Teachers want a balanced approach to PD

January 16, 2012
Gaylene Schreiber, ATA Executive Staff Officer, Government and Professional Development

In a recent study undertaken by Rocky View Local No. 35, ATA staff, international researchers and teachers registered their concern about the imposition of district-mandated professional development (PD).

Teachers desire a balanced approach to PD that is self-directed and involves collaborative learning. Research reflects a growing concern that PD is increasingly leveraged to accomplish goals that lie beyond the individually identified professional learning goals of teachers. As a result, PD time and resources could become a contested issue. In an era of monolithic educational change, teachers have become wary of PD that supports a bewildering array of disconnected school improvement initiatives. Teachers have little time or resources left to attend to their own professional learning goals.

Longitudinal data from the ATA’s 2010 PD Survey found that teacher autonomy in pursuing growth goal plans has slipped. Only 44.4 per cent of respondents reported that teachers have a high degree of autonomy and choice in pursuing growth plan goals. By contrast, 48.9 per cent indicated that teachers have some degree of autonomy, and 6.7 per cent reported that teachers have little autonomy. In 2009, 51 per cent of respondents said teachers had a high degree of autonomy and choice and none indicated that teachers had little autonomy. In other words, teachers no longer feel as confident as they once did that they are in control of their own growth plans.

Also disquieting was respondents’ concern that some jurisdictions expected teachers’ professional growth plan goals to support jurisdiction or school goals. This is arguably not the intention of Alberta Education’s Teacher Supervision and Evaluation Policy 2.1.5, which delineates the purposes and uses of teacher growth plans and states that “a teacher … is responsible for completing during each school year an annual teacher professional growth plan that: (i) reflects goals and objectives based on an assessment of learning needs by the individual teacher.” (http://education.alberta.ca/teachers/certification/standards/teacher.aspx, accessed January 5, 2012)

Contemporary PD research and literature advocate for professional learning conditions that honour autonomy and choice, with a practical content focus related to teachers’ daily practice. Active and collaborative learning, over a sustained period, which is focused on a small number of learning outcomes, is generally seen as an effective approach. Opportunities that take advantage of collegial expertise and collaboration in common teaching tasks are cost-effective and appealing ways to share promising practices and newly acquired information. Collegial learning in communities of practice, embedded into the daily work of teachers, can take many forms, such as coplanning and coteaching, mentoring, modelling instructional techniques, reflecting on lessons, group discussions, and collaborative planning or assessment of student work or teaching resources. It is no surprise that 29 per cent of Rocky View respondents said the provision of embedded PD time (during the day or week) was an important priority, with a further 39 per cent saying it was somewhat important.

The implications for teacher learning and teacher efficacy are clear. When teachers are provided with opportunities for focused and sustained learning about topics and skills they have chosen to pursue, with support from and interaction with their colleagues, a sense of engagement and enthusiasm is likely to follow, and teacher learning is more likely to be transferred into classroom practice. This approach sounds a bit like what teachers already know about student learning: engagement follows when relevance, choice and respect for the students’ needs are consistently present. Perhaps it is time to do away with one-size-fits-all learning and prescriptive outcomes for teachers, too.