The Teacher Professional Development Fail

(Note: This entry is cross-posted over at Simple K12.)

One of the most bizarre moments of my professional career happened one year when I realized at the last minute that I didn’t have enough technology professional development credits—a required strand here in North Carolina—to renew my teaching license. 

Ironic, huh?  After all, I’ve been a leader in technology integration for the better part of a decade. 

Anyone looking through my Digitally Speaking PD wiki or my technology book could quickly see that understanding the role that digital tools can play in teaching and learning is a professional strength of mine.

Wanting to keep my job, though, I started scouring the technology courses being offered by both my county and the state.  The only courses being offered before my certification expired were:

Getting to Know Your Computer: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Your New Machine.

Getting to Know the Internet:  A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Power of the World Wide Web.

Both courses were 8 hours long, both were being offered by a local computer store on two consecutive Saturdays, and both were WAY below my level of ability.

So I called the licensure representatives at the county office, figuring that they’d help me to find a professional development opportunity that was more appropriate for my abilities. 

The conversation went something like this:

Me:  So I need a few technology professional development credits, but there aren’t any courses that will help me to grow as a learner.

PD Lady: I see two courses, Mr. Ferriter.  One titled Getting to Know Your Computer.  The other titled Getting to Know the Internet.

Me: Right.  But those courses are for beginners.  I’m not a beginner. Could I maybe do an independent study on integrating video into classroom instruction?

PD Lady:  No Mr. Ferriter.  You have to take an approved course.

Me: Even if I don’t learn anything?

PD Lady:  Yes, Mr. Ferriter.

There are a TON of lessons to be learned about professional development in that one short exchange.

We’ve made the process for helping teachers learn more important than the people doing the learning.

As crazy as it sounds, learning isn’t the priority for most teacher professional development programs.  Instead, meeting the requirements for certification spelled out in policy is the priority. 

That rigid commitment to requirements meant that I learned nothing in the courses that I was forced to take and was certified anyway. 

Stew in that for a minute, would ya? 

If you care about seeing students succeed, think about the implication of a nation of educators who are taking courses to meet requirements INSTEAD of taking courses to improve what they know and can do. 

And if you care about saving cash—an important consideration in today’s tight budget times—think about the the implications of investing in teacher professional development programs that have little real impact on teaching and learning in our classrooms. 



We’re also sending horrible messages to teachers about the importance of differentiating learning for individuals. 

If our school systems are going to successfully close achievement gaps and increase levels of performance for every child, we simply must begin to customize individualized learning experiences at the student level.   

What’s cool is that momentum really is building behind the idea that differentiation matters. 

Teachers are being encouraged to use data to make instructional choices.  Remediation and enrichment are common expectations in every school.  Digital options for independent exploration are being pursued at all grade levels and in all subject areas.

Yet the vast majority of our teachers continue to sit in one-size-fits-all sessions delivered to entire faculties on isolated work days a few times each year.

Do you see the disconnect? 

Can we really expect teachers who have never experienced differentiation as learners to turn around and embrace differentiation as teachers?


What’s so darn frustrating is that the characteristics of effective professional development aren’t a mystery. 

Paterson (2002) details how successful professional development programs consist of structural elements—a connection to curricula, linkages to state initiatives and certification, integration of information technologies, use of a variety of instructional strategies—and a strong connection to a school’s mission.

Quality professionally development also promotes reflective practices, fosters collaboration (Browne-Ferrigno & Muth, 2004), focuses on an educator’s needs (Marshall, Pritchard, & Gunderson, 2001), is based upon improving student achievement (Haar 2002), and has become embedded and job supported (Lairon & Vidales, 2003).

The only mystery is why so many systems fail to create meaningful learning environments for their teachers



Works Cited:

Browne-Ferrigno, T., and Muth, R. (2004). Leadership mentoring in clinical practice: Role socialization, professional development, and capacity building. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(4), 468-494.

Jean M Haar, "A multiple case study: Principals’ involvement in professional development" (January 1, 2002). ETD collection for University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Paper AAI3041356.

Lairon, Mary and
Bernie Vidales. Leaders Learning in Context. Leadership, v. 32, no.5, p. 16-18, 36, May/June 2003.Newcomers. School Administrator, v. 61, no. 6, p.18-21, June 2004.

Marshall, J.C., Pritchard, R.J., & Gunderson, B. (2001, February). Professional development: What works and what doesn’t. Principal Leadership, 1(6), 64-68.

Paterson, Kent, "The Professional Development of Principals: Innovations and Opportunities. Educational Administration Quarterly. April 2002. Volume 38. No. 2 (213-232).

10 thoughts on “The Teacher Professional Development Fail

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Meredith wrote:
    I checked out the form youve designed for documentation, and while
    well-designed, I have zero desire to use it. Because if I have to
    document every meaningful Twitter convo that I have or blog post or
    comment I write, Im going to have even less time than I already do.
    Hey Meredith,
    First, thanks for stopping by. I always love when you push against my thinking.
    Second, Ive heard you say this before and I really couldnt agree with you more! I dont want to HAVE to document all of the learning that Im doing outside of schools either. Not only will it end up consuming more time than I have to give—stealing from the learning that I actually DO love—-but (like Dan Callahan suggests in his comment) it will result in more teachers who really arent interested in learning together crashing our spaces.
    I see that every now and then on my blog because a professor in Alabama assigns several of his students to my blog each semester. Theyre required to read a certain number of posts and to leave a certain number of comments. Some are really interested and leave terrific comments. Others mail it in, posting comments that barely make sense. Anytime that learning becomes forced—or disingenuous—-it is watered down.
    But I very much want the CHANCE to document the learning that Im doing away from school for licensure credit. Im not sure how things work in independent/private schools, but I have to earn an almost ridiculous number of renewal hours every five years. If I remember right, it totals almost 150 hours worth of learning.
    Whats worse is that in the middle of this budget crisis, theres literally no money for professional development outside of our school. If I went to my principal today and asked to go to a conference, hed say yes as long as I paid for the conference, the travel and my substitute teacher—and thats not because hes a bad principal. Its because our school is given almost nothing for professional development each year.
    That leaves me with almost no options for earning professional development credits even though theyre required. Im forced to sign up for foolish sessions that mean absolutely nothing to me. And with 150 hours of credits to earn, thats 150 hours of wasted time.
    What Im arguing for is give me the chance over my 5 year renewal cycle to document some of the learning that Im doing outside of school. I dont want to document every action—-like you said, theres too many to make that possible—-but knowing full well that Ive got 150 hours of time to book before my license expires, Id certainly document some of them.
    Right now, thats not an option for me—-and thats what sets me off.
    Does this make any sense?

  2. Meredith (@msstewart)

    I hear what you’re saying, Bill, but I’m also leery of admin getting too involved in my outside of school time/pay PD activities. Because payment/oversight means control. I checked out the form you’ve designed for documentation, and while well-designed, I have zero desire to use it. Because if I have to document every meaningful Twitter convo that I have or blog post or comment I write, I’m going to have even less time than I already do.
    I’m incredibly grateful for the PD resources and time I’m afforded and do my best to share any learning that I do on the school’s dime or time. However, there’s some learning I don’t want to have to document. Is it related to my job? Absolutely, but I also have pretty perpetual teacher brain, so I’m rarely not thinking about school outside of school in some form or fashion. I guess I’d ask- How do you distinguish PD from being a human being who likes to learn?
    Last year I documented all the outside PD I did in a week. There’s no way I’d want to have to do that in long form. Not having to clock time like that is one of several reasons I’m glad I’m not a lawyer.

  3. Tom

    I’m in something similar this year. I have 300+ hours of PD yet still had to pay money to take a course at a community college because I don’t have my masters yet and that’s what the VA department of education requires you do. Doesn’t matter that I’ve written for publications and taken quite a number of courses, since none of them were for credit they don’t count. I tried to appeal to the department of ed and got a quick letter back telling me to talk to my district, who told me to take a course and do not reimburse. I enjoy the course but man if this just doesn’t seem like an idiotic technicality and that I wasted my time these last five years.

