adoption [emphasis added].”

The EdResearch for Recovery brief shared many important findings from studies and surveys conducted with teachers across the country. One of the major takeaways for school districts was that open communication with educators and collecting data on teachers’ professional concerns allows school and district leaders to more accurately identify and address the root causes of teachers’ dissatisfaction. These root causes would be an excellent baseline from which to build professional development offerings.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s 2022 Framework for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being is a 48-page document that makes a similar case: “Creating an environment where workers’ voices are supported without fear of job loss or retaliation is an essential component of healthy organizations.” The framework document provides rich insight on the challenges today’s workers are facing and how organizational changes can help support them.

The report’s actual framework, shown in the figure below, “includes five Essentials and necessary components for addressing workplace mental health and well-being based on human needs.” These components are centered on worker voice and equity.

The framework document further states that “organizational leaders, managers, supervisors, and workers alike have an unprecedented opportunity to examine the role of work in our lives and explore ways to better enable all workers to thrive within the workplace and beyond.” One right step in that direction is through professional development.

The Surgeon General’s report is very detailed, insightful, and rich with resources. The conclusion reiterates the importance of prioritizing staff voice:

Ultimately, sustainable change must be driven by committed leaders in continuous collaboration with the valued workers who power each workplace. The most important asset in any organization is its people. By choosing to center their voices, we can ensure that everyone has a platform to thrive.

In my conversations with teachers, I noticed similarities between the responses of elementary teachers and the responses of secondary teachers. I posed this question to secondary teachers: “What type of professional development (PD) training would best meet your needs in your current role?” Their responses were as follows:

  • PD for greater cultural competence such as DEI training with actionable steps

  • Social-emotional PD sessions to help teachers find their balance

  • PD to provide a greater sense of safety within schools

  • Practical strategies that can be implemented in practice rather than information that sounds good in theory

  • Differentiated PD based on a teacher’s experience/expertise

  • Involve teachers in deciding what type of PD they need and what would be most valuable to them

Current research indicates that teacher job satisfaction is at its lowest level in 50 years. While dissatisfaction with the teaching profession is not new, one thing is certain – the pandemic has exposed a wound that has been left untreated for far too long. I found so much value in Peetz’s short post in EdWeek, but this line truly resonated with me: “If we care fundamentally about student learning, then we need to care fundamentally about teachers.”

Teachers are no longer silent about what they want and need. Until school districts make major changes—for example, paying teachers for the additional time they put in, reducing ineffective/outdated tasks, giving teachers greater autonomy in meeting the diverse needs of their students—we will continue to offer platforms for teachers to find solace, build solidarity and resilience, and most of all, to feel valued.

If the goal of professional development is to develop the capacity of teachers, shouldn’t it address the needs of teachers? The major concerns that teachers have, the ones that are driving them from the profession they love, are seldom about curriculum, which is typically the focus of PD. Professional development can and should utilize teacher input to inform its direction and relevance for educators.

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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