Pitfalls of Professional Development, Part 2

[Link to Part 1]

In part 1, we took a look at four different pitfalls of professional development. Professional development, as it is currently presented, can have many fallbacks and failures. By exploring some of the pitfalls, educators can take a look at not only how they perceive professional development, but how professional development is perceived in the district as a whole. Without further ado, here are four more pitfalls of professional development!

Pitfall #5: Material learned in professional development sessions is not used outside of the session

Throughout the year, teachers will attend many professional development sessions. As always, some are good, and some are not so good. During the session, teachers will be blasted with a lot of information, and if they’re lucky there will be some kind of handout or website to use in addition to any notes that were taken. The problem is that after the session, the notes and materials often get shoved aside and forgotten, or even tossed into the trash. The teacher doesn’t plan to utilize the new knowledge in their everyday profession. In some cases, this may be because the session was bad overall. However, if the teacher is doing this with every session attended, then there’s a problem.

I’ll be the first to admit I did this all the time when I first started teaching, so I’m just as guilty as anyone else. Over time as I learned to manage my teaching better, I tried picking better staff development sessions. It was no longer just picking a session to get the hours, but picking one that would benefit my classroom and my students. I’ve now gotten to the point that I am at least able to reflect on my notes and the tool, and share it with any teachers who may also benefit.

Some good ways for educators to practice bringing their professional development back into the classroom are to become active participants and note takers. I always jot down notes now so that I can update my blog with what I’ve learned. Participants can use notes to help them integrate the new professional development into their classroom, begin planning ways to integrate it, or to pass the knowledge on to other colleagues who may
also benefit.

Pitfall #6: One size fits all professional development

How many of you reading this have ever been to a required session by the district where every teacher, no matter the grade band or subject area, was told to attend? I’m sure there were teachers who felt that the session was not beneficial, whether it was because the group was so large, the information meant more for a certain level or subject, or something else. If our teaching is to be based upon our own students’ needs, motivators, and engagement, then why not staff development for educators? Of course, the district wants to get their money’s worth, so if they only have a key speaker for a day, then chances are they’re going to make sure as many people as possible are exposed.

However, cramming an entire district staff into an auditorium and not considering the needs of the staff can be less than be beneficial, for many reasons. First of all, with such a large group, it can be hard to ask the presenter questions and hear answers. With so many staff, there’s a high chance that many won’t want to be there or the training isn’t geared toward them, and will not be listening to the presentation anyway. The presenter may have geared the majority of their presentation to a particular group, and may not have examples or relevant content for all grade levels.

Professional development runs more smoothly and has more of a positive impact when it is tailored to the needs of the group receiving it. Administrators and district folks who schedule professional development should talk to the staff and receive their feedback on what they need, and their suggestions to meet that goal. Consider who really needs to receive a particular professional development session, and move forward from there. If the session is truly going to be most helpful for middle school teachers, don’t force the elementary school teachers to attend as well. It’s not always going to be the most cost-effective, but if that is one of the main reasons for have the session in the first place, is the session truly meeting the needs of staff?

Pitfall #7: Learning is measured by seat time

As long as I show up for the session on time, stay the entire session, and act like I’m listening with minimal participation, I’ll receive my hours for professional development. I don’t even have to go back to my school and show that I’ve learned anything or use it in my classroom. The person next to me who not only stays, but actively participates, jots down notes, and then goes back to their school to share with other staff will also receive their professional development hours. Which person truly deserves to receive the hours though?

Professional development has always been structured this way. There are sometimes opportunities to go above and beyond, but these are often dangled as a reward, such as if you attend a conference and do so much work on the sessions you attend and turn all of that in, you’ll receive graduate credit. The motivator though is just to get the graduate credit, and the person still may not care about what they learned in a session, as long as they can remember what it was about.

This one is a bit trickier to change. If every professional development session required the work mentioned in the first paragraph of this section, then chances are even less people would attend. However, if staff were required to pick a few different sessions from the year and be able to demonstrate that the sessions helped them grow as an educator via evaluations, then it would be a bit better. Staff are less likely to choose staff development just because they need the hours, and the work from the sessions will benefit the schools. Of course, in order to do this, school districts that use Opening Day as a way for staff to get most of their hours would have to change things up.

Pitfall #8: Professional development is a one-time experience

In most cases professional development is a one and done deal. Granted, in some cases it is hard for professional development sessions to be more than that. If I travel to a conference or go to listen to a speaker, there’s a large chance that I won’t be able to follow up with those people, and will have to seek ideas on my own. In many cases, however, professional development is a one-time session. Go to it, learn, and then do your best to implement everything based on the one session alone.

Just as we shouldn’t expect students to fully understand and implement a concept the first time around, we also shouldn’t expect teachers to know and understand a topic the very first time. The entire session has bundles of information tossed at the participants, and it can be overwhelming just to keep up and take notes. Teachers need follow up sessions to help guide them through the rough spots. They won’t remember every little detail, or be able to execute any teaching strategy perfectly. It helps to have the opportunity to follow up and receive more information, clarification, or help in a struggling area.

There are a few different ways to follow up on professional development sessions. If possible, ask the presenter to give follow-up sessions on their topic. Make sure the presenter knows the needs of the group so that he or she can prepare appropriately. If getting the presenter in person is an issue, try to connect with them via email or video chat. They may have more materials or resources to willingly share on their topic. If multiple staff members attended the same professional development, then getting together as a group and discussing the topic, how to make any changes, or bouncing ideas off of each other can do a world of good. If all else fails, teachers can try to find other similar sessions being offered and bring their questions to the session.

Thus, we’ve now looked at 8 different pitfalls of professional development. These are not the only ones, and there certainly are more out there. Have you encountered a pitfall? Let me know, and perhaps there will be a part 3 to this in the future!

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