What doctor would be exposed to a new medical procedure then be immediately sent on their way to perform the procedure on a patient? What reputable company creates a new product to sell, but only gives a one-time training session to representatives, then expects glowing results in sales? These things would just not happen, yet we as educational leaders do it to teachers all the time. We find a new teaching strategy or a new idea on how students learn best, we gather all our teachers together to sit and listen to a speaker explain it, then we send the teachers back to their classrooms, expect them to implement the new strategy perfectly for immediate results and ask, “has student learning increased?”
Of all the things we should put the most consideration to in education, it is on teacher professional development (PD). They are the front line people. They have the most influence on student learning. But what and how should that PD be provided? We talk a lot in education about differentiation and for teachers to find out how their students learn best, investigating in the first days of school each students’ learning style, then adapting lesson plans accordingly, using a “universal design for learning” lesson plan. This is all well and good; however, we fail to recognize all these good teaching practices when we, educational leaders, are planning PD for teachers. The fact that even the word “we” is used in this last sentence is in and of itself something that should be considered. Should it be “we” determining what PD each and every teacher gets? A new teacher does not need the same PD as a veteran teacher. Not every teacher is at the same place as their colleague with their learning. And if there is a professional learning opportunity that is so mind-blowing that all teachers should hear it, that one-shot deal often does not change the teachers’ practice, thus has no effect on student learning anyway.
So what is needed for effective teacher PD?
First, we need to know how teachers learn. It’s great to teach teachers effective teaching strategies, but we can’t assume that teaching it to them is as straightforward as only requiring a presentation or lecture. In fact, it’s quite ironic that we continue to do that as more and more PD on effective teaching strategies and yet we tell teachers to move away from lecture style teaching to students. We have learned the importance of teaching to where students are in their learning and making the learning environment more inclusive with students involved. That begs for even more discussion, but back to the focus on teacher PD.
We know that research indicates that lecture style of PD is not effective for everyone and would probably be considered the least effective way. And to top that, it does not support teachers during their time of teaching. We must remember, teachers do not have the luxury to practice a new teaching strategy to see how it works. Their evaluation of how they did must be done in the midst of doing the strategy, with twenty to thirty bodies in front of them critiquing. Yet, mastering a new skill does not happen overnight and a natural response would be to not continue with the newfound knowledge. Mastering takes much practice, re-adjusting, and massaging. The principal cannot alone “make” that happen. All teachers need to be involved with supporting, mentoring, and coaching, so that PD remains active. And the main source of PD should be in the area that the teacher is teaching in. There are certainly areas in teaching that are consistent, regardless of the subject, but the subject area takes it to another level of meaning and shows courtesy to the teacher in supporting their subject matter and respecting their interest.
If we, as educational leaders, want to be most effective in teacher PD, it would be to provide time during the week for teachers to be in their subject professional learning communities. During that time, teachers can examine student data together, develop interventions to ensure student learning, discuss innovative ideas on how to improve their teaching, offer support to each other, design lesson plans together, develop subject web sites for parent information and learning, share professional readings, develop common assessments, design intervention plans, implement specific teaching strategies and techniques, and plan meaningful professional development based on their needs. Even greater support by educational leaders would be giving teachers time to visit other classrooms to learn from their colleagues first-hand about an effective teaching strategy, while in progress. These methods of support allow for real, authentic, effective teacher PD which is continuous and active which is just good teaching to teachers. So yes, we need good teaching to students, but we must not forget about good teaching to teachers. Don’t you agree?
Nancy Matthews wrote this feature-length article in the Nov 2014 issue of Education Canada Magazine.
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This blog post is part of CEA’s focus on the state of Teacher PD in Canada, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Teachers as Learners theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, What is Effective Teacher Professional Development? Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.