Professional Learning

The Power of Teacher Workshops: Advocating for Better PD at Your School

Encouraging teachers to advocate for better professional development

October 19, 2011

Teachers have all experienced a professional development that is so way off target, or one that had nothing to do with what they teach or who they teach. We teachers can talk about having to sit in poorly-run, irrelevant PD like they are war stories.

Today, I teach teachers and design and facilitate a good number of teacher workshops. I'd like to share some things I've discovered -- through experience and research -- when it comes to PD.

Why PD Matters So Much

Research shows that teachers tend to teach the way that they were taught. That is, of course, until we gain new insights through experience and development.

And since education is always evolving, professional development is essential for teachers to enhance the knowledge and skills they need to help students succeed in the classroom. Educational psychologist and researcher, Lee Shulman described an elaborate, wide-range knowledge base for teacher education. This knowledge base includes content knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge, curriculum knowledge, knowledge of learners and their characteristics, knowledge of educational context, ends, and purposes.

In the words of Aristotle: He who dares to teach must never cease to learn.

An added layer being that our profession is a unique one in that we don't work with things, but with people. Just like medical professionals (who, of course, also deal in people), we need to continually update, enhance, and reflect our current knowledge and skills base so we can develop a more effective practice. If a doctor said, "I don't need to go to any seminars and lectures ever again," you'd probably choose a new doctor.

Making PD Authentic

The key to an effective, quality workshop is this: PD planners and facilitators need to know as much as they can about the teacher participants and their needs and then strive to meet those very needs.

Let's define needs. They are a gap between what is expected and the existing conditions. A needs assessment, or needs analysis, is an examination of the existing need for training within an individual, group, or organization.

Encourage your principal, instructional coach, administrator in charge of instruction, whomever makes The Decision about how your school's professional development time and money is spent, to conduct a needs assessment before an after-school or weekend workshop.

A good place to start? Consider developing a general needs assessment survey using a Likert scale, 5-1: 5 = completely true to 1 = not at all true. Here are some sample statements so that teachers can rate themselves:

  • "I'm able to contextualize abstract ideas and concepts for students"
  • "I feel very knowledgeable of the content I teach"
  • "I know how to design a rigorous end-of-study assessment"
  • "The teaching strategies I select to use in the classroom support diverse learners and learning styles"

You might also create a needs assessment with very specific statements just about teaching English language learners, for example. Always include an area on the survey for teachers to write in any questions or comments.

Use the needs assessment results to guide planning, choice of materials, and other supports needed for the workshop. If the powers that be have an agenda item they would like addressed in the day, that's fine, but the bulk of the agenda has to primarily speak to meeting the needs of the group. Without this, there is danger of an irrelevant, frustrating, forgettable workshop (see war stories comment above). If the only rationale for an entire day's agenda is, "it comes from the principal/district," well, see war stories comment above.

No One-Offs, Please

Quick-fix, single-shot PD can often end up as information overload for teachers. And since the goals of these are so often focused on getting a large amount of information out in limited time, rarely do they include time on the agenda for processing, planning, and reflecting -- all essential.

The aim of a good teacher PD plan is to grow collaborative teams and build capacity by speaking to the specific needs of the individuals in the group (i.e. needs assessment first, authentic training activities/materials that speak to those needs next). Then, the facilitator/administrator provides continued support for the team as they develop new skills and understandings. Follow this philosophy and how will teacher workshops at your school ultimately look? The team will plan collaboratively, use research to guide their practice, and reflect and adjust on their own (no presenter necessary, only a facilitator, and one with a minor role).

Differentiate Workshops

Many beginning teachers start their careers with little professional support while they are required to carry a full teaching load immediately. Novice teachers may also be assigned to teach a discipline outside their area of training. There are veteran teachers who have a solid pedagogical practice but lack technology training, or need to update some aspects of their instruction. And there are many educators often in the middle who exhibit specific strengths in their teaching methods, while also having some weaknesses.

We talk about personalized learning environs in K-12, even in K-16, and we must apply this same thinking when it comes to professional development for teachers.

How has your school evolved it's professional development, creating time for relevant and authentic learning experiences for your teachers?

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