07/23/2013 08:23 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

Fixing a Broken System

We can all agree that professional development is essential in any profession, especially education. It is an opportunity to become better at what we do as well as gain knowledge on new pedagogical techniques, learning theories, leadership strategies, technologies, and federal/state mandates. With budgets being continuously slashed across the country, districts are beginning to tighten their belts. When this happens the first line item to get cut is professional development. This has resulted in fewer and fewer opportunities for educators to attend out-of-district learning opportunities as there is no funding to support travel, registration fees, and expenses.

Professional development has now become the sole burden of school districts for better or worse. It has become a tug of war, in a sense, as districts use this valuable time, which equates to only a day or two in many cases, to focus on organizational needs. On the other hand, individual educators have specific needs and passions that they want to explore. They want the freedom to chart their own learning course while receiving support from the organization to do so. Quality professional development rests in the ability of the organization to not only meet their needs, but also that of its constituents.

Something has to give though. The trainings that many educators are now forced to attend are usually driven by whatever the federal and state governments have mandated. The key word here is forced. Educators now have to attend mandate-driven workshops on the Common Core, teacher/principal evaluation, and student growth objectives. Now, I am not saying that these things are not important, but it is hard as a professional to develop a love for learning when one has to succumb to daylong trainings with absolutely no authenticity. Many more questions than answers materialize. Will this help my students learn and achieve? Is this yet another flavor-of-the-month initiative? Is this a wise use of our time?

When the organization dominates the planning, agenda, and implementation of mandate-driven professional development, the end result it often catastrophic. The most important element of PD is missing - the needs, desires, and passions of the learner. Even in the absence of mandates, organizations seem to be out of touch with their stakeholders as session after session becomes death by PowerPoint and stacks of paper handouts. The dominating structure fulfills the goal of pumping as much information as possible into our heads, yet fails to inspire change.

Effective professional development is:

• Meaningful
• Relevant
• Allowing educators to choose what they what to learn about
• Accommodating to different learning styles
• Providing time to apply what has been learned
• Focused on one initiative as opposed to many simultaneously
• Organized in a way that time to apply what has been learned is provided
• Convenient in the sense that learning can take place at anytime from anywhere
• Cost-effective
• Embedded into the school day if possible
• Accessed through available technology
• Resulting in observable outcomes related to changes in professional practice and student achievement

The list above includes some lofty, but necessary, expectations of professional development today. So where do we begin? Below are some effective strategies, ideas, and learning opportunities that will provide you and your school the means to invigorate professional development to get real results. Each is hyperlinked to additional information.

Professional Learning Communities (PLC's)
Personal Learning Networks (PLN's)
Professional Growth Periods (PGP's)
Edcamps (For an introduction to Edcamp click HERE)
Edscape -- Saturday October 19, 2013 at New Milford HS (NJ)

In this day and age we must take control of our own learning if organizations are not providing and/or supporting meaningful PD opportunities. The three pathways above provide practical, cost-effective, and accessible means to improve professional practice. Nothing is more important than our own learning if we are to not only meet the demands of the profession, but also the needs of our students. Great teachers do not wait for PD days!

So what did I miss? What are some other issues with professional development? Can you provide other innovative and effective PD options?