The Teacher Professional Development Fail
Home » Education

The Teacher Professional Development Fail

Written by 15 April 2011

A few weeks ago, I ran across teacher Bill Ferriter on Twitter (@plugusin) when he made several interesting comments about the state of teacher professional development. I then started reading more about Bill's take on the teaching life at his blog, the Tempered Radical.

And, one thing's for sure: Bill calls 'em like he sees 'em!  (And, after you read the below, I'd love for you to call 'em as you see 'em, by commenting at the end of the post.)

The Teacher Professional Development Fail

So, let me jump right to it and introduce Part 1 of The Teacher Professional Development Fail (Part 2 -- with a suggested solution will follow in a few days) and Bill Ferriter's take on...

The Teacher Professional Development Fail
by Bill Ferriter

One of the most bizarre moments of my professional career happened one year when I realized at the last minute that I didn’t have enough technology professional development credits—a required strand here in North Carolina—to renew my teaching license.

Ironic, huh? After all, I’ve been a leader in technology integration for the better part of a decade.

Anyone looking through my Digitally Speaking PD wiki or my technology book could quickly see that understanding the role that digital tools can play in teaching and learning is a professional strength of mine.

Wanting to keep my job, though, I started scouring the technology courses being offered by both my county and the state. The only courses being offered before my certification expired were:

  • Getting to Know Your Computer: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Your New Machine.
  • Getting to Know the Internet: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Power of the World Wide Web.

Both courses were 8 hours long, both were being offered by a local computer store on two consecutive Saturdays, and both were WAY below my level of ability.

So I called the licensure representatives at the county office, figuring that they’d help me to find a professional development opportunity that was more appropriate for my abilities.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: So I need a few technology professional development credits, but there aren’t any courses that will help me to grow as a learner.

PD Lady: I see two courses, Mr. Ferriter. One titled Getting to Know Your Computer. The other titled Getting to Know the Internet.

Me: Right. But those courses are for beginners. I’m not a beginner. Could I maybe do an independent study on integrating video into classroom instruction?

PD Lady: No, Mr. Ferriter. You have to take an approved course.

Me: Even if I don’t learn anything?

PD Lady: Yes, Mr. Ferriter.

There are a TON of lessons to be learned about professional development in that one short exchange.

We’ve made the process for helping teachers learn more important than the people doing the learning.

As crazy as it sounds, learning isn’t the priority for most teacher professional development programs. Instead, meeting the requirements for certification spelled out in policy is the priority.

That rigid commitment to requirements meant that I learned nothing in the courses that I was forced to take and was certified anyway.

Stew in that for a minute, would ya?

If you care about seeing students succeed, think about the implication of a nation of educators who are taking courses to meet requirements INSTEAD of taking courses to improve what they know and can do.

And if you care about saving cash—an important consideration in today’s tight budget times—think about the the implications of investing in teacher professional development programs that have little real impact on teaching and learning in our classrooms.



We’re also sending horrible messages to teachers about the importance of differentiating learning for individuals.

If our school systems are going to successfully close achievement gaps and increase levels of performance for every child, we simply must begin to customize individualized learning experiences at the student level.

What’s cool is that momentum really is building behind the idea that differentiation matters.

Teachers are being encouraged to use data to make instructional choices. Remediation and enrichment are common expectations in every school. Digital options for independent exploration are being pursued at all grade levels and in all subject areas.

Yet the vast majority of our teachers continue to sit in one-size-fits-all sessions delivered to entire faculties on isolated work days a few times each year.

Do you see the disconnect?

Can we really expect teachers who have never experienced differentiation as learners to turn around and embrace differentiation as teachers?


What’s so darn frustrating is that the characteristics of effective professional development aren’t a mystery.

Paterson (2002) details how successful professional development programs consist of structural elements---a connection to curricula, linkages to state initiatives and certification, integration of information technologies, use of a variety of instructional strategies---and a strong connection to a school’s mission.

Quality professionally development also promotes reflective practices, fosters collaboration (Browne-Ferrigno & Muth, 2004), focuses on an educator’s needs (Marshall, Pritchard, & Gunderson, 2001), is based upon improving student achievement (Haar 2002), and has become embedded and job supported (Lairon & Vidales, 2003).

The only mystery is why so many systems fail to create meaningful learning environments for their teachers.

Works Cited:

  • Browne-Ferrigno, T., and Muth, R. (2004). Leadership mentoring in clinical practice: Role socialization, professional development, and capacity building. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(4), 468-494.
  • Jean M Haar, "A multiple case study: Principals' involvement in professional development" (January 1, 2002). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. Paper AAI3041356.
  • Lairon, Mary and Bernie Vidales. Leaders Learning in Context. Leadership, v. 32, no.5, p. 16-18, 36, May/June 2003.Newcomers. School Administrator, v. 61, no. 6, p.18-21, June 2004.
  • Marshall, J.C., Pritchard, R.J., & Gunderson, B. (2001, February). Professional development: What works and what doesn’t. Principal Leadership, 1(6), 64-68.
  • Paterson, Kent, "The Professional Development of Principals: Innovations and Opportunities. Educational Administration Quarterly. April 2002. Volume 38. No. 2 (213-232).


About this post's author:  Bill Ferriter is national board-certified teacher who teaches sixth-grade language arts, social studies and science in a PLC near Raleigh, North Carolina. As a Solution Tree PLC Associate and author, Bill has designed professional development courses for educators nationwide.

An advocate for PLCs, improved teacher working conditions, and teacher leadership, Bill has represented educators on Capitol Hill and presented at state and national conferences. He is among the first 100 teachers in North Carolina and the first 1,000 in the United States to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and has also served on the board. He has been a Regional Teacher of the Year in North Carolina, and his blog, The Tempered Radical, earned Best Teacher Blog of 2008 from Edublogs.

Bill has had articles published in the Journal for Staff Development, Educational Leadership, and Threshold Magazine. A contributing author to two assessment anthologies, The Teacher as Assessment Leader and The Principal as Assessment Leader, he is also coauthor of Building a Professional Learning Community at Work™. His second book—Teaching the iGeneration—was published in June of 2010 and his third—Essentials for School Principals: Connecting and Communicating with Social Media—is due to be published by Solution Tree in the Spring of 2011.

He can be reached at wferriter [at] hotmail [dot] com or (919) 363-1870. His Skype name is wferriter and his Twitter name is @plugusin.

Share this post with your friends and colleagues:
The Teacher Professional Development Fail


  • pbainter said:

    Teachers who get to attend one size fits all inservices are the lucky ones. We never have any.

    Lisa Nielsen Reply:

    @PBainter, no one is lucky by being forced to sit through something they dont’ care about. If you want to learn something, go learn it. You don’t need school for that.
    Lisa Nielsen recently posted..Generation Z could be the key to driving change in an outdated educational systemMy Profile

  • Cyndi Danner-Kuhn said:

    I agree with Bill. For the most part staff development in most schools is hoop jumping.

    I teach technology in the college of education. Currently I am doing a semester long “customized online” professional development for a high school on improvement. The topic is Teaching and Learning with Technology.

    And even though it is customized, the problem is the online thing during the school year. It is incredibly difficult to get the 50 teachers to carve out some time each week to complete their assignments and try it in their classroom. So the online has turned into some online and my driving 2 hours , fairly frequently and doing it in person during planning periods for two days each time. I don’t mine really, I love the face-to-face and getting to know the teachers, but then they are required to attend on their planning periods, which adds stress to their world, and it becomes more along the “one size fits” model again.

    Very frustrated, needless to say. I am meeting with Administrators on my next visit to talk about how to better make this work for next year and we are gonna try again. I suspect they are not as frustrated as I am, since they want to do more next year. But we must find something that works better!! Any suggestions are welcome.

    Lisa Nielsen Reply:

    @Cyndi Danner-Kuhn,

    Michael Wesch suggested an idea he loves. He outlines the learning goals with his class and they come up with their own learning plans and assessment.
    Lisa Nielsen recently posted..Generation Z could be the key to driving change in an outdated educational systemMy Profile

  • Natalie White said:

    Behaviour management is one of the top challenges cited by schools and yet teachers receive very little basic training on how to manage behaviour in the classroom. And of course if teachers struggle to do this, there is no way they will manage seriously challenging behaviours from pupils (or indeed parents…).This is a much neglected area in teacher training.

  • Lisa Nielsen said:

    Teachers and students should be able to document their own mastery and not waste their time in classes they are not interested in.

    In fact some might say, “If you want to be a great teacher, don’t go to PD”

    Others might say, “Never Let Schooling Get in the Way of Your Education”
    Lisa Nielsen recently posted..Generation Z could be the key to driving change in an outdated educational systemMy Profile

  • Vici Thomson said:

    I am having a hard time understanding this. Here teachers direct their own pro-d. They are expected to do it, but it is their professional decision to decide what will help them grow. We administrators do offer/encourage certain things as well. I am astounded that the state can prescribe what you have to learn in order to continue being a teacher. (As I say that I am cringing because that is exactly what we do to kids.) Here that would be called in-service. That is where the province/district decides, for example, we want everyone to learn how to do a child abuse prevention program. The province/district would then provide the training and expect all to take it and implement. Professional development is the development of yourself as a professional – your personal development plan. Totally different.
    Likewise staff development is largely decided by staff pro-d committees. Admin takes one day a year to present their choice and then encourages people to continue with it, but other pro-d days are decided on by the staff pro-d committee.
    We are always complaining here about the state of our professional development: not enough of it, not the right kind, too expensive, hard to get enough subs for whole staff/large groups, etc. etc. but I’m starting to think we have it pretty good.

  • Patrick Larkin said:

    The final line sums it all up for me – “The only mystery is why so many systems fail to create meaningful learning environments for their teachers.”

    One of the biggest reasons for our failure is the top down mandates that fail to model the differentiated practices that we expect teachers to utilize with students. We are dying for change in our schools so that we have engaging classrooms where students can create, collaborate, and play are larger role in leading their own learning. It is very sad that the bureaucratic mandates in place are impediments to teachers having the same type of learning experiences.

    Until the people in charge of making the decisions on how teachers are supposed to show proof of continuous learning change the ground rules, we should not be surprised that our schools set up structures that discourage engagement, higher-level thinking, and innovation. Unfortunately, they are getting just what they ask for…checklists of low-level task completion…sounds a lot like what we are getting with standardized testing…hmmm?
    Patrick Larkin recently posted..Mr Conceison Receives 2011 Aggarwal Award For Teaching ExcellenceMy Profile

    Bill Ferriter Reply:

    Patrick wrote:

    It is very sad that the bureaucratic mandates in place are impediments to teachers having the same type of learning experiences.

    This is one of education’s greatest hypocrises, Patrick, and it makes me furious. As a classroom teacher, I actually chuckle when I’m told to differentiate and remediate and enrich and craft lessons that are appropriate for the needs of individual kids because no one ever does that for me.

    I’m ready to start holding my organizational leaders accountable for the same behaviors they want to hold me accountable for.

    Wait. That’s crazy talk.

    I can’t hold anyone accountable for anything.

    I’m just a teacher.



  • Dawn Johnson said:

    I found myself agreeing with Bill on so many levels. It really got me thinking about how we “do” professional development in many of our school systems. One of my greatest disappointments is with how much of our staff development is designed. Two comments on that: first, a one-shot four hour workshop (on major topics, such as diversity or differentiation) is often what is prescribed by a school district. We all attend – they record it – and at that point we’ve “been inserviced” on the topic and “should be” experts. How many of us would think that after one lesson on a broad and complicated topic that expertise is a realistic outcome? Second, we often use a “train the trainer” model. In this scenario, a few of us attend and then are expected to be expert enough to train all the other staff members. I struggle with how this is supposed to work because beyond a single experience, often with something that is theoretical rather than practical, the ‘trainer’ is supposed to be fully developed as to the theory and somehow now go out to implement this while training others.

    None of this follows sound educational practice. In this case, a bit different from what Bill is discussing, the process is just plain broken. Essentially though, it speaks to the same group of problems – there is little beyond lip service to helping teachers improve and grow. Yes, you can go out and learn on your own, but doesn’t it speak to the mission of education for school districts and states to make sure that teachers are the best they can be? Why not use staff development money/time/etc. in a way that will really help teachers grow?

  • Darryl Loy said:

    Lets face it, the education landscape is changing faster than governing bodies can keep up…and it’s being driven largely by the students. This bottom up-driven change often results in unrealistic constraints and burdensome regulation. Unless you are lucky enough to have leadership with one eye toward the future, as we have been here at Fort Worth Academy, it’s likely little will change until a bit of natural attrition takes place.

    Occasionally however, those with futurist vision and ideas who are one or two rungs removed from leadership can impact direction if done skillfully. As I’ve learned recently(from my friend and fellow blogger Chad Missildine, ideas and vision do not translate well for a few reasons…a)they’re YOUR ideas, b)the timing is wrong or, c)my personal downfall, the delivery method is an overwhelming, information-overloading brain-dump.

    We must learn to wield our visionary swords skillfully to combat the “this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” enemy…and taking a step back to view the larger picture and identifying issues as you’ve done here is the way to get things moving!!

  • Doris said:

    In the not so distant past, on staff development days we had the entire faculty trainings (we are middle school) doing elementary level break-the-ice activities before being given the one size fits all training and then break out training for the different departments. But they didn’t seem to know what to do with the 3 technology teachers and had nothing planned for us, so we were sent to sit in with the science teachers or the math department while they made cut out material for their classes. What new knowledge or meaningful growth did we receive. NOTHING!Just a total waste of an afternoon.

    Our district has made some improvements by planning at least one staff development day (usually early in the school year) like a huge conference. Many different trainings on many different subjects on different grade levels and teachers pick the training opportunities they are interested in attending. We receive information and take away materials. We receive stamps from each training we attend as documentation of our hours. And we can pre-order a nice lunch served on-site so we don’t have to go out. This doesn’t make us instant experts but gives us a base of knowledge to build on.

  • Roy Turrentine said:

    I would expand this concept to include all in-service, whether tech or not. It is all about jumping through hoops. I wish I had a dime for all the lectures I have heard in the last 30 years of teaching about how I should not lecture.

    Cyndi Danner-Kuhn Reply:

    Me too Roy, I’d be rich!!

  • Toby Price said:

    I am lucky enough to work in a district that figured this out a few years ago. We host a two staff development where teachers get to choose the classes and presenters they visit. We don’t require attendance. Each year we have over 600 teachers show up because they want to learn. To me that makes a huge difference. Sadly in too many districts folks are subjected to one size fits all staff development that doesn’t work. That is the beauty of twitter and PLNs. I have learned more from Twitter than I have in years. Not every teacher will get out there and seek out new knowledge. I feel that if we are going to ask students to make time to learn the new things we want them to that we, as educators, need to be willing to go and seek out new things as well.


  • Michael (author) said:

    I’m an outsider… BUT, seems to me that to get any of this changed, it’s going to take some serious commitment from INsiders.

    However, let me know what we can do to spread the cause of meaningful teacher PD.

  • Geri Coats said:

    I love my school and feel lucky to have site admin who seem to understand this. More teachers need to take an active role in doing their own pd, sharing their experience and expertise to spread the awareness that good pd is out there and that it can affect our teaching and our students in such an incredibly positive way. We have to be teacher leaders and create the excitement by demonstrating it to other teachers.

  • jlhe1975 said:


    I have been giving these one-size-fits-all workshops for the last 5 years and I couldn’t agree more. They do not have longevity in the classroom. Teachers might take one or two easy to apply ideas back in their classroom, but this isn’t the answer to long term professional growth.

    I have recently been looking at the concept for Japanese lesson study as part of my graduate studies. I think one of the most powerful ways that teachers can learn is through feedback from other teachers. To study this, I have launched a free forum called:

    I invite you, all of you teachers who want to learn, to participate. It won’t help meet your professional development requirements, but it will help us all get professional development!

  • Andy said:

    Where is part two? I read this a long time ago, hoping that part two, which offers some solutions, would be as widely shared as the complaint segment.

  • Michael (author) said:

    Hello Andy and All:

    Part 2 (Solution) is actually today’s headline post:

  • David Phillips said:

    I think the whole issue of one-size-fits-all PD is brought about because: 1 Many administrators (certainly not all) are not actually educators and don’t understand advances in ed tech.
    2 Bureaucrats in state ed. agencies are often more about making their jobs easier and/or justifying their existence.
    3 Teachers don’t know what to ask for or, if they do ask, are rebuffed by those who don’t want to expend the effort to create/provide good PD.
    4 A fairly large percentage of teachers are not willing to take the initiative to improve their skills and will just do what they are told they have to.
    5 With our prevalent high-stakes, low-academic testing, we breed a culture among students, teachers, administrators and education agencies of shooting for the bottom.
    Sorry to sound so pessimistic, but I’m on the board of the largest state educational technology association and I sponsor a well-attended local conference for teachers each year. However, what I see from the state and from individual districts is mainly apathy toward improving teacher skills.

  • Stacey Tolbert said:

    I am a parent of school agers with an education degree though I have been out of the schools for a while. It has been my observation from two very different school districts we have been a part of that professional development is typically something teachers complain about because it takes time out of their schedule. I heard recently of a school that was doing PD for two hours in the morning before school, required. Schools need to begin making PD part of teacher’s jobs and/or have incentives for participation. It should be expected that teachers are taking time to learn new methods not because they have to but in order to become better at what they do. If it becomes part of the job requirement and a consistent weekly or bi-weekly event, I believe teachers will look at it more positively and not complain or tune out during presentations. There should be a focus on the part of administrators to encourage the teaching staff and speak of PD as a wonderful opportunity. It is all about the positive attitude and way you talk about something that determines the perception of the participants.