Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How Can We Improve Teacher Professional Development? A Teacher Tells Us How

August 30, 2013

To paraphrase an old Chinese proverb: Tell professional educators how to teach, they teach for a day; show them how to teach, they teach for a lifetime. For decades, education professionals have endured far too many sessions of drive-by, one-size-fits-all, undifferentiated, top-down professional development that are more stifling than instructive. Precious little time is allocated, however, to job-imbedded professional development like true collaborative planning and collegial observations.

An absolute sea change is necessary in our national attitudes about the organization and delivery of professional development for educators. Just as we tell a nascent writer that creating a text is a process and not an isolated event, evolving toward elevated instructional practice is a fluid, spiraling process, and not simply the product of a series of discrete trainings. Teaching must join the ranks of other professions, such as the legal and medical professions, by charging the workforce with both the establishment and enforcement of more rigorous standards of professional practice. Why?

Because the stakes are too high and the intellectual lives of children are too important to be subjected to the "trial-and-error" methodology endured by most novice teachers.

 An absolute sea change is necessary in our national attitudes about the organization and delivery of professional development for educators.

It was my immense good fortune to have entered the teaching profession through a very progressive teacher preparation program—the Master's Certification program at the University of Maryland, College Park—a program that relied greatly on collegial observation throughout the yearlong intensive program. All members of the cohort were sent into classrooms weekly to observe seasoned teachers at their practice.

Interns critiqued every lesson they observed through the prism of several questions. "What did you see that worked?" "What did you see that did not work?" "Was there anything that might have been done differently?"  In the second half of the internship, we observed each other through those same filtering questions, and we critiqued videos of our own lessons as we completed an Action Research Project examining the progression of one teaching behavior over time.  The act of automatic "reflection" was instilled as one of the pillars of effective teaching.

Unfortunately, structured Peer Assistance and Collegial Observations virtually ended in the fall of 1987 upon my hiring as a full-time classroom instructor. For the next two decades, it was my fate to sit through mandatory trainings on techniques that, at times, were already in my repertoire. Once, my supervisors required me to attend a daylong workshop on Cooperative Education and the “Teams, Games & Tournaments” that I had introduced to our schools in an earlier decade.  How can we alter the paradigm for professional development and render it more utilitarian?

First, we must overcome the centuries-old beliefs and prejudices that serve only to undermine the status of teachers in the realm of public opinion. Too many policy makers still hold to the old adage that “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.”  The belief that “anyone can teach” impedes our progress in establishing appropriate programmatic changes.

The second most-salient problem is that the structure of the school day isolates those who teach most effectively from those who are struggling. Left to their own devices, the latter are largely left to flail in the “sink-or-swim” model.  If all we do is tell non-swimmers how to swim and throw them in the deep water without supports, drowning is a distinct possibility.

The effective delivery of instruction is inherently complex and requires knowledge of specific content areas, mastery of multiple pedagogical models, understanding of the fundamental principles of cognitive psychology, appreciation of individual learning styles, familiarity with current research and, increasingly, the ability to analyze massive amounts of data.  Teachers must also, with equal aplomb, address the emotional needs of children.  Owing to these complexities, most effective teachers seldom hit their full stride as teachers until after six years in the classroom.

Why do we confer the title “teacher” upon entry into the profession after only four years of undergraduate study and minimal teaching experience? The requirement of a rigorous post-graduate degree in pedagogy and an internship would better serve the needs of children.  At a minimum, potential teaching candidates would profit immensely from a year, or two, in the “second seat” working as an intern with proven veterans and honing the skills required for ultimate success in the classroom. In the Age of Accountability, the development of an expanded pedagogical repertoire is of paramount importance to achieve instructional goals.

Yes, these changes would strain budgets as improved compensation and prestige would need to follow. Could such requirements, however, be any more costly than the social ills incurred when children spend too large a portion of their lives in school with teachers ill prepared for the demands of the modern classroom?

In order to end the chronic isolation faced by most classroom instructors, communities need to invest in public schools in such a way that allows more time in the school day for inter-collegial collaboration.  We should encourage our classrooms to be open laboratories – like surgical theaters– and educators should have time built into the school day to watch their colleagues employ successful models of teaching and, ideally, have a debriefing session as a follow-up. At the very least, all 21st-century schools must furnish the technology required to access video resources like those becoming available at

In his book on Organizational Development, Teaching an Anthill to Fetch, Stephen James Joyce proposes that humans tend to be more intelligent when working in concert rather than alone. In the realm of public education, it is high time we harness the power of "collaborative intelligence" and end the not-so-splendid isolation of the modern classroom instructor.

blog comments powered by Disqus