We need to fix teacher professional development

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Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

A student raises her hand to share her work with her teacher.

It is the second week of August and the teachers have returned for further training in their schools. Sitting in the cafeteria, we listen to the same PowerPoint taught by the same person who hasn’t been a teacher in over a decade. As my back throbs from the hard chairs made for kids, I think more about other career options than the current presentation.

Why do I have to do classroom management training, from someone who doesn’t know my students, when I achieved the highest score on my administration pre-assessments? As I look around at my peers, highly educated student champions, I see no excitement for the year ahead, I see fear. There is no longer a spark in the air as the school year approaches. Since the pandemic, more and more teachers are realizing that the education system needs to change.

The system cannot remain as it was while other systems evolve and thrive. Education is simply at a standstill.

It’s no secret that teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. In September, there were 36,500 teaching vacancies in the United States. Teachers are burned out, overworked and undervalued. On top of that, they are required to attend professional development trainings and meetings that are redundant or convoluted.

In an effort to address teacher shortages, districts are reducing their requirements for new teachers instead of changing systems to retain current teachers. Teachers are placed in the classroom with emergency certificates, and substitute teachers who do not understand the content are placed in the classrooms long-term. Teachers who started their careers full of hope and enthusiasm leave the profession or are simply unhappy with their careers.

Teachers who have worked through the pandemic have returned to the physical classroom emotionally drained and feeling like they’ve gone through nine rounds with Rocky Balboa. We pushed distance learning, made changes to our curriculum, begged students to turn on their cameras, and got scolded by society. All of these things happened, and yet we walked into the classroom with no changes other than masks. If General Motors can completely revamp its business model, and Dollar Tree can start selling products for $1.25, and a host of other changes have taken place in other areas, why does education remain t the same? We, once again, are stuck on the metaphorical side of the road, wanting to drive in a specific direction but are told to stay put for the tow truck that never comes.

Teachers start their careers for two main reasons: love of students and love of content. However, between long hours of professional training, meetings, grading, lesson planning and classroom management, the passion that was there wears off.

So what can we do to retain good teachers? Bring back the passion that brought them into the profession in the first place.

Instead of a long and arduous training on content that they are already expert in, create a training that is engaging and focused on content enrichment. Imagine history teachers debating current affairs, biology teachers in a lab performing experiments, language teachers exploring culture, or English teachers in a book club.

The Learning Policy Institute recommends increasing collaboration and encouraging professional development. If professional development training and content-specific meetings were based on teachers’ specific interests rather than what the district perceives as a site-wide need, we could have significant engagement and growth.

If we want to tackle teacher shortage, we also need to create space for teachers to have fun with their students and peers. Today’s rigid curriculum and standards make school so rushed and full of pressure that we have forgotten that learning is supposed to be enjoyable. From now on, there is no longer any need to add to the plates of teachers who are already overflowing with tasks. Instead, the administration can make simple changes that will relieve pressure on teachers and bring back meaningful professional development.

Here are some ways to fix this problem:

Instead of: Try this:
Professional developments focused on grading policies Have staff share their grading policies, share their trials and successes with it, question the purpose of grades
Trainings on topics teachers have shown mastery on through formal observations Offer three or four different training modules in different locations. Teachers who have passed their formal evaluation can choose two to attend; teachers who need support attend the ones decided in their post-evaluation meeting
Meetings focused on common grading assignments Once a month, allow content-area teams to explore something related to their content, such as setting time aside to research current events, explore a new author’s work, research a new scientific finding
Professional development focused on classroom management taught by people who are not current teachers Find current staff who have exceptional classroom management. Ask them to share their successes with their classroom management style. Have a Q&A so staff can learn from a successful current teacher at their specific site.
Expecting teachers to begin teaching content in Week 1 of school Create space for teachers and students to get to know one another, encourage content to wait until Week 2 or 3, share “getting to know you activities”

Encourage teachers to share something about their lives with students, create events where students and staff can share space, and set aside time for staff to focus on building relationships before content. When teachers can rekindle their passion for content and craft, students will reap the benefits and good teachers will stay in the profession.

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Kati Begen is a high school biology educator and graduation coach at Fresno. She obtained a multi-subject diploma, a single-subject diploma and a master’s degree in teaching. She is currently working on her PhD in Curriculum and Assessment at Southern Wesleyan University.

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