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President Trump has proposed cutting over $2 billion in funds for professional development and career growth and replacing them with vouchers for trainings that go directly to teachers, thereby circumventing district- and school-level bureaucracies.
While this proposal may make for some positive headlines, it won’t actually help teachers grow professionally or better meet their students’ needs. In fact, that’s exactly what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos heard from me and five of my colleagues from around the country when she first proposed this idea to us in a meeting four months ago.
Connecting teachers to excellent professional development opportunities takes more than money. Rather than just handing us a check, the Education Department must fully fund Title II in a manner that encourages teachers and administrators to work as teams to master the best practices that meet their students’ needs.
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Early in my teaching career, one of my principals tried this same tactic, putting choice for professional development directly in the hands of teachers. Each teacher was given a budget for his or her own professional development for the year and encouraged to find opportunities and expense them to the school. Although I was initially excited about this freedom, I ended up feeling isolated and struggled to find new ideas tailored to my needs as a relatively inexperienced teacher and to the students in my classroom.
Eager to learn and master new strategies, I used some of my budgeted funds to attend a local organization’s workshop for mathematics teachers. I found what I learned interesting, but I wasn’t sure how to put it into practice. Hoping my math department and I could help each other implement new methods, I encouraged colleagues to go to the next training, but was never able to coordinate this, and so we were not able to try out those new strategies with students.
In fact, when I checked in with other teachers at my school at the end of the year, I found that very few had used their allotted money. The younger teachers had felt overwhelmed and didn’t know what opportunities were available, let alone which ones would be most beneficial. The more experienced teachers felt swamped with their school and family responsibilities and so this opportunity largely fell off their radars. Not only did this leave unspent the money meant to improve our teaching, but it also left us alone and static in our practice. We needed a solution that could build our sense of community, support us in making needed changes, hold us accountable and, most importantly, help us set specific and shared goals.
My experience stands in stark contrast to more recent opportunities for professional development where these factors have been present. When my current school adopted a more rigorous, evidence-based math curriculum, our department was genuinely supported in learning new skills and strategies.
Our administration worked with us to carve out team time during the day to design a curriculum that would bridge what we were then teaching with the new curriculum. The school’s academic coach worked with us to guide our decisions and follow up with our curricular shift. Together, we observed teachers who had already implemented the curriculum and who served similar students. We asked questions, planned together and gathered resources to bring back to our classrooms.
Because we had worked through these changes as a team, if I struggled with a new concept, I could walk down the hall and ask another teacher for advice. Today, when one of my peers needs help, because we have a shared understanding of our goals for our students, I can observe their classes to provide feedback so they can get through any rough patch and best help their kids.
My experience is a testament to the fact that when it’s intentionally planned, implemented and supported, professional development for teachers can have a lasting impact on the way that teachers work together. The strategic and collaborative elements of good professional development allow teachers to pull together and see which supports they need to meet the specific needs of their classes and schools. For the sake of students, I hope DeVos listens this time.
This story about teacher training and the federal budget was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.