10 Professional Development Approaches That Should Go the Way of the Dodo Bird

By Dr. Lisa Gonzales and Dr. Charles Young

Since childhood, we’ve all heard anecdotes about the poor Dodo Bird. This hapless, feathery creature was doomed to be flightless. The Dodo Bird was the butt of many jokes and ultimately became extinct. Legend has it that the clumsy, inept Dodo Bird met its demise when Dutch sailors hunted it for a snack and eventually ate the breed into extinction. It probably didn’t help that the Dodo Bird liked humans in a manner similar to a puppy dog. However it didn’t have that cuddly, pet-like charm of a puppy that might have saved it. Perhaps there is a lesson we can learn from the Dodo Bird. This poor creature certainly did not learn to adapt to its own complex, changing environment. When we look at our own classrooms, our failure to adapt professional development practices in our own dynamic educational environments can result in ineffectiveness and lackluster performance. Here are 10 professional development practices that we recommend go the way of the Dodo Bird:

1. Working Without a Clear Purpose. Like all good efforts within school districts, professional development opportunities must be anchored in a clearly articulated purpose and desired future state. Far too often, this is not the case. As a result, we end up with poorly planned, irrelevant PD that leaves teachers asking, “What just happened?”

2. Operating Without Metrics. We often approach professional development as a personal experience that we attend in isolation or in small groups. Attendees might return and say, “That was cool! I actually got something out of that.” However, without metrics to gauge the impact on student learning, there is no way to determine if “cool” will result in improvement.

3. Administering One-and-Done Trainings. Despite the prevalence of one-and-done trainings, the track record for these trainings actually changing teachers’ practice and increasing student achievement is abysmal.

4. Proceeding Without Administrative Support. Without dedicated time, professional learning communities cannot be sustained in a school or district. Getting administrators' support and explicit expectations are key elements in ensuring successful professional development. Administrators can negotiate the logistics of school schedules, manage teachers’ competing time commitments and priorities, and hold teachers responsible for implementing what they learned.

5. Keeping Learning Private. We’ve all learned that the best practice is to train staff and then have them keep that newfound knowledge closely hidden and guarded. Wrong! Have them share! Encourage them to apply the learning and pass it on to others. Give them time to share the specifics around their trials and tribulations with their new learning. The best form of deep learning is when you can perfect a skill by teaching someone else.

6. Working Without Support During Implementation. Without support during the implementation phase, it is highly unlikely that the new skills or information will take hold. Research has shown that when professional development merely describes a skill to teachers, only 10% of professionals can transfer it to their practice. However, when teachers are coached through the awkward phase of implementation, 95% can transfer the skill to effective, regular practice.

7. Expecting Teachers to Pay on Their Own Time and Dime. If we want instructional improvement and professional growth, it won’t happen if teachers have to pay for it themselves. Districts can purchase teacher time by providing stipends for professional development, paying for substitutes to cover teachers’ classes, reducing the teaching load, or hiring more staff.

8. Making PD Too General or Irrelevant. Few adults find professional development on generic topics, such as lengthy surface overviews on Common Core, general classroom management techniques, or tech trainings with no instructional connections, useful. When time is focused on specific analysis and practice in teacher’s classrooms, a deeper connection is made and the relevance is more evident.

9. Overwhelming the New Teacher. We have all seen it happen. The new teacher arrives excited and fresh, and we train them into oblivion. Their inability to take all the new information in, often due to the lack of context for how it will apply to students, guarantees some level of failure. Pacing trainings is critical and should be done when the teacher can see the application of the new concepts and skills with their students. Combining the training with mentoring, coaching, follow-up, and accountability further strengthen the likelihood that the new skills will be applied and internalized.

10. Keeping Success Secretive. We don’t acknowledge and share enough in education environments, and that is particularly evident in professional development. Celebrating accomplishments and instructional shifts should be shared. It reinforces that the trainings have been effective, changed practice, and were worth the time and costs. It also sends a clear message to staff that they are valued as the change agents we need them to be.

While we sympathize with the plight of the Dodo Bird, there is something to be said for acknowledging ineffective practices and letting them fade into the sunset. Perhaps these 10 tips would be a good start.

Dr. Lisa Gonzales in superintendent in the Portola Valley School District in California. Dr. Charles Young is associate superintendent in the Palo Alto Unified School District in California. Both work in the heart of the Silicon Valley and are technology cadre leaders in California through TICAL, the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership.