As educators, we spent lots of time in professional development. Some of it was fantastic, but too often the one-size-fits-all presentations we attended failed to meet our—and our colleagues’—needs. At times we were overwhelmed by new information; at other times we were bored or uninspired. Above all, we were short on time and anxious to go create and plan. We felt frustrated and stressed, and we weren’t alone.
Since leaving our classrooms two years ago, we’ve provided PD for nearly 30,000 teachers worldwide. We reflected on our experiences as teachers and realized that, like our students, our fellow educators need more relevant PD: training that is personalized, efficient, and actionable. PD like this hasn’t been easy to create—it’s much more convenient to sit educators down and talk at them. But, in training our peers, we’ve done our best to emulate the differentiated, learner-centric practices that we developed for our students.
Many educators have loved our PD; others have felt it wasn’t worth their time. Along the way, we’ve learned how leaders can make PD truly relevant to every teacher in their schools or districts.
First, it’s important to recognize the problems with traditional PD. We weren’t alone in our frustration with PD: Although TNTP estimates that large American public school districts spend around $18,000 per teacher per year on PD, the Gates Foundation found that only 29 percent of teachers feel highly satisfied with their current PD opportunities.
It’s hard for a single PD session to be highly relevant for a first-year teacher, a 30-year veteran, and everyone in between—especially considering that each of these educators has different strengths, experiences, and areas for growth. In our experience, one-size-fits-all PDs inevitably fail to engage all (or even most) participants.
Focusing on the Work
Theory is important, but it must translate into action. Busy educators can’t afford to simply sit and listen. They need the time, space, and support to apply whatever they learn. Without a clear application to each teacher’s individual students and content area, even the most interesting ideas ultimately feel worthless.
Educators’ time is incredibly valuable. With another school year starting, how can you make the most of it and ensure that PD really makes an impact? Here’s what you can do.
Let teachers choose: Identify a few PD options (free or paid) for teachers to explore, and share those options with staff. In choosing the options, you can bring to life your school’s or district’s instructional vision; in giving teachers choice, you respect their professional judgment and time while ensuring that each teacher pursues PD that feels relevant to them.
In our work, 97 percent of teachers who opt in to our paid Mentorship Program ($495 for three months) agree that they apply themselves during the PD, compared with only 73 percent of teachers who are required to enroll. Our average rating among opt-ins is also much higher (9.05/10 versus 7.55/10). For this reason, we ask leaders to share our free resources first, to let their educators decide whether or not to enroll.
Give teachers time: You may need to cut back on required meetings for things like logistics. You can find more efficient ways to deliver this information: Use your LMS to post announcements, record screencasts that explain new procedures, or have teachers post questions on a discussion board. Not only will you model best practices for instruction, but you’ll free up teachers’ time and ensure that this information is always easily accessible.
Set deliverable goals: In exchange for the freedom and time to choose their own PD paths, expect that each educator will come back with something to show for their time. It can be a screencast video, a presentation for their department, or a demonstration lesson. Then, create opportunities for educators to share what they’ve learned with each other. This holds teachers accountable and creates opportunities for teacher leadership and collaboration.
To complete our Mentorship Program, educators must create three lessons’ worth of instructional materials by applying our recommended practices and incorporating feedback from their mentors. We share educator progress with school leaders, who can see just what their teachers have built. This amount of work poses a challenge for busy teachers, but many cite it as a highlight of the PD.
These principles aren’t novel. In fact, they are really just examples of strong pedagogy. When we imagine what we want for our students, we envision classrooms that honor the differences between learners and empower each to drive their own learning. If we know those learning environments are best for our students, we should do everything we can to create the same experiences for their teachers.
Now more than ever, it’s essential that PD meets every educator’s needs, so that every educator is ready in turn to respond to the needs of their students. Give educators choice, time, and actionable goals, and they’ll be prepared to flourish.