Professional Development

Teachers Are Students Too: Rethinking Professional Development is Key to Student Recovery

The news keeps coming about the extent of student learning gaps associated with the pandemic, with the latest Nation’s Report Card showing steep, across-the-board declines. I’m a former high school math teacher and now run a nonprofit aimed at helping teachers improve and innovate in the classroom. We can’t expect students to rebound unless we do a far better job supporting teachers.

Survey data accompanying the Nation’s Report Card shows teachers are experiencing higher levels of burnout and low confidence in addressing students’ knowledge and skills gaps. Here’s what I see in visits to schools: While student needs are more varied than ever, schools are still mostly using one-size-fits-all approaches to instruction.

One way to help teachers meet the moment is by overhauling professional development. Teachers spend an estimated 68 hours a year in professional learning, however it’s not delivering on its promise. Most teachers are unsatisfied with those, and a majority say the PD they get isn’t targeting their needs. Here are steps we need to take to turn things around for teachers and their students.

Mirror good classroom instruction 

Strong professional development should emulate great classroom practice. It should feature active learning experiences and allow teachers to try strategies we want them to use with students, like student-directed learning and peer collaboration.

And like in the K-12 classroom, instruction for teachers should be differentiated. When I was a high school math teacher in a large Washington D.C., public school, I spent plenty of time in one-size-fits-all professional development sessions. They didn’t help me improve. What did fuel my growth and allowed me to shift toward better instruction was collaborating with peers and getting personalized support and advice from a mentor.  

Give teachers choices

Education leaders should allow educators to opt into professional development. This builds self-direction and fosters the buy-in needed to make change. Administrators can offer a range of PD options and let teachers choose from those. Of course, this won’t always be doable. Some professional learning experiences, perhaps related to school safety or a new curriculum, has to be delivered to everyone. But it’s vital to give teachers choice more often than not.

In exchange for that flexibility, and because it’s good instructionally, leaders can ask teachers to bring something back that reflects their learning. This might be a lesson, written reflection of their experience, or something else that aligns with the learning opportunity.

They need time

For professional development to be effective it should be sustained over time. Rarely will a one-time workshop make a difference. It takes more than a few hours to acquire new skills and knowledge, build classroom resources, try new practices, and reflect on them. 

When schools leverage PD most effectively, they take a careful look at how they’re scheduling teacher time and look for opportunities to free them up to apply their learning. If you’re a school leader holding non-essential meetings with staff, consider providing that information digitally and using that time for meaningful PD and work time. In one district we support in Michigan, leaders replaced a high percentage of grade-level and content-area team meetings with self-paced work time to tackle the assignments in our virtual mentorship program. 

Try a mastery-based approach to PD

We’ve seen in our work that mastery-based learning, in which students demonstrate competency before moving on to the next lesson, works for kids. So, why not try it for adults? Schools and districts can use the approach in professional development, supporting teachers on a path toward developing expertise and assessing them along the way. Teachers should have something actionable to do or show, to demonstrate their mastery. 

There are many ways of going about this. In our model, we ask teachers to complete five assignments and create three classroom-ready lessons. Teachers get detailed written feedback on their assignments that outline their strengths, areas for improvement, and questions to consider. They go home with actionable steps and practical resources to use in the classroom. 

This would have been so helpful to me in my early days of teaching. I remember being a new teacher and attending PD that was theory and research heavy without any practical or implementable solutions. I was given some great resources, but I didn’t know how to use them. 

Don’t underestimate the power of mentors

Perhaps the single most important thing that helped me innovate in my classroom and allowed me to move from teacher-centered lectures to student-led, mastery-based instruction, was having a strong mentor. That happened when another math teacher in my school invited me to observe his classroom and showed me how to create the kind of changes I was interested in making but couldn’t do on my own. 

All educators, especially when trying new approaches, deserve to be supported by mentors who have the experience to help them. I love the ripple effect that you see when mentorship is a core feature of professional learning opportunities. An educator I’ve worked with, Dacia Guffey, a high school social studies teacher in Durham, North Carolina, has supported more than 100 teachers around the country and in her own district as a mentor. She is a full-time teacher and shares that expertise with other teachers who want to redesign their classrooms toward a competency-based model.

Educators and policymakers are engaged in a national conversation over how to invest in and improve schools amid the massive disruption to education and devastating impact on student learning. What I hope doesn’t get lost in all this is the vital role professional development can play in promoting positive change. When done right, it is a strong investment in teachers and the young lives they are helping to shape.

Kareem Farah
Kareem Farah is the CEO and co-founder of the Modern Classrooms Project, a nonprofit that supports educators in delivering self-paced, blended instruction. Farah previously taught in Washington D.C. and Hawaii. He was awarded the 2018 Standing Ovation for DC public schools award for excellence in classroom innovation.

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