Why do Teachers Resist Professional Development?

One of my best professional friends is Matt Townsley, a math teacher turned district level leader in Iowa that challenges my thinking time and again. 

Recently, Matt wrote this post sharing his perspectives on driving change efforts from beyond the classroom.  At times, he sounds really frustrated with trying to elicit support and buy-in from the teachers in his district—and that caught me off-guard. 

The good news is that understanding why teachers resist change efforts isn’t an impossible task.  In fact, most resistance can be tracked back to four basic questions that school leaders often fail to answer when choosing new programs for their schools.

I detailed those questions in a comment that I left on Matt’s blog.  Here’s what I wrote.

Hey Matt,

First, thanks for making your thinking here transparent. That was a pretty risky move and one that I respect. I think that teachers—who are constantly asked to 'put themselves out there' in today's collaborative, PLC world—need to see more administrators who are willing to be intellectually vulnerable in public spaces.

Second, a few thoughts:

What role do you think differentiation can play in professional development opportunities for teachers?

I know that the times that I push back against PD, it's because it really doesn't align with the knowledge and skills that I know that I need in order to improve—which makes it a waste of time.

What role does/should teacher input play in the selection of district wide initiatives?

Here in NC, we do a bi-annual teacher working conditions survey. One of the most interesting patterns every time the survey is conducted is that teachers report receiving tons of PD, but that the PD doesn't align with their area of need.

Specifically, teachers report GETTING tons of PD in their content area, but NEEDING tons of PD in meeting the needs of diverse learners.

How do we make sure that the initiatives chosen by administrators better align with the kinds of things that teachers really need?

How can we create more time for teachers to do meaningful work away from students but on the clock?

Your post is almost fatalistic in that it suggests that the only option for gathering more input from/creating more leadership opportunities for teachers requires teachers to give up more of their planning or personal time.

I think what I'd like to see is a third option—hybrid roles for teacher leaders.

What if a district created full time positions for a collection of teacher leaders who were interested in crafting district direction or policies. Those teachers would work together during traditional vacation times with other district leaders on PD initiatives and long term planning.

Obviously, not every teacher is going to be interested in giving up their summers to work on this kind of stuff—but those who do would have real input over the most important decisions and would become "seeds" in their schools and settings.

Are district level leaders doing enough to keep teachers informed about the "balcony view" that they are seeing?

Anthony Muhammad—who writes Transforming School Culture—describes 4 different reasons that teachers resist change in school. One really resonated with me.

He mentions that teachers resist changes that they don't understand or see a purpose for—-and that once a legitimate purpose becomes apparent, they become supporters of the changes they once pushed back against.

That's totally me. I resist. A LOT.

But it's most often because no one can give me a real explanation for some of the programs that we've chosen to adopt. They're all too ready, though, to tell me that "I can't see the bigger picture" or that "this is a systemic thing that we need."

What they assume, though, is that I'm incapable of understanding their "bigger picture," and that drives me nuts.

If I were to make a suggestion to any district leader trying to drive change is communicate your purposes and intentions early and often and over and over again in as many public places—blogs, meetings, Twitterstreams—as possible.

Support your positions with facts, evidence and articles. Respond to pushback from teachers publicly—in discussion forums, in meetings, in the hallways between classes.

Doing so will win you the support of resisters like me who want to see our school improve—who are allies, but who have questions that need to be resolved before they move forward.

I think that's an area of real weakness for district level leaders who are driving change.

Any of this make sense?

17 thoughts on “Why do Teachers Resist Professional Development?


    Teachers prefer professional development if it will be associated with other fringe benefits. when it happens that their employers do not promise them the rise of payment that will be associated with his/her professional cherishment then this teacher will resist the professional development.

  2. Elizabeth

    I would like to support Cinthia… Many of the teachers want to be the kind of teachers that students would be in inspired by. All these talented people should be provided with motivation trainings and courses, such as the following example or any other related to the profession.

  3. Cinthia

    Perhaps, not all of the teachers resist to their professional development. Sometimes there is not enough oppoertunities for it. All the inspired people are in need of support and motivation (seminars and training can also be valuable, such as professional development for teachers) to have the opportunity to grow as real professionals.

  4. Bob

    I know that in our district, the PD that is mandatory is usually the same things that we have heard over and over and over again, and I am just a fourth year teacher!
    We are paying people to come and talk to us about something we already know, that we learned in college, and that they have nothing new to say. What a waste of resources.
    Secondly, we have found out that NOT ONLY do we have to do our regular 30 hours of PD for the coming year, but the district has mandated that we take this online course that is ANOTHER 30 hours on our own time. This must be completed before our standardized tests in April, and we only get 6 hours PD credit for it.
    Teachers already spend a lot of extra time on school. PD would be better if it actually didn’t repeat the same old tired things over and over again.

  5. Ms. P

    I agree wholeheartedly with your advice to administrators. I, too, am infamous for being a big time resister. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
    My principal takes my questions seriously and responds with facts, articles, questions of his own, etc., but I don’t receive the same treatment from the folks in central office.
    When teachers perceive our questions as falling on deaf ears, we see ourselves as separate from the district, not a part of it. Trouble!
    P.S. I’m a big proponent of teacher-led PD. That’s been most fulfilling for me.

  6. Kollyn

    I think that it would make more sense to do the majority of PD off-campus. That way, each teacher can pick the PD that will work best for them. Having school or district-wide PD is convenient, but it probably only benefits a small percent of those attending. The rest take away nothing… except for frustration from having another wasted day of PD.

  7. Jay Lively

    This is my first time on the site… I really like the idea of hybrid roles for a select number of teachers. I like our PD instructor who comes by every Friday morning but I think it would mean more, and perhaps be more pertinent, from someone who is still in the classroom.
    Also, there is a feeling that new PD models are simply a flavor of the month and that there will be something new coming along soon. It can be overwhelming. Honestly, this site is an example of another great resource that is probably being looked over due to the sheer size of other resources out there.

  8. Dave

    Of course, now that I read the original post you commented on, I see that Matt says: “There is not enough time in the day/week/month to solicit input from classroom teachers before every decision is made.”
    True or not, this is a pretty fruitless path to start down. Everyone feels like they don’t have enough time, and you’re not going to add more time, so you just have to make better decisions about how to spend that time.
    I feel like the struggles he’s having might mean he currently isn’t spending enough time understanding and supporting his staff, since that seems to be the central theme of his points.

  9. Dave

    There’s something that even your excellent questions are missing:
    If you want buy-in on something, ask the people involved -before- you do it. Use their input to change how you do it, and show them how you’ve done that.
    For example, if you are trying to offer great PD, ask all the teachers to identify their dream PD for the year. If they want something that’s not offered yet, try to offer it!
    It’s such a basic principle, but very difficult for most leaders to realize: Don’t force employees to work within a box — support them as experts in their area who know what needs to happen, and they’ll achieve the goals of your organization.

  10. Kollyn

    I agree that teachers will buy in if they see the relevance in the PD, but I see another issue with PD.
    There will always be a bigger, better idea next year or 3 years from now. Why put all of our energy into this new way of teaching, when our district will have us trying something else in a few years? If you want buy-in, you need to show us that you are committed to a certain plan for the long-term. Show us that this isn’t just the hot new trend that we are going to try out for a year or two.

  11. Barbara Day

    This is totally why I resist district directed PD. Also, I would add, treat teachers with respect. When you speak to me as if I were a child, or with less respect than I would speak to my students, I shut down. Desire to learn, is replaced with anger. I differentiate for my students, and district planners need to extend the same courtesy to teachers. I spent the last two years attending monthly PD about teaching vocabulary, as if I haven’t been doing that for the past 24 years. However I was totally enthused when I went to hear Dr. Tim Risinsky speak about building fluency. He presented new perspectives on ways to build these skills. This is why, when I began presenting professional development on math and now technology, I was determined that I would present new information, not repeat the same stuff over and over again. I also include time for application, so teachers have something to take back to the classroom. Thanks for writing this blog post.

  12. twitter.com/LindaAragoni

    Perhaps an entirely different PD model is needed.
    My sister re-careered after 20 years in education to become a physician assistant. To get into the PA program, she had to document 1,000 hours of patient contact as a basis for learning how to apply medical knowledge.
    Now she has to take a specified number of hours of professional development each year on her own time and at her own expense. She gets to select what she wants to take from a list of approved courses, most of which are available online. She also has to pay a fee to have a record of her work prepared.
    Every few years she has to take a test to retain her credentials as a physician assistant.
    Spending nights and her 2 free weekends a month doing PD after seeing 30-40 seriously ill patients a day is not exactly fun, buy on the whole, she prefers the medical PD model to the education model.

  13. Francis Bell

    In our school, most of the valuable staff development comes from PLT meetings when all stakeholders bring individual PD to the discussion. We have about 90 minutes of planning per day which helps with meeting with other professionals/teachers who have the same goals for teaching and learning. Does your school have a common goal? Our distric provides direction but the real PD is at the team level. The conversations need to happen and when the collaboration via conversations occur, it helps to understand how to meet the needs of your students. Sounds like you don’t have this opportunity to collaborate because a true PLC engages teachers at the team level. Maybe that is an area that your school should work toward.

  14. TeachMoore

    Spot on, as usual Bill. You captured the sentiments of many of us about what passes for PD in too many places. There are so many (better) ways we could provide meaningful PD from making very slight adjustments in our current school schedules (@Ariel, it doesn’t have to be as huge an issue as some administrators make it) to better use of social networking tools starting, as you suggest, with their use among educators in the same building/system.

  15. Ariel Sacks

    Great suggestions Bill. I totally relate. Being in a charter school this year, there is no district, so for the most part, “the big picture” is much smaller–just us. School leaders do a good job of getting teacher input on decisions and making the reasoning behind them clear and directly linked to what we see in our students. The time issue you mention is huge, though, in every school I’ve taught in. It really is time for hybrid roles. How can we make school and district leaders want to invest in the long term benefits we will get from doing the work to create those positions?

  16. gasstationwithoutpumps

    “not every teacher is going to be interested in giving up their summers to work on this kind of stuff”
    I assume you really meant that even reasonable compensation will not make every teacher interested in taking this extra summer job, and are not suggesting “giving up” their summers without pay (as so many schools seem to want).
    I’m sure it would help get buy-in if there was some track record of successful PD, but districts with a long record of wasting teachers time will have a really difficult job selling more snake oil.

  17. Joan Young

    This makes total sense to me Bill! I have worked with many teachers who are resistant to PD, but when you dig into that resistance, it comes from exactly the reasons you stated. We must believe that PD will help us address the needs of our students in a way that improves what we do every day. If we can’t see that vital connection, PD just seems like another way our autonomy is taken away or another way to waste away a day.
    Thanks so much for this post.

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