Professional development may be a requirement, but that doesn’t mean district leaders are always able to put it at the top of their priority lists. However, we know that increasing student growth is a very important, common goal that districts nationwide share. What many schools don’t realize is that high-quality PD can actually lead to an increase in student achievement. High-quality, rigorous PD can and should be the driving force in meeting and exceeding their goals of increasing student growth by hiring and retaining more effective teachers.
Every school has a PD program, but too often they consist of overgeneralized seminars and courses that aren’t relevant to the specific challenges that teachers face in the classroom. Quality PD programs are engaging, customized plans based on the strengths and weaknesses of an educator. Quality PD includes a variety of contexts such as team meetings, mentor initiatives and personalized course structure that address an educator’s specific challenges or weaknesses. They should also be tracked in order to measure progress. Not all teachers are great at the same things, nor do all teachers deal with the same issues in a classroom. It’s important to identify what a teacher does well and where he could improve so that these issues are addressed in a PD program.
As a former school teacher, principal and school improvement officer, I have developed rigorous training and leadership programs for new educators in some of the highest-performing — albeit struggling — schools in the country. I have witnessed the power of PD and the impact it has on student success. As chief school improvement officer at an Illinois school district, my team and I were able to double student academic growth, reduce serious discipline incidents by 80%, increase attendance and raise freshmen on-track rates, all of which could not have been achieved without our high-quality PD plans.
Hiring and retaining more-effective teachers
Districts can utilize their high-quality PD programs as an advantage in the job market. Quality teachers are in high demand, especially for specialty areas like technology, and schools need to stay competitive in order to attract the best candidates. Schools with strong PD programs have an advantage over other schools as the benefits and outcomes of results-driven PD are extremely desirable to new teachers.
Teachers know there are challenges in every classroom, but far too many of them can tell horror stories about being thrown into a struggling classroom with little or no support. Quality teachers with several interviews lined up are going to proactively avoid situations like this. What candidate wouldn’t be thrilled when an interviewing principal can tell them that their school has a high-quality professional development program that addresses the individual needs of each classroom? A teacher candidate is much more likely to accept that position over another position with a PD program that may offer monthly seminars on irrelevant topics.
Quality PD is also a great way to retain new teachers. Retention is important because new teacher turnover is costly and affects student learning. According to one study, students in grade levels with higher turnover scored lower in both English and math and the turnover rate effects are particularly strong in schools with more low-performing and African-American students. Furthermore, roughly 30% of new teachers in the U.S. leave the profession within five years, and the turnover rate is 50% higher in high-poverty schools than in more affluent ones.
New teachers may leave for a variety of reasons including poor working conditions, a lack of resources or low compensation. However, the biggest reason teachers leave is due to the fact that they feel unsupported. When teachers feel unsupported they get frustrated and burn out quickly. Quality PD allows schools to create an environment of support and growth for new and current teachers so they are better equipped to be successful in the classroom and more likely to have a high morale. From differentiated learning styles to technology in the classroom, professional development courses teach educators how to approach challenges that are specific to the district, school or even their classroom. Furthermore, strong professional development programs can lead to better teacher teams. Mentors can make a huge difference for new educators because it gives them someone to turn to when they’re in need of guidance and support.
Strong professional development programs are a win-win for new teachers and schools. Systemizing your professional development is the most efficient way to support and retain your new hires and ultimately give your students the best chance to succeed.
Improving student performance
In order for teachers to become more effective and increase student growth, their weaknesses need to be addressed through PD, while their strengths are continually supported. When teachers are supported with high-quality PD, it positively impacts student achievement. Quality PD should be tracked accurately which means that the program not only collects teacher data but it also collects student data to track the effectiveness of the teacher.
Quality PD helps identify what is working and what is not working. If an educator teachers a unit and a significant number of students don’t pass the final exam, what does that tell you? Look at how the unit was taught: What activities were performed? What assessments were given? Were differently learning styles accounted for? Maybe the teacher wasn’t adequately prepared to teach the unit. Maybe she didn’t fully understand why a certain activity was performed. The goal is to address these questions before the educator teaches a lesson so that student learning isn’t negatively impacted. Proactive PD programs that are based on an educator’s strengths and weaknesses help avoid situations like this and create more time and opportunity to increase student learning rather than hinder it.
Professional development should be viewed as a support system not only for teachers, but for the students as well. When PD plans include teacher input, relevant subject matters and a variety of learning settings, the increase in teacher effectiveness, morale and retention directly impact the success of the entire district.
Donald Fraynd, Ph.D, a former principal and chief school improvement officer, is CEO of TeacherMatch, an education talent management system.
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