I am an advocate for professional development, teachers developing their professional competence in a variety of ways. PD could be a staff PD you lead, a staff PD led by teachers, PLC meetings, teacher visits to others’ classrooms, visits to another school, personal exploration of new ideas via podcasts, books, online courses, etc.
The striking reality across the U.S. is that staff PDs are often ineffective. Unfortunately lots of staff PD is not actionable, collaborative, job-embedded, or ongoing. Consequently, research has shown that many PD initiatives appear ineffective in supporting changes in teacher practices and student learning (Learning Policy Institute, 2017). I urge leaders to identify a variety of types of PD, some of which can and should be whole staff workshops. Others, may take teachers out of the classroom to step back and strategically plan for instructional alignment or visit another school to see the possibilities of how things can be done differently.
Most schools have staff PD time built into teachers’ contracted school days, but I wouldn’t always use this time for a whole group meeting, especially if you don’t have other times for PLCs (e.g., grade teams, department teams) to meet during the school day.
Deciding when to have a whole staff meeting versus a PLC meeting or deciding when it’s best to invite teachers to leave their classrooms to visit other schools or strategically plan instruction is difficult. You may be concerned about losing control by allocating more time for PLCs, which are harder to oversee, or you may worry about taking teachers away from their students. In fact, teachers themselves are often reluctant to leave their classrooms for PD!
This post describes what I call opportunity cost reframes. (An opportunity cost being what we’re giving up, what else we could be doing with our time or energy.) Reframing the thinking about making time for PD can help school leaders decide when to offer a particular PD opportunity to teachers and increase teacher buy-in to spending time on their own growth and development.
Here, I’ll share a couple of examples of common responses to PD opportunities (perhaps from teachers, or maybe from you) and then a way to reframe thinking about PD.
The “I can’t take time from teachers’ grading/lesson planning” response. We may think that if we take time away from teachers’ grading or lesson planning, kids will suffer. Teachers are pressed for time, and we don’t want to cut into the precious time they do have. Often, it’s best practice to protect teacher time. For example, we do not want to call teachers into unproductive meetings during their prep time. But, sometimes, it’s beneficial to invest teacher time in professional development. Let’s apply an opportunity cost reframe. How can we reframe that first response and use an opportunity cost approach?
Ask these reframing questions: What if the professional development teachers spend time on teaches them how to plan efficiently and grade faster and it actually saves teachers time in the long run? What if it helps teachers build engaging learning activities so that students are on-task and excited to learn every day? What if it means teachers would be able to stop taking work home—the planning/grading work and the mental stress?
You know your teachers best. If they are at a place where they are feeling overworked and under-resourced, help them with that! Structurally, adjust what you can, but also, offer PD on mindset shifts or tips and techniques that will help teachers use their time more efficiently so that they then have the time and energy to pursue future personal professional development opportunities. (If you are wondering what that could look like, my online, self-paced, Work Less Teach More course opens soon—March 2020.)
The “Teachers can’t miss class for PD” response. When you are able to offer teachers a chance to attend PD during school hours (maybe visiting another school or having a curriculum planning day), leaders are often reluctant to pull teachers out of their classes. A note here: we should avoid “pulling” teachers and instead “invite” teachers to take advantage of the opportunities we offer. If teachers respond with, “I can’t give up a whole day of student learning,” (which let’s be real, most classes don’t accomplish much when the teacher is out) try suggesting a reframe to increase teacher buy-in.
Ask these reframing questions: Are you willing to sacrifice one day of student learning if it means you and your students are energized and engaged for the rest of the year? What if it just increased engagement for semester? One unit? What if the thing you could accomplish by missing ONE day of class could drastically improve student engagement and achievement?
This last set of reframe questions isn’t just for teachers. You can ask yourself these questions as a leader too. The reality is we have a finite amount of time to advance student learning and it’s a game of trying to figure out the most efficient and effective ways of reaching that goal. So, knowing this, the question I want you to start asking is: What’s the opportunity cost of teachers not engaging with this PD?
If I asked myself this question and decided, if teachers don’t engage with this PD opportunity, their students will likely miss out on deeper, more engaged learning experiences for the rest of the year, I would make sure to offer that PD! That’s not an opportunity cost I would be okay with. I know we all want students to be engaged and learning as much as possible. We may just need to reframe our thinking about how to reach this goal.
Just think: If you and your whole staff had this mindset around professional growth opportunities for the last year, how much further along could your school be today?
Personally, I can point to specific PD experiences that, had I not had them, I would have been less effective as a teacher, had less fun in my job, and as a result, would have likely quit teaching after my third year. Instead, I was able to use PD to learn new things, step back to get a birds-eye view of my practice, and then make a conscious, strategic shift to do things differently.
To help you apply an opportunity cost reframe, I made a worksheet for you that gives you more specific questions regarding the opportunity costs of a planning and offering a particular PD experience as well as space to process your thoughts in writing.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.