  4. Whitney Hale

    Mr. Ferriter,
    My name is Whitney Hale and I am a student in professor Strange’s EDM310 class at The University of South Alabama. I totally agree with you when you say that the focus is policy, not what the educator takes from the class. It’s sad that you have to waste your time learning about something that you already know instead of learning new, interesting skills to teach your students. I do not think the people that write these policies think about much rather than procedure. I totally agree that things need to change. Thank you for sharing!
    Whitney Hale

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Nancy wrote:
    Think about the “life-long learner rhetoric spouted by many educators,
    some of whom haven’t read a professional journal or explored a
    technology tool in years. There’s another big disconnect.
    Im with you, Nancy. I know full well that there are a TON of teachers who just arent holding up their end of the bargain when it comes to professional development. I often struggle to look at education through more realistic lenses simply because most of my friends—in real life and in my PLN—are superstars. Ive got to realize that education isnt full of superstars.
    But this is one of those chicken-egg things, isnt it?
    I mean, Id love to hold teachers accountable for their own learning—-we are screaming about wanting to elevate our profession, after all—but when the people who are in charge of providing us with direction cant/dont/wont model responsible instruction even though theyre supposedly the experts (and are getting paid significantly more to be the experts), where does blame lie?
    The idealistic part of me would like to think that we shouldnt lay blame. We should support everyone and love everyone and bask in the sunshine together.
    But in the end, education is a hierarchy. The people at the top like to remind me all the time that theyre at the top.
    If thats how they want this ship to run, its high time that they start acting like they know what theyre doing.
    Any of this make sense?

  6. crazedmummy

    Think about the reality for many of our students, who are also in classes way above or way below their level of proficiency. It’s frustrating for you for 2 days every 3 years – it’s frustrating for them for 180 days every year. We can’t rely on an individual classroom teacher to provide specialty curricula for 30 students every hour.
    I don’t mean to be cruel, but some of the problem was caused by lack of planning. We, the adults int the school, should be providing that planning for our students, not parking them on courses that are clearly unsuitable just because of their age. Was it important to you that you were in a class with people of your own age, or would you have preferred to be in a class that met your learning needs?
    I too try and take these PD fails as a reminder of what my students get every day.

  7. mrsdurff

    It’s the same bleak picture in Pennsylvania. I am taking doctoral courses that thus far have not been recognized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. So they won’t count them towards my required 180 hours per 5 year period. Yes you read that right – I can have a terminal degree and still not meet PDE requirements. We live in a ridiculously silly world!

  8. BeckyFisher73

    It’s important to know where these ridiculous policies come from (federal, state or local level) and to fight to change the policy. Our education policy infrastructure is broken. We can’t have disconnects there any more than we can have disconnects in bridges and roads if we expect to go any place! Is it a state or local rule about only being able to choose courses from a menu?

  9. Nancy Blair

    Certification requirements are very frustrating. [Gross understatement.]
    I feel your pain, Bill, as I was in a similar situation several years ago when Georgia required completion of InTech to be certified. At the time I was required to take it, the only options were to take the course or complete a very time-consuming portfolio-neither of which offered me any growth. I opted to take the course (which took less time) and functioned as a teacher’s aide by helping others in the class figure out how to cut-and-paste in Word or format an Excel cell. [Later, they added a test to demonstrate competency.]
    When I moved to Georgia in 1991, I also had to take the Nature and Needs of the Middle School Learner course–a course I TAUGHT to middle school teachers in our district in California but couldn’t transfer to Georgia.
    As one who provides many of these dreaded, “one-shot” PD days, I try my hardest to make the sessions practical and meaningful, but I know going in that there will likely not be enough follow-up to make it meaningful for more than a few motivated participants.
    I also completely agree with the irony of how we deliver PD to teachers and how we expect them to deliver instruction to students, but don’t we see that same disconnect in many areas? Think about the “life-long learner” rhetoric spouted by many educators, some of whom haven’t read a professional journal or explored a technology tool in years. There’s another big disconnect.

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