What Teachers Want: PD Barriers and Solutions

This week’s post is heavily influenced by a discussion I had with colleagues as we were attending a professional development session. I walked away from the post-PD discussion thinking about the ways in which districts could better facilitate PD with teacher needs in mind.

Most administrators and coaches can agree that relying on one-size-fits-all, spoonfed traditional professional development is not optimal for teacher development. So how can we better mee ISTE Coaching Standard 1d, “Implement strategies for initiating and sustaining technology innovations and manage the change process in schools and classrooms?” (Iste.org, 2017)

Encouragingly, research has found that coaching and collaboration support teacher development and improved student outcomes. School leaders have subsequently implemented “coaching, feedback from observations, and professional learning communities, or PLCs” (Johnson, 2016).

While this sounds promising, the reality is that there is an enormous disconnect between research findings, administrator’s approach to PD, and how teachers perceive PD:

Source: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014

This is an area of teaching that I feel strongly about as we struggle to be considered professionals and recruit/retain new teachers. Jennifer Gonzalez, the author behind the brilliant blog Cult of Pedagogy, says it best:

“After listening to thousands of teachers tell their stories, I have reached the conclusion that there is one deciding factor that determines where teachers will fall on the continuum, one element that makes the difference in whether the teachers in any given school will lean toward positive and productive or desperate and crushed: That element is the administrator. Behind every teacher story is an administrator who is interpreting policy, setting expectations, and establishing a tone that will determine the quality of their teachers’ work, and by extension, the education their students receive. If too many teachers are drowning at the unhealthy end of the continuum—and our current teacher shortage suggests that this is the case—then too many administrators are tolerating, or creating, unhealthy working conditions. Administrators who may have forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher.” (2017)

For this post, I am going to explore three popular areas of PD (coaching, PLC’s, and workshops) to identify what barriers exist within each and then propose solutions to those barriers.  

Area 1: Coaching

Barriers

  • Distribution of coaches: Fewer than half of all teachers in America receive coaching in the course of a school year.  (Johnson, 2016)
  • Stigma of receiving coaching: The majority of existing coaching is focused on struggling or new teachers which results in a negative stigma associated with coaching. Veteran teachers who could otherwise benefit from coaching feel they are ‘in trouble’ if assigned a coach.  (Johnson, 2016)
  • Frequency of coaching: Coaches are spread thin throughout districts in the US. Despite the benefits of regular, intensive coaching, most teachers who are assigned coaches only meet monthly or a few times a month (33%) or even less frequently than monthly (27%). (Johnson, 2016)
  • Disconnect between observation and coaching: Teachers struggle to find meaning and value in observations that result in quantitative written feedback. Without offsetting the feedback with qualitative, in-depth feedback and mentoring, it can feel hollow. (Johnson, 2016)
  • Experience of coaches: Teachers are skeptical of coaches who also serve as administrators or coaches who have not been in the classroom for many years. Teachers may feel that the person lacks relevancy and the ability to provide authentic, effective feedback. (Johnson, 2016) Further, there is a perception by teachers that some coaches are in that position because the administration did not want them in the classroom. (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014)

Solutions

Two easy solutions to the lack of coaches and quality of administrator-only feedback are the #observeme and Pineapple Chart methods of peer feedback (both of which are explained clearly in this post by Robert Kaplinsky). Essentially, both strategies allow teachers to invite colleagues into their class with some areas of feedback in mind. This allows teachers to gain input from fellow respected peers and also to get targeted feedback. The bonus is that both tools are invitation based– no surprise visits!

When observations are completed, it is so important for administrators or coaches to take the time to debrief with teachers and provide qualitative comments. Just as handing an essay back to students with no comments and only a score is devaluing and unhelpful, so is observation that only results in a score on a scale. Just as with students, feedback should also be specific. Goals should also be established for moving forward. I found the following Post-Observation Coaching Protocol from Engage New York to be very valuable in ensuring the observation process is beneficial for both teachers, and coaches/administrators:

Instructional coach and blogger Lisa Westman has written a wonderful guide for new instructional coaches that includes the importance of building credibility. Some key ways to build credibility and rapport as a coach include sharing your passion, modeling continued learning, and being consistent and honest. (Westman as cited in DeWitt, 2016)

