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Are teachers really apathetic when it comes to professional learning?

Professional Growth

If you survey school districts and ask them what is their biggest challenge in professional learning, sooner or later (and probably sooner) you’re almost certainly going to hear something like the following:

“We struggle with teacher apathy when it comes to professional learning.”
“Teachers don’t like to take professional development.”
“We have to twist their arms to get them to attend.”

This extends beyond education — when it comes to professional development, many industries across corporate America have the same impression of their employees.

Perception vs. Reality

This widespread perception — that because workers don’t leap at every chance to engage in professional learning, they must be disengaged — is damaging. It leads to tension between supervisors and employees, it undermines employee trust. And the worst thing about it? It’s simply untrue. This perception persists because we operate with faulty expectations

This widespread perception that workers are disengaged is damaging. And the worst thing about it? It’s simply untrue.

It’s no secret that as we grow up, leave college, perhaps get married, have kids, pursue careers, purchase houses and care for families, time becomes scarce. Adults spend so much of our lives working, either at full-time jobs or simply taking care of all of life’s other responsibilities. It costs us to spend time on learning, work-related or otherwise. That we’re willing to pay that cost to learn something new — like how to make a new recipe, do home repairs or swaddle a baby — shows that we’re hardly apathetic. It’s a matter of motivation.

Motivation is an enormous factor in how effective professional learning will be.

Setting a realistic bar

Your teachers are educators. In a myriad of reasons why they entered this profession, “I care about students” probably ranks near the top. Helping your teachers succeed in this goal while setting realistic demands on their time is key. As with elsewhere in education, districts and teachers engaged in highly effective professional learning have found it’s helpful to map backward from desired outcomes.

Outcome #1, of course, is student growth. Although specific teacher capabilities may not have a 1:1 causal relationship with student achievement, when teachers perform at a high level it does set the stage for student achievement. It makes sense to focus the desired outcomes of professional learning on teachers developing specific capabilities that will support student growth.

No doubt your district has goals as well, and in addition to those outcomes you have in mind, also remember that teachers desire certain “outcomes” such as those required for recertification. They’ll be motivated to engage in professional learning when it helps them complete those requirements. Be sure to create a professional learning plan that sets a realistic, achievable bar for how much time is needed and meets both the district’s and teachers’ desired outcomes — recertification, support in areas of identified need, choice and flexibility.

The next time you’re tempted to view your teachers as apathetic, step back for a moment. Consider the demands on their time, and how you can structure learning that’s not only realistic, but that also helps your educators along in their own journey. Challenges in professional learning are far more often an issue of alignment, not apathy.

Rachel Fisher

Rachel Fisher brings fifteen years of expertise in eLearning and online content development as well as over a decade of experience working exclusively with K12 including online and live curriculum development. In addition, she served in the classroom teaching 6th and 7th grade science.