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Professional Development: How Do You Get Better As a Teacher?

Jordan Catapano

“When it comes to teaching, real improvement is a lot harder to achieve — and we know much less about how to make it happen — than most of us would like to admit.” This statement comes from Dan Weisberg, Chief Executive of TNTP, a non-profit organization that recently published a study finding billions of dollars of annual teacher training is largely a waste.

Professional development for teachers is difficult to quantify. How does one measure how impactful professional development training is? And how can we correlate which professional development trainings led to which improvements by students? And how are we measuring teacher improvement anyhow – with evaluations, student test data, surveys, or other means?

I suppose my questions echo what Weisberg suggests: We really have little understanding of how professional development ends up impacting students.

TNTP’s study examined 10,000 teachers in several different districts. It found that these districts spent $18,000 a year per teacher for professional development. That whopping sum helps us estimate that, in the 50 largest American school districts, $8 billion is spent a year. The Department of Education spends $2.5 billion on teacher professional development as well, but even Arne Duncan lamented in 2012 that teachers “are not feeling it.” Duncan goes on to comment that in terms of understanding how to train teachers in a manner that leads to real improvement, “I think the honest answer is that, in most places, we are not even close.”

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Obstacles to Impactful Professional Development

It’s difficult to identify what it actually takes for professional development to have measurable impact on teacher performance; it’s equally difficult to process why professional development isn’t working like we thought. In theory, teachers attend trainings relevant to their specific classroom needs and experiences, and then apply those trainings – and students improve.

But the reality is far different. TNTP’s study found that while three out of ten teachers improved, two out of ten actually declined. And it’s very unclear why these results are the case.

If anything, the results reveal to us how much we don’t know … which is at least a starting point. Many experts agree that teacher quality is the number one factor affecting student outcomes. Yet, for all our efforts, time, and money spent, we have little idea of how to actually make a teacher better.

Here’s what this reports tells us we need to continue to explore, define, and consider:

  • What characteristics define a “quality teacher?”
  • Which training methods impact teacher improvement the most?
  • How should training differ from teacher to teacher, and school to school?
  • How focused or sustained should a particular facet of professional development be maintained?
  • How much of a teacher’s improvement rely on the teacher’s dedication to actually improving?
  • Can a teacher actually improve, or are social and economic environments and year-to-year differences in students too overwhelming of factors?
  • What elements serve as obstacles to teacher and school improvement?

It may be sad, but the study leaves us with a long, blurry list of questions. The TNTP study results did draw spots of praise, such as from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has criticized low-quality and top-down professional development for years. The report did find that teacher improvement didn’t seem linked to any particular efforts of that teacher’s district. Although the report didn’t disprove a correlation between teacher improvement and district efforts, it might suggest that more teacher-directed professional development opportunities are necessary.

Calling Efforts Into Question

If you’re like me, when you first learned about the TNTP study results you felt a little confused and blindsided. On the one hand, so many teachers and districts work desperately hard on professional development. Teachers take courses, attend seminars and conferences, subscribe to journals, get connected through PLNs, and perform dozens of other self-improvement tasks. Districts spend top-dollar on experts, consultants, trainings, and substitutes. And yet research suggests that we might just be spinning our wheels.

Personally, I attend or speak at several conferences each year. I connect to others digitally. I read books about teaching. I attend graduate school. I even help lead my school’s teacher-led Instructional Development Committee. Are these efforts worthwhile, or are we misleading ourselves by feeling busy but simply making more work for ourselves?

This was my first reaction – a moment of breath-holding while I asked myself these questions. But these are good questions to ask. Perhaps we don’t ask ourselves the “Is this even working?” question enough. Our reaction to this study should at least be a moment of pause to consider how we, as teachers, can truly improve our practices.

Learning Like Our Students

Recent years have led teachers to largely transition toward student-centered classroom instruction, focused on students do the speaking, the thinking, and the engagement with the material. The thinking behind student centered learning is that the more students have a personal interest and engagement with the material at hand, the more they will feel intrinsically motivated to learn. But isn’t the same true for adults, too?

Too often, well-intentioned schools and districts expend resources on the types of professional development they perceive their teachers require. Teachers obediently attend the professional development and return to their classrooms. But how much of the professional development pertained to them? How many specific, tangible inputs does a teacher receive from such training? Just like classrooms transition into a student-centered model of instruction where students learn more because they own and engage with the content, so too should professional development shift to a teacher-centered model where teachers likewise own and engage with pedagogy more.

At the very least, districts should avoid what Weisberg sees as “Throwing a lot of things against the wall and not even looking to see what sticks.” An organized approach to professional development should be taken at both the teacher and the district level, involving a process of training, experimentation, and reflection. Perhaps a process could look something like this:

Establishing a shared vision: This is not a top-down nor a bottom-up approach to professional development. It’s a shared vision, meaning that stakeholders from all levels have come together to discuss what the needs of the individuals and the organization are. Then they agree on their plan and determine what next steps they will follow.

Continuing discussion: Once the vision is established, the conversations don’t stop. They keep going to make sure everyone still shares the vision and they are still operating in the best direction based on all information available.

Targeting strategic professional development: Teachers and administrators should then be exposed to specific professional development opportunities that relate to the needs initially identified. This is not a shotgun approach to scattershot development opportunities, but rather an optimized approach targeting specific times, people, and topics.

Applying tangible methods: Teachers should come away from professional development with ready-for-the-classroom techniques and materials that have proven to work. And then they need to apply it. Teachers should be able to say “I used to do _____, but I now I do ______ in the classroom,” demonstrating specific improvements they’ve made.

Reflecting: After applying new methods and materials, there should be time to consider if they actually had an impact. Grades, test scores, student feedback, and any other means available should be made to help teachers consider if their methods are in fact making a difference. Plus, teachers should reflect on their own implementation, utilizing journals, video recordings, feedback surveys, and other tools of self-reflection.

Reviewing as a group: The “group” – i.e. all teachers and administrators committed to professional development – should continually discuss their progress. And the biggest piece of this discussion is to be willing to admit that their efforts and experiments might not be the right track to go down. Methods must be scrutinized and evaluated so that the best ones can be identified and the least effective ones can be scrapped. The better we allow for group discussions, the more likely we are to land on the most impactful methodologies.

Comparison to Other Fields

As long as we plan, learn, apply, and reflect, we stand a chance at making the most of our professional development. We have a long way to go before discovering exactly how to make those billions of dollars of professional development work for us, but at least we know where our shortcomings are.

I wonder if we spent time examining other industries what we’d discover. I mean, is it common for industries to spend billions only to find that they’ve wasted money? Or is education more the exception than the rule when it comes to the lack of effectiveness of professional development? Maybe we could study how athletes and sports teams improve, how businesses enter a golden age of profits, how non-profits impact their concerns the best, or how militaries train their soldiers. After all, if these other fields see improvement in their personnel, then it might be worth asking how those professional development methods might carryover into education.

The TNTP study might deliver discouraging news, but it’s only temporarily discouraging. Teacher improvement is a nebulous topic with a plethora of factors associated with it. While we might not know what specific steps need to be taken to improve teacher performance, we at least know that what we’re doing right now isn’t the final answer.

How do you think professional development for teachers can be better implemented? What do you think about the TNTP study results and your experiences with professional development? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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Which types of articles would you like to see from us in 2020?
Classroom Management
Classroom Activities/Games
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Professional Development
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