Professional Development: Why We Must Be Lifelong Learners by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator
I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and one of my fellow teacher friends had posted a screenshot of a nursing textbook, highlighting a section that had been included on pain management as it breaks down by ethnicity. Some of the statements included were these: Blacks often report higher pain intensity. Jews may be vocal and demanding of assistance. Native Americans tend to be less expressive both verbally and nonverbally. And on and on…. It was singularly disturbing, particularly in light of recent events. This was in a current nursing text; someone read that, approved it, passed it through the editor, and published it as a scientific fact.
This, to me, was one of the best demonstrations of why we need professional development. As we know better, we do better. In addition to checking for privilege and bias in ourselves, we should strive to be on the leading edge in our fields, whatever they may be. This is where Professional Development comes in.
As we know better, we do better.
I propose that you NEVER give up on improving. For most instructors, we are lifelong learners, always looking to improve what we’re doing, see a greater positive outcome for our students, and additionally, knowing new things makes you a shoe-in for the neighborhood trivia contest team. Just as parents are the single greatest influencers in children’s life choices, teachers are the single greatest influence in education choices. Before we think about curriculum, educational benchmarks, and all the rest of the important lingo, we must be what we want to create. Model what you want. If you want students who are curious, seeking new knowledge, engaging in their own self-improvement, you should demonstrate this yourself at every point. Talk about the new things you’ve learned, whether it’s how to change your oil or fix your vacuum cleaner or the newest research on brain science. Your enthusiasm about learning new information will translate. Trust that the numbers bear this out.
When I was younger, I worked for an Early Childhood Special Education grant, and one of my jobs was to tally the workshop evaluations at the end of every inservice we presented. What shocked and alarmed me was that in every workshop, there was at least one attendee who complained about having to participate in professional development. “Why can’t we just get certified and that’s it? Why do we have to keep going to these things?” First, egads. Second, perhaps I was misinterpreting this. Maybe it’s because professional development has traditionally been seen as tedious and not focused on real teachers’ needs? Maybe the focus on earning a certain number of CEU’s per a certain time period caused teachers to sign up for trainings that were not relevant to them just to pad their numbers? But I also know, because I’m a realist and I’ve actually been in some of these classrooms, that there are people out there teaching who would genuinely like time to stand still. Once they create a lesson plan, they do not want to have to update, question, or possibly even start over from scratch based on new information.
For those on the fence about PD, here are just some of the amazing benefits of vigorous, focused professional development:
Sets You Up for Success
The teaching discipline is constantly changing, as is the language surrounding it. If you’re not staying current with the new language, the new tools, you will not be seen as someone who should be given more responsibilities, more prominence in a program.
Expands Knowledge Base
To your students, you are the subject matter expert. While it’s perfectly acceptable to occasionally say, “I don’t know! I’ll have to look that up and get back to you!” you don’t want to have to do it all the time, or you will begin to erode your own credibility with your students. Each time you have the answer to one of those questions, you add a brick in the mansion that is your ethos.
Speaking from a place of authority gives us the confidence to stand up in a room full of people and dispense our knowledge and encourage them to build their own knowledge base. If you’ve attended a good professional development session, you know the feeling of exhilaration that comes from taking new information and applying it directly to your classroom only to see improved results. Think of the classroom as your test. PD is the stellar study group that gets you ready to ace that test.
Professional development is one of the best ways to get to know your fellow teachers in a low-stress environment. Networking is as important to teachers as it is in any other profession. They may have information or connections that help you do your job better! Perhaps someone in that workshop knows a community member who might be a useful connection for your classroom. Veteran teachers are also great about sharing their resources and their experiences.
Helps Teachers Set and Achieve Goals
PD can help us identify specific areas in our teaching that we are less comfortable with and create a plan to increase our effectiveness. For instance, if we know we are not being thorough enough with our assessment, we can target that area for professional development. If we’d like to improve our content delivery or try a flipped classroom, we can learn about it and try it.
Improves Job Satisfaction
Did you know that almost 50% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years of their start date? Research indicates that this is overwhelmingly due to the inadequate support and supervision they experience. Most only had student teaching and then bam! Their own classroom. This is clearly not enough to create the kind of nurturing environment teachers need to fill their tanks so they can in turn nurture others. There is tremendous satisfaction in feeling like you are making a difference. It’s my experience that most teachers feel they were “called” to teaching, that they have a strong desire to make the world a better place by helping their students maximize their potential. If this is your motivation, how unhappy would you be if you felt you were inadequate at it? Conversely, those teachers who feel they are impactful express tremendous satisfaction with what they do (even if they wish they made more money!).
Puts You In the Role of Student
This is crucial for staying connected to the learning experience. It can be isolating to stay only in the role of teacher, authority figure, without ever going around to the other side of the desk. PD asks us to put down our protections and take the risk of learning and trying and possibly failing at something new, the precise behavior we want from our students. It truly helps to experience regularly how vulnerable that can make you feel.
Improves Student Outcomes
According to a Queens University study, students performed 21% better on end-of-year exams in classrooms where the teachers had their National Board Certification. Whether that’s a function of ambitious teachers who are constantly seeking new strategies or the confidence that the continual growth gives them in the classroom is unclear, but the outcome is not. Those who are constantly growing are building better environments for students.
Not all Professional Development is created equally, though. Here’s what the good stuff does:
- focuses on specific areas of our teaching (delivery, design, alignment, assessment)
- incorporates active learning—look for hands-on activities (think: watch one, do one, teach one)
- supports collaboration; most of the best learning happens with others at ALL ages
- uses models of effective practice; these should be specific and plentiful but are not necessarily discipline-specific
- provides mentoring and professional support consistently
- offers numerous opportunities for feedback and reflection; this is how long-term memory is stored for all of us
- is done on a consistent enough basis to achieve lasting change; try scaffolding your experiences so you’re building on previous successes
- is responsive to educators’ needs—good PD folk are flexible enough to let loose the reins and meet teachers’ requirements
- provides bridge to leadership opportunities; administration loves teachers who are seeking to improve themselves: it demonstrates a commitment to excellence and to the institution and the students
- aligns policies with best practice
Does this list look familiar? Isn’t this what we’re striving for in our classrooms of adult learners? We ARE adult learners, after all.
Combine all that and what do you get? We can’t prepare students for the future without checking it out ourselves and staying current and relevant. And our students are not the only beneficiaries—we will be more satisfied, more connected, more knowledgeable, and we will be amping up the difference we make in the lives of our students.
Resources to continue (or begin) your journey:
Aileen Kennedy (2005) Models of Continuing Professional Development: a framework for analysis, Journal of In-Service Education, 31:2, 235-250, DOI: 10.1080/13674580500200277
L. van den Bergh et al. “Teacher learning in the context of a continuing professional development programme: A case study.” Teaching and Teacher Education 47 (2015) 142e150
Marion Dadds (1997) Continuing professional development: nurturing the expert within, Journal of In-Service Education, 23:1, 31-38, DOI: 10.1080/13674589700200007