Educator Professional Development: Issues and Opportunities

Last month the first Global Teacher Prize—$1,000,000—was awarded by the Varkey Foundation to an educator in Maine, Nancie Atwell. Described as the “Nobel Prize in teaching,” the award received a lot of publicity, and Atwell made the news when she won it. During an interview with CNN, she said that the current emphasis on standards and standardized testing is “a movement that’s turned teachers into technicians, not reflective practitioners.” Considering that she has forty-plus years of teaching experience and has now been recognized essentially as the best teacher in the world, her assessment of the profession deserves attention. It also raises questions about current trends in professional development.

If the teacher’s role has changed from practitioner to technician, then the focus of professional development has most likely changed, too. The philosophy driving PD right now is evident in Professional Development in the United States: Trends and Challenges, the second phase of a three-part study by The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.  In the preface to the report, the current focus of professional development is identified: to improve teacher quality to “bolster student achievement” and meet federal mandates.

enotes_scantronThe characteristics of “high-quality” professional development are listed later in the report. Several of them are especially significant considering Nancie Atwell’s remarks about being a teacher vs. being a technician. The overall structure of PD is now a top-down, one-size-fits-all model with a singular objective: raise test scores.

The opposing view of professional development is radically different: it argues that teachers are professionals, unique individuals dedicated to self-assessment and personal growth as educators. Consequently, proponents of this philosophy contend that professional development should be generated from the bottom up, not imposed from the top down. Karen Webb, executive director of Fund For Teachers, a non-profit that awards teaching fellowships, explains this approach to PD in two short videos (the Q&A video is great for morale!).

So, those are the two current and conflicting philosophies regarding professional development. Regardless of which approach is trending, it’s good to know that teachers, who are indeed professional people, can take charge of their own growth in the classroom. Here are some ideas for doing just that:

  • Decide what you want to learn or to master to become a better teacher. Focus on a specific objective.
  • Gather resources to use in accomplishing the objective. An internet search will provide many, and just about every web site designed for teachers has a Professional Development menu.
  • Talk with colleagues and teachers who work in other schools. Talk with former teachers whom you admire and respect and who obviously knew what they were doing in a classroom.
  • Take advantage of educational opportunities in your community, especially if you live near a university. Many lectures and workshops are free.

When you feel grounded in your objective, move on to the next one, but don’t hurry. Professional development is an ongoing process with never an end in sight. The very best teachers are dedicated lifelong learners. They know they’ll never know all there is to know about their discipline or about teaching kids, but they aren’t put off by it. They enjoy never being finished in the pursuit of excellence.

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Finally, check out the numerous organizations that provide professional development grants. And this brings me back to Fund For Teachers. Active in 43 states, the non-profit has now awarded $22 million in grants to 6,000 teachers. Review the work of teachers who have pursued their own professional development here. Use the search engine and content filters to locate research projects most relevant to your own teaching. Also, go here for links to other organizations that support professional development.

Thinking about the current, contentious state of American education, I am reminded, oddly enough, of Winston Churchill. “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing,” he once said, “after they’ve tried everything else.” So maybe it’s in our character to try everything before settling on the right thing. Right now professional development seems to be focused on honing the skills of teacher-technicians. I suspect, however, that another kind of professional development is occurring every day as teachers work individually and together to grow stronger in providing kids with an education that surpasses a set of standards. It’s a happy thought.

This is a guest post from eNotes Staff Writer, Susan Hurn. Susan is a former high school English teacher and college instructor. She loves writing for eNotes and also enjoys good books, creative writing, and all things related to history. 

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