How to Get Actual Value Out of Professional Development Sessions

Anyone can benefit from professional development sessions, whether you stepped into the classroom for the first time this year or are a tenured professional with decades of experience. However, not all types of professional development provide value in the same way. Your school might not cover topics you want to dive into or provide the learning style that works best for you.

There are ways to make your PD sessions more effective so you can grow as an educator. Follow this guide to learn how to find effective learning systems and how to provide feedback to your school or district.

Teacher Training Isn’t Always Great

Let’s face it, not every professional development session is valuable or beneficial to educators. There will be times when you sit through a training meeting and count the minutes until it is over. Kati Begen, a high school biology teacher, painted a great picture of this in an article for EdSource.

“It’s the second week of August and teachers have returned for in-service training at their school sites,” she writes. “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. 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?”

Begen isn’t the only one to voice frustration about ineffective PD meetings. Jane Morris, the pen name behind Teacher Misery, shares an extensive list of terrible teacher training sessions she has had to sit through. These range from bloodborne pathogen training (“I learned not to pick up vomit with my bare hands”) to workshops on reading strategies (“I learned to follow along with my pointer finger when I read”).

Morris asked her teacher friends about their least effective training experiences. These include drum circles, laugh therapy, throwing paper balls, name games and making cell phone cases out of pipe cleaners and selling them on infomercials. There’s a lot of bad training out there.

Even if the content of the training is valuable, it isn’t always applicable. This means the sessions are quickly forgotten. Professional development consultant Steve Ventura, who wrote “Achievement Teams: How a Better Approach to PLCs Can Improve Student Outcomes and Teacher Efficacy,” says teachers don’t necessarily need to dedicate their PD time to new initiatives. They’re too busy, constantly looking into new technology and systems to use. They don’t need more.

Ventura has found that when teachers ask, “Why do I need to learn this?,” what they really mean is, “When am I going to find time for this?”

It’s okay to approach your district-led PD training with skepticism. It’s worth noting that you can still get value out of these sessions.

adults attending a lecture, with laptops open on desks; professional development sessions concept

Try to Find Targeted Professional Development Opportunities

First, look at all of the professional development events to see if some sessions apply more to you than others. In a perfect world, your district won’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to training.

There should be take-away information offered too. “Specificity gives teachers actionable strategies that they can apply,” writes the team at content creation company Screencast-o-Matic. “Since the goal of any professional development resource should be to provide teachers with information and skills they can put into practice as soon as possible, specificity increases the relevance and effectiveness of your PD.”

Next, look for differentiated learning opportunities. Not everyone learns best in a primarily lecture-based live presentation. You may benefit more from a hands-on workshop or online seminar.

A 2021 teacher survey by Interactive Educational Systems Design found that 55 percent of respondents said their interest in online and on-demand professional learning opportunities has increased since the pandemic. Only 20 percent said they’ve had more access to targeted professional learning during this time and 24 percent reported decreased or no availability.

It’s also good to remember that you don’t have to give up several hours — or entire days — to professional development. You may benefit from micro-training, or short podcasts and videos that only last 10-20 minutes.

“Time, on its own, does not guarantee programs will move the needle on instructional practice or student outcomes,” writes Rick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Look for PD opportunities that you can build into your day. Instead of waiting for an annual conference or district-led session, you can watch weekly YouTube videos or listen to podcasts you enjoy.

Look for Alternative Learning Opportunities

As an educator, you may be limited in how you engage in professional development. Schools, districts, and states all have expectations for their teachers and provide training based on these criteria.

“For many school districts, professional development is only counted if the staff member is doing it on one of only a handful of days during the school year where PD (Professional Development) is offered by the school district,” says Jeffrey Bradbury, founder of the TeacherCast Educational Network. “This, unfortunately, discourages staff members from looking outside of school for professional learning opportunities and punishes them for the times that they do seek to improve themselves.”

Even so, it’s worth your time to look for additional development opportunities if your district isn’t providing the information you need. Talk to your administrative team and department heads if you need to learn something but can’t find resources provided by the district.

For example, Monica Bennett at Seeds for Teachers shared her professional development model that she uses in her Seeds school. Teachers sign up for the training and work on it at their own pace.

“I tell them the topic a few days ahead of time and let them sign up if they are interested in the month’s topic,” Bennett writes. She provides an actual box that contains a summary, models and application opportunities. Bennett follows up with her teachers at the end of the month and may enter the classroom to model the covered topic if they are struggling with the concept.

