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Professional development is often not suited to teachers’ needs in the workplace. Photo: Stockphoto

PD failing to address teacher needs

OPINION: A cookie-cutter approach to personal development doesn’t work.

The start of each new school year brings with it the perennial challenge even the most seasoned school leader must face: how to provide quality professional development for an increasingly diverse group of teachers.

Irrespective of whether the focus is on teachers new to the profession, those with many years’ experience or subject specialists, the need for professional development, or PD, to support teachers’ ongoing learning is a continuing source of debate.

As such, it triggers widely varying views among bureaucrats, school leaders, teachers and even parents.

Teachers complain about the lack of available development opportunities, school leaders express concern at the cost of taking teachers out of the classroom, and parents don’t always appreciate the value of yet another student-free PD day.

While PD suggests a formal process like a conference, workshop or course of study, it can also include less formal or structured elements such as a discussion with work colleagues, action research and even mentoring.

As many teachers settle back at their desks following the summer break, schools across Western Australia will embark on PD programs designed to achieve much-needed and often illusive professional growth.

Usually, however, they fail to deliver.

The high incidence of failure, according to many in the education profession, can be blamed on the fact the design of too many PD programs is completely at odds with approaches to learning teachers are trained to pursue in the classroom.  

While the expectation is that effective classroom leaders will tailor learning experiences to students’ varying knowledge and skills, teachers will tell you it is rare that the designers of PD programs do the same. 

Many teachers find themselves enduring PD sessions that simply revisit old ground or, even worse, they participate in development activities completely unmatched to their learning needs.

It is true to say the design of PD often neglects the very things teachers want to learn – for example, how to recover when a lesson goes south or even how to recognise one’s own biases – in favour of PD that addresses systemic or school-wide initiatives.  

What we sometimes fail to recognise is that while school-wide initiatives are important, so too are the specific learning needs of individual teachers.

When it comes to the delivery of PD programs, therefore, school leaders must map out multiple learning paths to meet the increasingly diverse professional needs of a progressively varied group of teachers.

But it is not just the design failure of PD programs to address learning needs that is of concern.

Many teachers also complain about the way in which content is delivered, alleging that some teacher educators and facilitators commit a host of PD sins by abandoning the most basic principles of adult learning.

Topping the list is the view that some presenters treat teachers as broken down and in need of fixing. 

For professional growth to occur, school leaders must source presenters who acknowledge the extensive professional expertise of teachers and are able to build on that base.  

Another problem is that, even on the rare occasion the PD topics are relevant, teachers are regularly thrown back into the choppy waters of the classroom without so much as a life jacket; that is, without ongoing support to assist with the transfer of new knowledge or skills.

School leaders who want PD to make a difference will need to spend time developing a coaching culture in their schools, one that provides the necessary support to allow learning to be transferred from a PD program into the classroom.

There is also the thorny issue around PD and the absence of any form of accountability. 

Every year, schools collectively spend millions of dollars delivering PD to thousands of teachers, often without any mechanism in place to ensure that new initiatives are implemented. 

In a profession replete with competing demands, most times only the most motivated teachers will embrace a new initiative. 

When it comes to PD, embracing accountability is a must for those school leaders who want to ensure the investment in new learnings makes a significant difference to their classrooms.

The message for school leaders is clear. 

For quality in PD, school leaders must: cater for varying levels of expertise among teachers; accommodate the existing and often substantial expertise already present among teachers, both individually and as a collective; provide implementation support in the classroom; and apply accountability measures.

It is only when these shortcomings are addressed that we will have learning programs in place in schools that will deliver real professional growth for most, and hopefully all, teachers.

• Professor Gary Martin is CEO at the Australian Institute of Management WA

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