The State of Professional Development

Why is teacher training important, and how can we improve it?

“Teacher professional development.” 

Every teacher knows those three words, but our reactions to them might be very different. In the world of education today, professional development is quickly becoming an interesting issue.

Professional development can help prevent teacher burnout, but only if done correctly.

Professional development (PD), sometimes called professional learning, is a catchall term for any new training required of teachers by their school district. 

Sometimes entire days are devoted to these training sessions. Other times they are incorporated into the school day during planning time or after dismissal.  Either way, the main goal of professional development is to update or enhance the ways we teach. 

Teacher professional development, then, should be a time to lift our knowledge on everything from new content to student behavior.

These trainings should be a place to share ways to help kids succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.  But are they?

Educators all agree that training is important if we wish to stay relevant, well-informed, lifelong learners. Many feel, however, that the current state of teacher professional development is often problematic.

What should PD look like? How can we solve the problems that surround it? In the midst of a national teacher shortage, these questions have become more relevant than ever.

Potential PD Problems

There are five main challenges with teacher professional development, according to a study by Zachary Hermann and Pam Grossman of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate Study of Education. According to their work, problematic professional development is

1. lacking an ambitious vision of teaching and learning
2. failing to create teacher ownership
3. short, sporadic, and disconnected to the classroom
4. one-size-fits-all
5. not collaborative

Lacking Vision

A well-communicated vision can help make PD more valuable.

The first issue, that PD “lacks an ambitious vision of teaching and learning,” is especially key.  It’s hard to feel passionate about a  training that lacks vision or structure.

Just as we must create “buy-in” for our students to care about the lessons we teach, professional development should inspire teachers to pay attention, to learn, and to grow.  When it doesn’t, teachers feel bored and frustrated… the opposite of what these sessions intend.

Lacking Ownership

The next challenge Hermann and Grossman identify is the “failure to create teacher ownership.”  When professional development does not give teachers a tangible takeaway, it’s easy to view the training as a waste of time.  Simply listening to a lecture about a new resource is not enough.

Teachers need time to actually practice new skills or resources in order to get a sense of how to use them in their own classrooms.  After all, if we don’t feel confident and comfortable using a new system or material, it’s unlikely we’ll adopt it.  

I’ve met several veteran teachers who are still using outmoded strategies and structures because they’ve never had training that made them feel comfortable owning the new options.  Without this crucial component, meaningful change is impossible.

Lacking Depth

New curriculum materials are only effective when teachers have time to learn how to use them.

The third challenge facing teacher professional development is that it is “short, sporadic, and disconnected to the classroom. This ties into the second issue: when we can’t envision actually taking what we’re learning into our own daily teaching, then the training isn’t doing its job.

I’ve attended several ninety-minute sessions attempting to explain an entirely new curriculum.  Within an hour and a half, teachers are expected not only to understand each component of the new system, but to be ready to teach it.  To ten-year-olds.  Every day.

This usually leads to a rocky implementation of the curriculum the district has shelled out millions to buy.  We’re not given the time to familiarize ourselves with how to teach it, let alone to understand why the program is set up the way it is.

If we’re lucky, there might be a midyear follow-up to check in on how the new curriculum is going.  Sometimes there’s an email address to which we can direct questions.  But so often, it feels like the blind leading the blind.

Through no fault of the teachers and specialists in the building, we’re not able to teach a new curriculum with fidelity because we simply have not had the time to learn how.  Then the district scraps it, because it’s not effective, and another system is purchased for the next year.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Lacking Flexibility

PD should offer the same flexibility to teachers that we extend to our students.

The fourth issue presented is that professional development is “one-size-fits-all.”  Especially in education, we know this approach doesn’t work.

A fourth grade class in one area of the school district might have vastly different needs from the class three miles away.  A first year teacher is going to need very different guidance than a twenty-year veteran.  A school that departmentalizes will benefit from different training than a school that doesn’t.

Accommodating the differences between districts, schools, classrooms, and individuals is an important aspect of making a training worthwhile.  What good is a professional development that doesn’t leave space to celebrate the students with special needs, the English Language Learners, and the teachers of all experience levels?

Lacking Collaboration

Being able to collaborate with other teachers is an important part of growing professionally.

The fifth and final issue outlined by Hermann and Grossman is that professional development “is not collaborative.”  We know that our students are more engaged when given the chance to work with one another.  Why doesn’t the same knowledge extend to teachers?

So often, in the teaching community, the problems we face can be solved through teamwork.  A student’s second grade teacher can offer helpful hints to his teacher the next year.  A teacher just out of grad school can give fresh ideas to those who feel stagnant.  A veteran disciplinarian can lend a hand to someone whose classroom feels out of control.  

When we aren’t given the chance to benefit and learn from one another, we are deprived of the valuable experiences and perspectives right there in our building.

Moving Forward

grayscale photo of group of people raises hands
Photo by Christina Morillo on

These five problems present major obstacles to providing teachers with meaningful, inspiring, and useful training.  They are not without solutions, however.

Putting the time and effort into creating professional development experiences that actually benefit the teachers and students is a worthwhile endeavor. After all, with teachers quitting in droves following the pandemic, overcoming these hurdles is more important than ever.

What has your experience been with teacher professional development?  How does your best PD session compare to the ones you found least effective? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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