If we’re being honest, most of us have been subjected to hours of professional development that either didn’t apply to us, didn’t interest us, or were not the best use of our time. If we’re being honest, few among us have neglected to grade papers we’ve smuggled into a training, created a shopping list, prepared lessons, or played solitaire while pretending to take notes on your laptop.
Professional development is important (and required), but it is not always meaningful and effective, and more often than not, it is presented in a way that does not reflect good teaching.
Training must be planned with the learners’ interests and needs in mind. And possibly most important of all, they must be respectful of the teachers’ time. When teachers feel their time is valued, they are more likely to participate and be respectful during meetings and development.
While every teacher can point out what they don’t like about training, not everyone can put into words exactly how they would do it differently. We would like to provide some ideas on how to think through and plan professional development that your teachers will appreciate and be a good use of their time by providing the information they need in a format that is effective.
Types of Training Needed
As education begins to favor more of a “push-in” rather than “pull-out” method of intervention, teachers are being asked to do many of the jobs that were formerly assigned to specialists who have received hours of intense training in order to be able to best assist students with specific needs that affect their learning.
While pushing-in is an answer to many issues being faced with missing grade-level instruction, socialization issues, and issues with the number of disturbances classrooms experience daily, many teachers are rightfully overwhelmed with the influx of students with very specific needs for whom they are not trained or prepared to offer the amount of support necessary to make the pushing-in method work.
Teachers desperately need more training on speech issues, autism, dyslexia, and any other difference or disability they or someone else are asked to address in their classrooms. The pre-service training teachers receive is not adequate for addressing these diverse student needs.
What is happening now is that the support that has been offered to the children is being significantly lessened. While more instructional aides are being used to fill the void caused, the training provided to teachers and aides has not increased, creating a huge deficit.
The end result is that children are not receiving the support they desperately need.
Teachers and paraeducators are desperate to be properly trained so they can appropriately facilitate these learners.
To be clear: they do not just need training on how to do more paperwork. They need actual training on the disorders and learning differences, how students are being affected, and how to best meet those needs in the majority of situations they are presented with.
While many teachers are fairly flexible in weaving in content at the student’s level while also providing scaffolding and finding ways to connect struggling students with grade-level material, the truth is that many teachers just don’t have experience in other grade levels or the content knowledge (not to mention the lack of any resources at a lower level) to be able to bridge the gaps they are suddenly being required to span.
Professional development provided must be practical, led by professionals who understand both adult education and the content matter they are presenting, and meet the needs of the teachers and students of the particular school. This may seem like an impossible feat, but allowing teachers to be involved in planning what they need and want to learn can be very beneficial.
No one likes to sit in training that is useless for their actual day-to-day job, but tragically, much professional development is offered on a level that is just not engaging or useful.
It’s a disservice to our students to neglect adequate, solid professional development for teachers. Ask teachers what they need. Listen to what they say. Provide that.
Accessing Premium Professional Development
It’s astounding how little we, as educators, practice what we preach.
Administrators all have some experience as teachers themselves. They should be able to compile personalized training on topics staff members need through research and some time investment; however, administrators don’t have unlimited time, either.
The most efficient shortcut to hours of personal research is to ask an expert. Luckily, everyone who works with you has something to offer in that regard. You are a collective group of experts. Use that expertise as your first resource.
More specifically, start with those specialists. What do they need from their colleagues? They are the resident experts. Ask them to teach the others, giving them an overview of what they know about their area. Have them outline specific ways that classroom teachers can assist students. Have them lead training for paraprofessionals.
Give your specialists the meeting structure, an amount of time, and talk with teachers about what they specifically want to know. Then, help them as they prepare for presenting. Supply materials, make copies - do whatever needs to be done.
When everything is ready, give your experts the floor. Let them communicate. Allow other teachers to ask questions.
Start the conversations that will not start organically, and nurture them until they begin growing on their own.
If your experts are unable or unwilling to train the other members of staff, ask them for professional development resources that they find most helpful. They are your best connection to outside resources. Do whatever needs to be done to get the training that is proven to work well for your staff and student population - not the most expensive, not the flashiest, not what all the other districts are using. Find what works best for your demographic right now, and use that.
Creating Your Own Professional Development
Shoot for True “Continuing Education”
Preservice education comes in lots of different packages, just as professional development does; however, most preservice education does not provide content or pedagogy beyond a surface level.
One way to gain depth in content and pedagogy is to teach for an extended amount of time. As teachers gain experience, they gain subject-matter depth (or at least that’s how it should work, theoretically).
Unfortunately, teachers have years of struggle where there is often a vague sense of not knowing what they should be teaching before they gain that skill and knowledge.
Using seasoned professionals in your building to help highlight content and depth can be very beneficial for newer teachers, especially if there is a system set up for content management that does not require teachers to involve relational issues or create a hierarchy among staff. Creating a resource that all teachers involved can contribute to and refer to is a good start.
In addition, there are so many areas in which teachers need more professional development depth. They don’t necessarily need to be trained in how to give a reading assessment; they need specifics on the most current, scientifically proven, research-based reading instructional methods.
Just as one would with students, meet each teacher where they are. Scaffold and model (without being condescending) concepts you are working on while using concrete, real examples that can be applied directly to their classroom situations.
Once teachers are in the classroom, most will pursue bits and pieces of further research on their own, but there is so little time (as we all know). Creating an atmosphere of and time for productive and deep learning that is immediately applicable to their teaching is powerful and should be done as often as possible. Just providing that sacred time and space specifically for focusing on cultivating information they’ve learned is helpful.
Seasoned teachers need refresher courses on some content, although not all. Again, focusing the learning on what your teachers and student population specifically need is absolutely key. If you aren’t sure what that need is, look at your testing data. Look for patterns, and compose professional development from there.
Understanding Adult Education
Adults need engaging, meaningful sessions. They need to be the ones doing most of the discovery and “the talking”. Lecture is rarely (if ever) the most meaningful way for people to learn, and lecturing leads to “information dump”, which is overwhelming and often too intimidating to do anyone any good.
Teachers, like students, shut down in those situations. It’s better to find a way to offer information in a way that invites teachers to discover what they need to know rather than creating an environment of “sit-and-get”.
In addition, presenters who are able to take on the role of facilitators rather than the person in the room who owns and disseminates all of the information are more likely to be successful. You need buy-in from the majority of your participants, so do all you can to make information appealing and interaction with the information engaging.
When talking about the best training we’ve participated in or led, our writers reflected that relaxed, fun, yet challenging and deeply informative training has been the most impactful for us. We like thoughtful engagement, and we like to be trusted as mature, adult learners.
Our favorite sessions offered us as much choice as possible. Training that involved watching a movie and applying teaching concepts, reflection in any form that was personally meaningful, and those in which we were given an equal or greater amount of time to talk or personally reflect as we were expected to “sit-and-get” are highest on our list of favorites.
Three things we absolutely agree any presenter must do are:
- Know your content. Our least favorite sessions are those in which we were “checking boxes” and presenters weren’t even sure why we were meeting or what we were really talking about.
- Be passionate. Even if you aren’t passionate, act like you are. At the very least, make it fun and relaxing!
- Focus the training on the needs of the recipients and their students. Make it meaningful. Otherwise, everyone leaves feeling cheated and robbed of their time, and no one likes feeling that way.