You can also talk with your admin team if you need to complete these PD sessions during the school day. Not all teachers have the ability to attend conferences or spend their weekends working through online webinars.

“While it may seem logical, the persistent offering of PD outside of school hours can potentially be seen as an equity issue,” write teachers Rachel Johnson and Katie Attwell at EduGals. “Educators are in all different stages of life; some teachers have young children that they have to take care of, others may have to work a second job,” they explain. “There are also some teachers that may not have access to quality or reliable wifi at home, particularly in rural areas.”

Additionally, some teachers might be exhausted after a long day and wouldn’t retain the information.

Explain how the professional development programs you’ve found can make you a more effective teacher and can give you applicable tools for your classroom. Be clear about the time needed and try to develop a plan for building it into your day.

adults setting at a table, listening to an instructor; professional development sessions concept

Provide Feedback to Your District

If you are unable to seek out professional development tools on your own, try to work with your school and district. Talk to your administrators and provide feedback if possible. In several studies, teachers highlight that PD needs to be targeted and flexible to different learners.

“Teachers maintained that PD cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution because every class has its own specific set of needs,” writes former teacher Kayla Reist, now a research consultant at the Albert Shanker Institute. “Additionally, teachers wanted administrators to respect that everyone will enter a PD session with a different level of background knowledge and will not become an expert on a topic after just one session.”

A professional development session that is old news for one teacher might be overwhelming for another. One-size-fits-all typically means one-size-fits-none.

Some districts are listening, learning and applying feedback provided by teachers. They have developed systems to make PD more flexible and therefore more effective.

“One reason our model has worked well for more than a decade is because it’s driven by educator choice and voice,” says Marcia DeSalvo, director of teaching and learning at the Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Philadelphia. The school surveys teachers twice yearly to determine what they want to learn and focus on. “We also ask them to rate their preference on times, dates, types (all year, one day, summer) and learning models (virtual, asynchronous, blended) that they believe will work best for them,” DeSalvo explains.

The flexible model takes steps to accommodate more teachers and adopts an approach of constant improvement. Plus, the needs of teachers might differ from one year to the next. For example, at the start of the pandemic, educators needed online learning resources and tips for virtual classroom management.

“In a bid to invest more into their PD offer, some schools have taken the step of altering the timings of their academic day to allow for dedicated PD time, usually in an afternoon slot,” writes Becton Loveless at Education Corner. “Schools have also begun to appoint research leads to act as a gateway, a filter for the wealth of information out there with regard to improving teaching and learning.”

These leads connect teachers with appropriate training sessions based on their goals. They also ensure that school-wide teacher development events are relevant and effective.

close-up of a row of seated adults with open notebooks and phone; professional development sessions concept

Work With What You’ve Got

The reality is that you can’t control every aspect of PD in your school. There will be irrelevant sessions you need to attend or relevant ones that aren’t executed well.

“Every state has professional development requirements for teachers and they are tied to licensure and teaching credentials,” Julia Francis writes at professional learning platform Alludo. “Teachers must meet the requirements each year in order to retain their licenses and continue to work in the classroom. It’s for this reason that almost every professional learning environment includes meeting state requirements as a career goal.”

You can control how you approach these PD meetings. Look for ways to apply the content or dig deeper after the session ends. Try to glean a few actionable items from every session, even if you are simply brushing up on existing knowledge.

“There is a high likelihood that any professional learning course or workshop that you attend will have a high level of familiarity to you,” says educator Michael McDowell, author of “The Busy Teacher: Differentiation for Every Classroom.” He adds that “one way to focus your mind and sharpen your skills is to find nuance on the topic.”

Also, try to use this time to network with the teachers around you. What are their takeaways from the sessions? What PD resources do they turn to?

“Sometimes [teachers] get so caught up in classroom responsibilities they forget they have supportive colleagues who are very much experiencing the same highs and lows as them,” writes Linda Valloor at HiMama’s early childhood education blog. “Professional development can remind educators they are not alone. Collaborating will boost morale and help build connections within the group.”

You will attend countless professional development sessions throughout your career. Some will provide in-depth insights that you remember for years. Others will seem repetitive or irrelevant — and even dated. Advocate for your education and find PD opportunities that work for you.

Images by: rawpixel/©, kasto/©, Jason Goodman, Sincerely Media