Every time I’ve interviewed for a teaching job, we’ve discussed the question of professional development: What does professional development look like at the school? What is provided for and expected of teachers? What PD opportunities have had an impact on my practice and what can I bring to the school from these opportunities?
Professional development, or PD in the alphabet soup of education, is how teachers get better at teaching. It’s how we learn about new research and best practices, look outside of what our own schools are doing, make connections with other schools and teachers, and grow as professionals. I can think of a professional development opportunity that fundamentally changed the way I approach my students as learners, and a second that changed my approach to teaching content. I have been a better teacher since and my students have benefitted from my opportunities to learn.
Unfortunately, a comment I hear often on PD days is, “Well, I didn’t learn anything, but it was nice to have the time to work.”
Let me start by saying that it is absolutely nice to have the time to work. Teachers are increasingly (and often overwhelmingly) expected to do more big-picture collaboration work with colleagues across departments that simply do not fit into the school day. The rare time that teachers have together during the day, when it exists, is usually spent on much more pressing concerns, like a plan for the next unit, editing an assessment task, or going over a recent student work. Having the time to work with colleagues with whom we do not otherwise have a chance to work is critical for the cohesive educational programs that we know help students learn. Additionally, there is often work for school evaluation visits that requires collecting materials, filling out questionnaires, and documenting school programs. Collaborative work time is necessary for all of this to take place, and I have never been in a school where teachers have enough time. So yes, we need the time to work.
However, collaborative work time is not professional development. Collaborative work time might stem from PD (we are always looking for new ideas) or benefit from PD (trying to integrate better technology in the classroom might require teachers to be trained on said technology, for example), but it is not the same as PD.
Although I am as grateful for work time as anyone else (and we really are!) I also want to learn. I want the professional development days on the calendar to be about professional development, to help me get better at my job, which is helping students learn. If I walk away from a PD session with one idea that I can try with one student tomorrow, that is a good day. If I walk away from one of our scheduled PD days without having had the opportunity to learn something new, I’m disappointed.
Of course, professional development can come in many forms. I once taught at a school in which a different teacher at each faculty meeting was invited to share something that they were trying in class. Often, these ideas came from working with the curriculum coordinator or attending PD trainings outside of school. Teachers were asked in advance, presentations took no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and we walked away from those meetings with new ideas.
If we want teachers to be independent, creative professionals, we need to give them opportunities to learn and opportunities to put into practice what they have learned. A PD day on a calendar should mean professional development; if the intention is for collaborative work, it should be called as such. The frustration is when collaborative work is confused for PD, and teachers who have been promised PD do not receive it. We cannot expect teachers to more effectively work with students if they do not have the opportunities to learn how to do so.