How we think about and approach teacher Professional Development (PD) is almost entirely wrong. Especially externally mandated PD Days and PD activities imposed on teachers by education administrators (by “admin” I’m not referring to principals but the multiple layers of education bureaucracy. I think Principals are just as frustrated and disengaged with our current PD system as teachers).Here’s the evidence:
- PD Days Don’t Matter: PD Days were cut back to save money. A teacher’s federation and the Ministry of Education decided that PD Days, the opportunity to improve the skills of teachers and a cornerstone of recent improvements in our education system, were unimportant and could be cancelled to save money and get a deal. This has since been imposed on all Ontario public school teachers. The message: PD days are a frill, and unimportant.
- PD Days That Don’t Improve Teaching: This week I will attend a PD session that will not improve my teaching, nor is it intended to. My school is part of the control group for a math research project. My role is to deliver my regular math program so that researchers can compare it with the impact of a new math program. Someone decided that it isn’t fair to give the test group teachers PD time and not give the control group teachers any. So next week I will attend a PD session to help me to deliver the same math program I am currently delivering.
- Alphabet Soup That Always Tastes The Same: The school I teach at will be part of another board/ministry mandated PD program to help raise school EQAO scores (we do this every year). The program sounds exactly the same as the program we were part of last year, but has a different acronym. The program requires that I will be absent from the classroom for ten times throughout the school year. That means ten sets of plans I must prepare, ten days that learning conditions will be less than optimal for my students and ten occasions I’ll have to take take time to help the class recover and catch up.
- PD as a Perk or a Rest: A former principal treated PD opportunities as perks for teachers who did things in the school. I coached a team and got sent to a workshop on report cards. I guess she thought I deserved a break? She’s not alone in the view that PD opportunities are really just a chance to rest and recuperate from the daily grind of the classroom and nothing more.
How can “experts” claim to know so much about learning but not apply it to PD? Engagement is essential to learning and allowing choice and control over learning enhances engagement. I’m encouraged to use Differentiated Instruction with students, but often, when I show up to a PD session I am required to sit, listen and do what I am told while someone reads slides to me. There is little opportunity to learn in any method other than those mandated by the instructor.
This situation drives me crazy. It’s insulting. As professionals, teachers should be able to use our judgement to determine what we want or need to develop and in what direction. This is the respect given to students as they enter high school and increased as they progress. In university, students get lots of choices. Other professionals get to control their personal growth. Why, when it comes to teachers, do we force everyone to learn the same stuff in the same way?
Our current PD system ignores that I am the resident expert in my teaching situation. I know what resources I have at my disposal, what strategies I can use successfully with the particular blend of students I have at that moment and what I might need to make my program better. Why would somebody whose never seen me teach or met my students be better positioned to decide what I need to do?
This happens because PD days or mandated PD workshops aren’t really “PD”. They are efforts by administrators to control teachers and make them accountable. PD has become a tool for educrats to reach into classrooms and force teachers to do things as they prescribe, because they think they know best.
This ignores the reality that teachers know but is rarely publicly expressed. The only person who really knows what goes on in a classroom is the teacher. My colleagues who teach in adjacent classrooms might suspect what my weaknesses are, but only I really know if things went as I intended. Teachers are the only ones who can affect student learning and so the only ones who can guide their professional development. The sooner the education system accepts this the better.
We need a PD system that respects teachers as professionals and allows them to get the learning and support they really need. Anything less is insulting to teachers and by extension the students and families they serve.