We need to fix professional development for teachers

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

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

It’s the second week of August and teachers have returned for in-service training at their school sites. Sitting in the cafeteria, we listen to the same PowerPoint taught by the same person who hasn’t been a classroom teacher in over a decade. As my back throbs from the hard chairs made for kids, I think more about other career options than I do about the presentation going on.

Why am I having to do a training on classroom management, from somebody who doesn’t know my students, when I have reached the highest rating on my prior evaluations from the administration? As I look around at my peers, highly educated champions for students, I don’t see excitement for the upcoming year, I see dread. No longer is there a spark in the air as the school year comes closer. Since the pandemic, more and more teachers are realizing there needs to be a change in the educational system.

The system cannot stay as it was while other systems are changing and thriving. Education is simply stalled.

It’s no secret that teachers are leaving the profession in record-breaking numbers. As of September, there were 36,500 teacher vacancies in the United States. Teachers are burnt out, overworked and underappreciated. On top of that, they are required to attend professional development training and meetings that are redundant or convoluted.

In order to combat the teacher shortage, districts are lowering their requirements for new teachers instead of changing the systems to keep current teachers. Teachers are being placed in the classroom on emergency credentials, and substitute teachers who lack understanding of the content are being placed long-term into classrooms. Teachers who started their careers hopeful and excited are leaving the profession or are simply unhappy in their careers.

Teachers who worked through the pandemic came back to the physical classroom emotionally drained and feeling like they had been through nine rounds with Rocky Balboa. We pushed through distance learning, making changes to our curriculum, begging students to turn on their cameras, and being berated by society. All these things happened, and yet we came 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 slew of other changes came to other fields, why is education staying the same? We, once again, are stalled on the side of the metaphorical road, wanting to drive in a specific direction but being told to stay put for the tow truck that never comes.

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

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 long, arduous training about content they are already experts in, create training that is engaging and focused on content enrichment. Imagine history teachers debating current events, biology teachers in a lab running experiments, language teachers exploring the culture, or English teachers in a book club.

The Learning Policy Institute recommends increasing collaboration and incentivizing professional development. If professional development training and content-specific meetings were based on the specific interests of the teachers as opposed to what the district perceives as a need for the whole site, we could have meaningful engagement and growth.

If we want to combat the teacher shortage, we also need to create space for teachers to have fun with their students and peers. The current rigid curriculum and standards guidelines are making it so that school is so rushed and filled with pressure that we have forgotten learning is supposed to be enjoyable. Now, there is no need to add to the teachers’ plates as they are already overflowing with tasks. Instead, the administration can make simple changes that will relieve the pressure off teachers and bring meaningful professional development back.

Here are some ways we can fix that:

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 time aside for staff to focus on building relationships before content. When teachers can reignite their passion for the content and the 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 credential coach in Fresno. She has earned a multiple-subject credential, single-subject credential and a master’s degree in teaching. She is currently working on her doctorate in curriculum and assessment at Southern Wesleyan University.

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