Area 2: Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

Barriers

  • Admin-directed content: Teachers feel that when administrators dictate the content of PLC meetings, they are less productive for teachers and therefore student achievement. (Mielke, 2015)  Administrators’’ priorities often are informed by test scores and raw data whereas teacher priorities are shaped by knowledge of individual student needs.
  • Summative vs formative: Similar to the first barrier, asking PLCs to focus solely on standardized test scores is often at the detriment of valuable in-moment formative data that teachers gather each day in the classroom.  (Mielke, 2015) Teachers understand that test scores are so rarely reflective of student ability and only address a limited area of knowledge. Also, emphasizing test scores and criticizing teachers for these scores in impoverished districts where students are often reading and writing many grades below level seems unfair and counterproductive. It should come as a surprise to no one when a high schooler reading at 2nd-grade level scores poorly on a CCSS reading test.
  • Less talking, more acting: If all a PLC ever does is talk about what they’d like to do or rehash what has already been done, teachers are not going to see the meeting time as valuable. (Mielke, 2015). Without action, a PLC is just a mandated chat session that robs teachers of valuable time to plan, grade, and support student learning.

Solutions

A successful PLC allows teachers the opportunity to set the agenda and norms. Just as in the classroom, ownership leads to engagement. When administrators trust their teachers to know which areas students need support in the most, PLCs can better serve those students. Summative data should be considered in conjunction with formative data.  

Mielke suggests administrators pose questions for PLCs to explore rather than issuing demands. For example, PLC members can identify an area of need and then admin can play a supportive role by developing inquiry questions. For example, “You’ve said often that your curriculum maps aren’t always aligned. What would you need to align them?” (Mielke, 2015)

In a 2014 survey completed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, teachers reported that the top four areas they would like to see implemented in their PLC are 1) time for lesson planning, 2) the opportunity to discuss learning objectives, 3) development of teaching skills and content knowledge, and 4) the chance to debrief on student behavior, class procedures, and expectations. Allowing and encouraging PLCs to focus on areas of need will allow PLCs to be productive and not just another task added to a teacher’s already full plate.

Area 3: Workshops

Barriers

  • Time, the most precious commodity: When planning meetings or workshops, how deliberate is the consideration of the meeting’s necessity and length? Is the content of the meeting absolutely essential to all people required to attend? Has this content already been delivered in just a different way? All of these questions are critical to the planning of meeting and workshops and yet like most teachers, I can count on one hand the number of meetings and workshops over the years that have met these criteria.
  • Needs-based approach: Many administrators encourage teachers to differentiate instruction and content for students and then neglect to do so when providing PD workshops. What is relevant and helpful to a first grade PE teacher rarely will be as beneficial for a high school chemistry teacher.  

Solutions

Being absolutely deliberate about the frequency, length, and content of meetings and workshops is vital in making teachers feel respected and valued. If the message can be delivered via email, do it. Consider some out-of-the-box ways of communicating. Trainers and coaches can prepare videos for dissemination via YouTube or meetings can be held virtually through Google Hangouts or Voxer. I’ve previously blogged about Google Classroom being repurposed as a tool for collaboration which would work well school-wide for PD purposes. Anytime that asynchronous collaboration can be provided, schools will get more buy-in.

Though it requires more time and planning, targeted, choice-based PD will impact the engagement of teachers: “Whenever you can give your teachers choice in content, process, or product, you’ll get better results.” (Gonzalez, 2017).

Conclusion

Though this post is in part a condemnation of current practices, I hope there is also some light at the end of the tunnel. Research has shown the areas that work (coaching and collaboration) and it is encouraging that schools are attempting to put this research into practice. I hope that moving forward, teachers and administrators can work together to refine the coaching and collaboration models into methods that work for each individual school and its unique culture and needs.

 

Sources:

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/download/?Num=2336&filename=Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf

DeWitt, P. (2016). Instructional Coaching in 20 Seconds or Less. Retrieved from https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2016/12/instructional_coaching_in_20_seconds_or_less.html

Gonzalez, J. (2017). What Teachers Want You To Know: A Note to School Administrators. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/letter-to-administrators/

Johnson, K. (2016). 5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves – EdSurge News. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-06-28-5-things-teachers-want-from-pd-and-how-coaching-and-collaboration-can-deliver-them-if-implementation-improves

Mielke, C. (2015). Is Your Professional Learning Community a Farce?. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/plc-problems/

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