Asking the Right Questions About Professional Development

Professional development or continuing education is part of the culture of teaching, as it is a part of the culture of many other professions. Doctors, accountants, and automobile mechanics all regularly “go back to school” to stay current with changes in their field and to hone their craft. We expect that they will do so and we would not trust our surgery to a doctor who didn’t keep up with advances in medicine or trust our automobile repair to a mechanic who didn’t stay current with changes in under-the-hood technology.

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Teachers, perhaps even more than those in other professions, should understand the importance of lifelong learning and professional development. We value education. It is essential that teachers develop their skills and model learning for their students by engaging continually in professional development activities. But it is not sufficient to engage in activities merely for the purposes of renewing certification or checking off a requirement assigned by an administrator. Teachers and school leaders must ask the right questions about professional development.

Wrong Question:  What is the easiest way to renew my certificate or meet this continuing education requirement?

Right Question:  What professional development activity will stretch my abilities and understanding of my field or my craft?

“We don’t go to the moon because it’s easy, we go because it’s hard” (John F. Kennedy). Growth does not come without stretching. Real improvement is never effortless. The easiest path rarely leads to the best destination. Growth as a teaching professional will not be the result of choosing those activities that meet requirements without demanding any meaningful commitment of time and effort. Teachers are excited and energized by students who choose the challenging tasks and develop their potential fully. Parents and students are excited and energized by teachers who make similar choices. Ask the right question.

Wrong Question:  What is the cheapest way to meet this professional development requirement?

Right Question:  What is the best value I can find in professional development?

Teachers and school leaders certainly must consider cost when selecting professional development activities, but considering cost and ignoring value is shortsighted. Consider the long-term goal of professional development. Professional development improves the teacher’s understanding and skill, making her a better teacher, allowing her to serve students and families in better ways, and adding value to the experience families have with a classroom and a school. Professional development activities that do not actually produce professional growth are not a bargain. Activities that produce growth and change are an investment with dividends.

Christian schools exist because families are willing to consider value rather than cost. If cost were the only consideration, Christian schools would not exist because we cannot possibly compete with “free” public education. Teachers and administrators must consider the value of professional development activities. We owe at least that much to the families who trust their children to our care. They have a right to expect that those who teach their children will be growing professionals. Ask the right question.

Wrong Question:  What can I possibly count toward this requirement?

Right Question:  What can I provide that will make teachers better practitioners and classrooms better places?

These are questions for school leaders and professional development planners. If the leader’s mindset is only about meeting certification requirements, he will look for routine activities and required trainings and attempt to include them in required contact hours for professional development. That mindset does not lead either to teacher growth and classroom improvement or to school quality and enrollment increases. Routine trainings in a school’s online grading program, annual blood-borne pathogens training or CPR refresher courses are important and necessary, but they don’t really contribute to professional growth. School leaders need to plan collaborative staff development activities that promote school-wide thought, discussion, and growth. They also need to assist individual teachers with identifying activities that will shore up weak areas and build on strengths. [See Dotson, C. All teachers need an I.E.P. Journal for Christian Educators, 18(3), 11-13.]

Professional development that is viewed only as a requirement to be met will be burdensome and ineffective. Professional development that is viewed as an investment in teacher growth will be appreciated by teachers and school families and will produce long-term dividends for everyone in the school community. Ask the right questions.

Copyright Journal for Christian Educators, Spring 2013 edition.  Reprinted with permission of the American Association of Christian Schools.

If you are a teacher, what professional development opportunities have been made available to you for this school year?  If you are a school leader, what professional development opportunities are you making available to your staff this school year?  

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Dr. Jeff Walton serves as executive director of the American Association of Christian Schools, headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators.