Professional Development Isn’t Working: Rethink PD Implementation (Step 1) | Darcy Bakkegard | 7 Min Read

May 15, 2023

Districts and schools dedicate significant time and energy to providing ongoing training and professional development for their educators. Look at any school calendar, and you will see days labeled “In-service” or “professional development.” Talk to any teacher and they can list the workshops, courses, and conferences they attended, both to maintain their license and improve their practice. The New Teacher Project’s August 2015 issue of The Mirage reported that districts spend $18,000 per teacher per year on professional-development efforts. While that figure is certainly dated—as well as pre-COVID and from a relatively small sample of school districts—it paints a general picture: We invest a lot of time and money on professional development for educators. 

As we should. Teachers hold the power and potential to radically change students and help them grow into imaginative thinkers and problem-solvers. While the cost of professional development (PD) is warranted, the execution of PD is woefully inadequate and all too often does not shift teaching practice, let alone student outcomes. More importantly, most professional development does not model best practices in teaching nor does it cultivate 21st century collaboration and problem-solving skills—the very skills we say we want to cultivate in students.  

What if professional development were seamlessly integrated into the day-to-day operation of every school and district? What if districts or departments within a school collaborated on relevant training? What if professional learning was about not just developing skills but solving challenges and breaking down barriers to teacher and student success? What if learning and developing ourselves as teachers were acts of joy? 

During my 11 years in the classroom, I experienced the gamut of professional development: the tedious, the utilitarian, the mind-numbing, the soul-sucking, and the inspirational. At its worst, PD treats all teachers like interchangeable automatons, dishing out the exact same content to all despite differences in skill, experience, and content. These experiences leave teachers feeling belittled and bitter, and add to teacher burnout and frustration. With so little time in a day and so much to do, this type of PD feels like a complete waste of time (even if there are important nuggets).  

At its best, current professional development models—conferences with “traditional” morning keynotes followed by sit-n-get breakout sessions, book studies, and online courses—provide a wealth of information and ideas. They allow teachers to at least choose what they want to learn. Great. We need inspiration and fresh ideas. We need voice and choice to find topics that are of interest. Then what? After the conference, after the book study, after the district in-service, after the demo of the next cool thing, then what? How much of that content, time, and money makes it back to classrooms and impacts students? For most professional learning, the experience stops after the transmission of information.

Having access to new information isn’t enough; it’s what teachers DO with that information that matters. When done well, PD includes both information and implementation. 

In an age of rapid technology shifts and the expansion of AI, professional learning time must shift away from the ingestion of information toward the application and creation of solution-driven content. When teaching was primarily about transmitting information from the expert (teacher) to the novice (student), perhaps sit-n-get PD made sense (and that’s a big perhaps) because teachers needed to know the content to transfer it to students. However, that’s not what teaching is. The art and science of teaching demand that teachers have time to play, explore, and practice because this is how we want students to interact with content, and teachers need time to design solutions and implement ideas, which are the very skills we aim to nurture in students. 

Let me acknowledge here: I do not envy district or school leaders tasked with designing PD. Teachers are difficult students. Teachers tend to be skeptical of new tools and “fads” because they’ve seen countless fads come and go; it’s hard to win educators’ focus since we have 10,000 things on our minds and plates. As a result, we protect our time and brain space like the precious resources they are. But most importantly, teachers can detect “bad teaching” from a mile away; they are, after all, EXPERTS in their craft. Superintendents, principals, curriculum directors, technology coordinators, and other leaders have a Herculean job: It’s next to impossible to design professional learning that will be universally embraced. But the critical job of continuing education for district and school staff requires us to keep trying.

The First Step to Better Professional Learning

The first step to improving professional learning is to add the time and support to foster implementation. When ideas are fresh, they should be explored and integrated into existing practice. If there is no capacity to change anything else, add implementation. Cut back on content and create the time and space to implement. 

Implementation does NOT mean:

  • Telling teachers to turn and share two ways they will use this in their classroom.
  • Instructing people to go and do it.
  • Giving people 10-20 minutes of “work time” at the end of a session. 

These approaches lack adequate time to think, process, and play with new ideas and fail to provide the necessary support for strategic design and implementation. 

Implementation may mean:

  • For every hour of content delivered, dedicate at least an hour to designing HOW that content will be used in the classroom. 
  • Redesign staff meetings as hackathons to hash out as many implementation options as possible.
  • Set up the cafeteria as a create-a-torium and let staff imagine what this content looks like in the classroom. 
  • Invite students to professional development and work with them to outline an integration plan. 
  • Providing a support structure to test ideas. Michelle Blanchet and I designed The Educator Canvas, a tool to help teachers flesh out ideas and test possible solutions to teaching challenges.
  • Establish norms for sharing ideas and giving feedback. Schedule round-robin sharing sessions. 
  • Host a “Puppy Tank” pitch show where you provide positive suggestions for growth.
  • Create a culture of celebrating ideas and focusing on HOW new information will be used with and for the benefit of STUDENTS.

There are a few key takeaways here: First, implementation does NOT always mean a lesson plan. It may mean a shift in classroom structure or a rethinking of a system. Perhaps implementation is an activity, lesson, or unit plan. Maybe it’s reorganizing a physical space or schedule. Implementation can and will take many forms. Second, any focus on implementation must include WHO is involved, WHAT you plan to do, WHEN you plan to do it, and HOW you will accomplish your steps. The Educator Canvas provides the space to reflect on these questions as well as strategic prompts to nudge thinking. 

There are two main challenges to shifting to PD implementation: finding the time and school/building buy-in. Time is a teacher’s most precious commodity (to eat lunch or pee???) so administrators need to be strategic and dedicated. They need to maximize meetings: send emails or share updates via videos so your in-person time can focus on creating, designing, and implementing. Then share how the implementation went and revise. Again, cut back on content and increase work time because buy-in is hard, especially for teachers who have experienced (years of) professional development that was not meaningful, relevant, or helpful. Start by asking teachers what they need to help them improve their practice and provide relevant, applicable content along with structured work time. Many will be skeptical at first. Some will even work on other things. But here’s a well-known secret that’s already happening in every PD session in existence. To provide better professional learning experiences that influence teaching and learning, the bar should be raised instead of playing to the lowest common denominator. If you treat educators like the experts they are, they will rise to the occasion.  

The freedom to create something FROM that inspirational PD will buoy most staffers and also frighten others. Why? Because they’ve never learned how to systematically implement ideas, and they’ve never been trusted to work, design, and create. That’s OK. Do it anyway. Keep implementing until people trust that this shift in professional learning culture is here to stay. Until the process of drafting, testing, and reflecting on ideas is second nature. Any change takes time, and any change worthwhile will be tough. This is no exception. 

Not to sound too dramatic here, but the fate of the teaching profession is riding on nurturing good educators into great ones. It’s riding on us supporting great educators and fueling their passion to teach. Adding implementation will not in and of itself fix professional development. Far from it (and stay tuned for steps two and three). This is the FIRST step to improving professional learning and cultivating a team/staff of agile problem-solvers.

Darcy Bakkegard

Darcy is a change consultant and co-founder of The Educators' Lab. After more than a decade in the classroom teaching English and theatre, Darcy now creates the type of PD she always wanted, driving change in education and empowering teachers as changemakers. Through her work, teachers reconnect with their purpose, rekindle their spark for teaching, and reignite the JOY of teaching and learning. She specializes in professional development design and implementation, interactive strategies for the classroom, meaningful tech integration, and building relationships with students. Darcy holds a Master’s of Secondary Education, is an ISTE Certified Educator, an experienced international presenter, and believer in the power of education. She lives in Fargo, ND with her husband Jeff, and toddler triplets, Kurt, Ben, and Cora.

4 thoughts on “Professional Development Isn’t Working: Rethink PD Implementation (Step 1) | Darcy Bakkegard | 7 Min Read

  1. Darcy, this is a stimulating and helpful essay, filled with truths about teaching, time, PD, problems, and solutions. The idea that PD be “seamlessly integrated into the day-to-day operation of every school” is terrific, as are your many suggestions for how to do that.
    However, I think the issue of time remains one of the most significant problems. Imagine what we might accomplish if the approach to PD were to include summertime, when the students are absent and the teachers could work together—really studying and discussing meaningful research into how people learn and then designing implementation plans based on the implications of this research. Imagine paying that $18,000 directly to each teacher for, say, 6 weeks of intensive collegial work on learning and teaching during the summer.
    And I would make a distinction between PD based on research into how people learn and PD based on research that essentially ignores how people learn and focuses instead on strategies for how students can be more successful in the traditional system, the design of which is antithetical to how people learn. For example, the implications of latest research from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang certainly suggests a need for a new design and fundamentally new approaches to PD. Here is a link to her latest paper:

    1. Thank you, Alden, for the resource! When I’ve asked teachers what they would do with even $2000 to guide their own professional learning, their eye lit up and they rattled off a list of things they’d LOVE to do. Many said, “Honestly, $200 would make an impact in me being able to explore better PD.” As you say, image what would happen if they had those full funds!!!

      And yes- it’s absolutely crazy to me that we continue to provide professional learning experiences for teachers using the exact methods we are told are the LEAST effective. For me, that was a huge reason why I started designing PD and working with districts to create truly personalized PD that allows teachers to explore and grow in ways that matter to them using methods proven to support authentic learning.

      1. Yes, Darcy, I agree. The model we used involved two avenues of PD. One, as you suggest, was to invite individual teachers to submit a proposal for summer PD and request the funds they needed to support their plan (including paying them for their time). The other involved initiatives that the school wanted to explore (a new program for ninth graders, new approaches to ESL, etc.). We looked for teacher volunteers who would work TOGETHER on these projects, and we paid them for full 8-hour days of work on campus. The latter approach was part of a plan to transition to 12-month contracts (still with ample vacation time–9 or 10 weeks spread through the year).

  2. Darcy, Great Read. Many of your suggestions for engaging PD are included in our Hook Model for Virtual Professional Learning. We apply this model to make virtual professional learning a habit of mind and for connecting teachers’ problems and goals to professional learning strategies and tools, thereby making it a part of the flow of teaching and not an after school or general experience. Learn more here:

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