Professional Development Is More Than Two Weeks In August

By Joshua BarrHead of Suzhou Early Learning Center, Whittle School & Studios, China.

From my experience there are three main criteria teachers look for in an international school. In no particular order they are contract (the package), location, and PD (Professional Development). For the first two on the list there is a lot of competition and in China, where I have worked since 2010, it can cater to all educators needs in terms of salary, curriculums, and diverse locations from big cities to the countryside. When it comes to PD it is easy for schools to say it happens but until you start working you don’t really know.

August is usually when onboard training starts. For new arrivals it is an exciting time to see what the school has to offer. For returning teachers it can be a hit or miss depending on past experiences. A good onboarding program can make a huge difference, but it also has to balance the training schedule with giving ample time for teachers to get ready for their classes. Some schools forget that and overload the onboarding with lectures and pointless activities, which then sends teachers into panic mode or even worse makes the seasoned staff not turn up to the onboarding in favour of going to their classrooms to get ready, sending a message this isn’t a team.

I tend to favour a mixed approach, letting staff get ready early and then mixing in the training and team building. Once August rolls by and the students arrive it can be challenging for schools to maintain a high level of PD throughout the year. The hustle and bustle of daily problems and workloads can make PD an afterthought. Problems arise from three main areas.

1. The academic calendar doesn’t account for ongoing PD so the time for it is usually added in the evening, other inconvenient times or last minute. Teachers can be burnt out and difficult to motivate after 5:00pm just like their students. 

2. PD responsibility can be pushed onto staff without training experience, usually management, which can result in poor quality and resentment towards leadership for wasting teacher’s time. 

There must be a culture of PD in the school and buy in from staff. That isn’t easy! I have worked in kindergarten’s where the ongoing PD was fantastic as well as K-12 schools that haven’t been great. The most successful ongoing PD I experienced was during the school day, all teachers rotated in leading workshops in teams, and the trainings were targeted at specific aspects of the teaching and learning. All three common problems solved, which resulted in an ongoing culture of “this is useful, fun and contributes team spirit”.

To build a culture of ongoing meaningful PD school leaders need to embed ongoing training into the calendar. It can be unavoidable to have regular PD in the evening, so I recommend keeping it light (for example, not overloaded with reading extracts) and providing food and drinks. If you are going to keep staff at night, feed them. Schools can also end early some days, have a day or two off for students once or twice a semester for longer PD sessions. These need to be planned out well and if not, schools should reflect, reset, and improve for next time.

It is vital leadership and management observe teachers to know their strengths and areas where development is needed. Then use each other to design PD that honours teacher capabilities and help others grow. Management cannot over rely on teachers leading PD by just throwing it from one teacher to the next so they don’t have to. Leading a PD must be a safe space for all, which means little pressure, being present (mind and body), giving feedback but never judgmental.

If PD includes the whole school (K-12), focus on relationships, values, vision, and team building. Don’t get everyone together and lecture about a new program that only affects half the staff members. Relationships, values, vision, and team building allows PD to focus on each educators work life regardless of if they are in the kindergarten or high school.

Joshua Barr is the Head of Suzhou Early Learning Center, Whittle School & Studios.
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2 thoughts on “<strong>Professional Development Is More Than Two Weeks In August</strong>”

  1. As we all know, professional development boosts confidence and credibility, by increasing professionals’ expertise through professional development, teacher’s confidence in their work will increase as well. At the same time, more importantly, Joshua’s kind sharing also inspire us few questions, how to build a PD culture, very pertinent advice to remind schools of the things that need attention in the PD process. I benefited a lot!

  2. Thank you Josh for your article. Like you, I’ve had the opportunity to experience some wonderful and (unfortunately) woeful PD at the start of a new school year. A fabulous research question about first impressions and their effect on longevity? I once planned 2-weeks worth of PD for a school here in China, only for the principal to be replaced and a new one come in over the summer and do completely his own thing – with zero consultation. I’ve found that there are people who want to ‘own the process’ when it comes to PD and believe they know what’s best for teachers, they’ve never met, know little about or are prepared to invest in any time beyond the first orientation. Effective orientation is manageable and easy enough for teachers to swallow that they can keep bringing it back to the classroom and how it will make a difference. I am a strong advocate of observing teachers in divergent settings and not just their classrooms, to see how they think, questions and concerns they may have and to bring in the early use of coaching system to begin to focus their minds. Whatever our approach, I hope that we can move to a more sustainable one and avoid the showering of teachers with unnecessary plastic and souvenirs for which they will have little use.

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