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How Should Professional Development Change?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Teachers in the United States have long known that there is a traditional “disconnect” between what teachers were expected to do and how the teachers were expected to learn how to do it. Teachers attend professional development sessions of all kinds, but unfailingly will acknowledge that the real development of teacher skills for most teachers in the U.S. is “on the job” or “learning by doing.” Job-imbedded professional development through teacher collaboration is becoming a more significant factor in more and more school systems worldwide.

This is demonstrated in the report from the National Center for Teaching Quality (NCTQ) out of North Carolina published in May, 2014. This report shines more light on not only the American professional development perspectives, but also perspectives from teachers in Shanghai, Singapore, and Canada -- nations that significantly outperform the U.S. on the Program for International Assessment (PISA).

Report Findings

In this report titled, “A Global Network of Teachers and Their Professional Learning Systems,” teachers from Denver, Seattle, and Lexington (KY) share a fairly common perspective on how professional learning is approached in the United States. They discussed the elements of professional learning in terms of time, content, and connectedness. In this report, teachers in the U.S. illustrated that time for professional was woefully inadequate at their school sites. While some of their schools required biweekly meetings for professional learning communities (PLCs), the administration typically chose the content for the three days a year, which primarily focused on some school or district initiative (for example, new curriculum implementation) rather than focusing on teacher professional growth.

To answer their specific needs for professional learning, the teachers typically sought out and often paid for their own professional development. Finally, the American teachers indicated that their professional learning was not really connected to what they do on a daily basis or even their evaluations as teachers.

While the teacher from Toronto’s experience in many respects paralleled the American teacher experiences with professional development, one thing stands out as a stark difference: the ratio of teaching to learning time. The average for the three U.S. teachers was 28 hours of teaching to one hour of teacher collaboration per week. The average for the teacher from Toronto was 25 hours teaching to almost four hours for collaboration time.

Together, the U.S. and Canadian teachers had about the same planning time average of nine hours and all worked considerably more than the contractual hours (about 50 hours a week). So the big difference was the time for collaboration. For the teacher from Toronto, collaboration with other teachers was a daily occurrence, for the teachers from the U.S. the collaboration time was either sporadic or only once every two weeks.

Professional Development in Other Countries

The Shanghai teacher and Singapore teacher ratios of teaching time to collaboration time reveal even larger disparities. The Shanghai teacher reported teaching 15 hours a week and collaborating 7.5 hours a week. The Singapore teacher spends 18 hours teaching and 15 hours collaborating each week. Spending so much time collaborating with other teachers every week is not a reality for U.S. teachers who feel lucky to chat with their colleagues at lunch or in biweekly faculty meetings.

The differences in professional development systems do not end here though. In Singapore, teachers are expected to do 100 hours of professional development (paid by the ministry of education) every year. That would be 500 hours in five years. In Shanghai, teachers are expected to do a minimum of 360 hours of professional development every five years -- compare that to the mere 120 hours of professional development that is typically required of U.S. teachers every five years.

Our current educational system does not possess the political will, nor the resources to be able to even come close to doing what Shanghai and Singapore do to help their teachers be more effective. The teachers I know would be on the one hand overjoyed to be able to work more with their colleagues in a lesson study or PLC format.

On the other hand, they might be dismayed at the increased professional development time they would have to dedicate to improving their craft, even if the government paid for it. The administrators I know would also be asking, “So if I cut the number of classes a teacher teaches in half, would I be able to hire twice as many teachers to keep class sizes the same?” They would also be asking, “ Most teachers do not know how to collaborate because they have never really done it. How much time and resources will I have to dedicate to training teachers on effective collaboration? Will my budget for professional development be tripled if collaboration time is tripled?”

While the PISA is only general indicator of education effectiveness, and it is not fair to compare nations where only the best students attend school with nations with compulsory education for all students, it is disconcerting to realize that the U.S. who has been an innovator in so many things has fallen behind so far in educational innovation. What Singapore and Shanghai are doing for teacher professional development is not new or novel. We have known about the power of professional learning communities or communities of practice since the 1980’s.

What Needs to Change

What is unique is that these two countries are providing time and structures that promote levels of deep conversations and planning that we can only dream of here in the states. While an educational “re-boot” has been prescribed for the U.S. system for a long time, the likelihood of that happening at this current time is slim. I recently conducted research on the role of the administrator in math and science teacher collaboration and came to the same conclusions as that of the NCTQ report.

Teachers need more time and a structure to engage in deep collaboration. In order to achieve the results we want, the only solution we have is for brave local school leaders to adjust instructional class loads in order to provide teachers with daily collaboration and professional development time within their contract. What successes have you had in encouraging your leaders to provide the time and resources for professional learning communities or other forms of teacher collaboration? Please share in the comments section below.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Dr. Chris Mattatall's picture

Finding time to collaborate professionally is difficult here in Canada as well. Some teachers have reported that the time given for collaboration is often used for photocopying, class prep, or ineffective conversations about concerns and problems. However, in a recent study that I completed on the effects of collaboration on Grade 1 reading scores I am happy to report that structured and facilitated collaboration (with the principal present) showed considerable gains over schools that did not formally collaborate. What was particularly effective was the process of releasing teacher knowledge, experience, and agency in terms of making school-based decisions. This helped new teachers and experienced teachers alike...they figured out solutions to the challenges in the school when given the proper time to do it. In one school the principal and teachers agreed to realign the school schedule each morning in order to provide 30 extra minutes of instructional time in reading to students. Contact me if you want more information on this study.

Mr_deLarios's picture

"Rolling up our sleeves & fixing the problem together" sounds great and all but when you tell one side of the equation that they need higher standards, it doesn't exactly begin the cooperation off on the right step.

I agree that administrators and teachers are most beneficial when supporting each other.

Sorry, but you have not given an answer as to what increasing teacher standards would look like. Explaining that I should go read a book is not exactly a clear answer, although I will take your advice and add it to the list of books that I need to explore.

Ellen Eisenberg's picture
Ellen Eisenberg
Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching

Effective job-embedded professional development occurs when certain enabling conditions are present: 1) PD must be relevant, research-based, tied to standards and practice, and accompanied by a system to ensure implementation; 2) professional development must lead to professional learning by demonstrating how well something is learned and can be applied; 3) time for ongoing collaboration, collective problem-solving, transparent communication, reflection, and non-evaluative feedback is essential for changing the culture of a school; 4) provide instructional coaches to work daily with their teaching colleagues to help them implement effective instructional practices. There is no silver bullet to transform schools but the abovementioned conditions could begin the process.

Whitney Johnston's picture

During my first year teaching in a new district, I was blown away at the hours embedded into my work day to collaborate with my team. I loved PLCs with my fellow English/Language Arts teachers. We accomplished so much during our three 45 minutes meetings a week. Our meetings focused on data, standards, and creating lessons and assessments as a team to raise our tests scores. We were first in our district that year by a long shot. Since then, we've had a new superintendent come in and change everything around. I may get to see my team once every two weeks now. Instead of planning as a team, we are required to cover classes when substitutes do not fill they jobs and a teacher doesn't show up to work. It is awful. Last year we were forced to co-teach instead of plan and this year we are used as substitutes. I miss true PLC time where I could learn and grow with my department and in return see great success in my students learning.

Vikki Grant's picture
Vikki Grant
Innovative inspirer of questions

I find it laughable that during typical PD sessions, presenters spend so much time preaching about research showing that classroom activities need to be interactive and include movement while proceeding to talk AT us in the most unimaginative way possible! It's not just student's brains that start to wander after 20mins ... give us strategies to address the problems instead of just outlining why it needs to change. I actively seek opportunities to learn and just love it when the presenter understands how to deliver their info in an engaging way.

Anamaria Knight-VIF International Education's picture
Anamaria Knight-VIF International Education
Director of Curriculum and Instructional Design, VIF International Education

Professional development works best when teachers have a say about the what, when and the where of their PD. We, at VIF International Education, find that on-line, asynchronous PD, coupled with just-in time assistance offered by our coaches can be very effective. Removing the time constraints of the face-to-face PD means that professional development is immediately available when teachers are teaching, and that it will address the needs that they have at that particular moment in time (via, for instance, a 15 minute virtual meeting with one of our coaches).

Anamaria Knight
Director of Curriculum and Instructional Design, VIF International Education
VIF website:
Twitter: @VIFprogram or @VIFLearn
Facebook: VIF International Education or VIF Learn

Pete Reilly's picture
Pete Reilly
Author, "A Path with Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery" and "In the Garden of Hearts: Meditations, Consolations, and Blessings for Teachers"

I'd like to come at the question, "How Should PD Change?" from a different perspective. Ask any teacher what they remember about the great teachers that impacted them when they were students and you'll get a list of personal characteristics: "They cared", "They listened", "They recognized something in me that I didn't see in myself","They were funny", "Creative", "Enthusiastic", "They challenged me"...the list goes on and on. It's the 'self' we are that motivates and inspires. our students and the research confirms that it.

In truth, what many dismiss disparagingly as soft skills are really essential to the academic and personal growth of our students. PD can be a place where we cultivate our unique gifts and work to change patterns of behavior that reduce our effectiveness. As others have said, we need fewer voices telling us what to teach and how to teach it, and more focus on the needs of the human beings at the center of the classroom experience.

I know it sounds crazy but perhaps at some point in K-12 education professional development and personal development will be virtually synonymous.

IyerK's picture

You hit the nail on the head with " Teachers need more time and a structure to engage in deep collaboration. In order to achieve the results we want, the only solution we have is for brave local school leaders to adjust instructional class loads in order to provide teachers with daily collaboration and professional development time within their contract."
In addition to adjusting instructional class loads, one also needs to look at the standards closely and analyze their effectiveness and clarity in terms of child development psychology. For instance, I feel that standards that state that children 8-9 years old should be able to identify real-life connections between words and their use (e.g., describe people who are friendly or helpful) and distinguish shades of meaning among related words that describe states of mind or degrees of certainty (e.g., knew, believed, suspected, heard, wondered) seems to be a stretch even for the gifted and talented kids.
There needs to be a deeper look at the feasibility of the expectations so that emphasis can be made to tailoring the instruction to suit the learner without the stress of meeting all the standards in the stipulated academic year.

mbwilhelm12's picture

Teachers absolutely need more time and funding for effective professional development. Teachers also need more of a say as to what type of professional development they will receive. We get a professional development day about once a month and typically the topics are decided for us and we either feel like it doesn't apply, or we don't know enough about the topic to get anything out of it. We have a faculty meeting a month, but typically the principal just talks to us and we never really get productive discussion from it.

I believe, on top of more time, more effective professional development. We need to have a say in what we want out of professional development. If administrators polled teachers a month before the professional development day regarding what would be covered, teachers may actually gain useful knowledge from it. At this point, it feels like schools need to give teachers the time and need to focus on district initiatives so much that teachers do not feel as though they are actually gaining knowledge to help them in their classroom and in their teaching in general. I have had to find my own professional development on my own, but there is no money to reimburse me and no music substitutes to cover my classes that am I actually doing a disservice to myself and my students for missing school to go to the conferences?

How can we get administrators to change the way professional development is handled? Does it all go back to the higher ups, the politicians?

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