20 Sep 2017

Why Professional Development Fails

As a professional development provider, I obviously believe strongly in the virtues of PD. Particularly for educators, I think it’s nothing short of hypocritical to expect our students to devote their time and attention into our lessons if we’re not willing to do the same for our own education. It’s essential that we see teaching and learning as a craft, to be continually honed and nurtured. We must invest in our development and never extinguish our own desire to learn and grow.

That said, it’s no secret that very often professional development fails. We’ve heard countless stories from teachers and administrators who have brought “experts” into the school, only for the experience to be deemed an utter failure by the teachers. Even worse, it has no positive impact on the students they serve.

School funds are too short and teacher time is too valuable to be wasted on ineffective PD. Here are a few of the most common elements we see that lead to PD failures. If you can avoid these pitfalls, you’re highly likely to have an experience that genuinely and meaningfully transforms educators and improves teaching and learning. (I’d be remiss not to point out that avoiding these pitfalls is the focus of our work, so if you’d like a partner, we’re here to help.)

Lack of Administrator and Teacher Alignment
All too often administrators and teachers are on different pages about what training is needed, what areas to focus on, what challenges are most pressing. If you don’t include both the teacher and administrator viewpoints in designing a professional development plan, you may end up with a training that offers the content an administrator is looking for, but you have little chance of teachers implementing it with any fidelity.

Lack of Differentiation
There’s nothing more frustrating for a veteran teacher than sitting through a full day of training that assumes they need the same content as the new teacher sitting beside them. We can’t expect teachers to differentiate instruction for their students when we don’t differentiate PD for them.

Lack of Practical Application
There’s no shortage of books and trainings on pedagogical theory. This is an important element for any teacher wanting to hone their craft. But unless that theory is coupled with immediately applicable strategies and practical application tools, then it is unlikely to take effect in the classroom. If you want your money’s worth out of PD, trainings must include classroom-tested strategies, or better yet demonstrate those strategies with actual students.

Lack of Acknowledgement
Trainers are experts in certain fields of education. They come in to schools to deliver that expertise, but if they don’t take time to acknowledge the efforts and progress made to date, they are unlikely to earn the respect of their audience. Lack of respect leads to lack of perceived credibility. Lack of perceived credibility leads to disengagement. Trainers must take the time to learn what initiatives are working and be prepared to acknowledge that success and leverage it toward the new learning they are there to share. Most of the time, teachers are doing amazing things, and when the trainer acknowledges that, and builds on it, it goes a long way toward teacher buy-in.

Lack of Inspiration
Above all, teachers are people. In the same way we advocate teaching the whole child, attending to his/her social and emotional, physical, and cognitive development, we owe it to teachers to attend to their entire being as well. Teachers have the most important job in the world. All trainings should support teachers as individuals, helping them balance their personal and professional well-being. If you want long-term pay-off from your PD, teachers must leave trainings feeling not only informed and equipped, but uplifted and inspired. The best PDs pull out the red carpet for teachers, and make them feel like the rock stars they are.

I hope you’ve never suffered from any of these fatal PD flaws, but if you’ve been in education very long at all, chances are you have. It takes time, care, and skill to avoid these pitfalls, so only work with PD providers who are willing to put in the time, who genuinely care about you and your success, and who have a proven track record of delivering experiences that leave educators transformed for the good of themselves, their students, and their school.