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Getting More Bang for Your Professional Development Buck

By Net Assets posted 03-20-2017 01:56 PM

Professional development

Financial Management |

PD funding must serve the entire institution, not just the interests of individuals. Real money is at stake.

Article by Peter Laipson, Bard College

From the March/April 2017 Net Assets

Independent schools typically dedicate between .5 percent and 1 percent of their annual operating budgets to faculty and staff professional development. That’s real money — enough that every school should be paying close attention to how it’s used. Not every school does.

Far too often, the allocation of much professional development funding is a relatively haphazard affair. Each year administrators scramble to identify a suitable speaker on a topic of general interest for all-school PD days, with predictably mixed results. The process is even less systematic when it comes to supporting individual professional development. At many schools, teachers and other staff members simply submit a request. If the cost seems reasonable and the PD budget line has not been exhausted, the business office gets instruction to print a check.

Without question, staff-driven interests and initiatives often lead to serendipitous outcomes. But in an age of limited budgets and constant change, schools need to be more intentional about how they allocate PD funds to get the most for their money. Here are seven suggestions.

1. Tie Individuals’ PD Funding to Advancing Institutional Goals

Most school leaders recognize that teachers chafe at overly prescriptive professional development. But the opposite approach — reserving most funds for participants’ individual interests — does not always serve the needs of the whole institution. To use the money most wisely, find ways to link individual PD goals with the broader school vision.

St. Mark’s School, in Southborough, Massachusetts, follows a structure developed by Michael Wirtz, former assistant head/dean of faculty (and now headmaster of Hackley School). Essentially, teachers are expected to pursue some form of professional development in four broad categories over a five-year cycle:

  1. Disciplinary or field-specific content
  2. Mind/brain education and pedagogy development
  3. Community and equity/cultural competency
  4. Educating the whole child

St. Mark’s encourages — and supports — additional professional development in areas of particular interest to individual teachers. But by requiring that all teachers pursue opportunities in domains central to the work of the full faculty, the school fosters a coherent program of faculty growth, building a base of shared knowledge about topics of school-wide interest.

2. Build PD into Everyone’s Plan for Professional Growth

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fayerweather Street School is also deliberate about its use of professional development funds to enhance professional growth. All faculty members create an annual plan that indicates how they intend to achieve individual, team-based and diversity-related goals, according to Ed Kuh, head of school. He meets with each faculty member to discuss their goals and their contributions to the school as a whole. At the end of each year, they meet again to review outcomes, set future goals and investigate PD opportunities for the year to come.

3. Focus on Strengths, not Weaknesses

While it is tempting to spend money to improve underperformance by individual staff members, that’s not the best use of professional development funds. Rather, the goal should be “to water the plants that are already growing,” said Julie Faulstich, head of school at Westover School, in Middlebury, Connecticut. In short, beware using professional development as a substitute for a difficult conversation.

However, if you do opt to allocate funds to remediate underperformance, link them explicitly to a performance improvement plan with measurable goals. “There can be moments when PD is a tool for changing adult behavior, but that’s generally the last lifeline someone gets thrown,” said Wirtz.

4. Focus on Outcomes

Faculty often find it fascinating to hear from an expert about new teaching strategies or topical issues — incorporating design thinking into the curriculum, say, or increasing gender equity in the classroom. But it is difficult for even the most ambitious teachers to incorporate professional development without the structural support of school leadership.

“The biggest challenge to good professional development is finding things that are relevant to the day-to-day challenges teachers face,” Faulstich observed. “Assistance from the outside on real tasks makes for the best PD.”

Thus, complement your school’s PD funding with deliberate plans to advance projects, whether school-wide or unique to the individuals pursuing them. Include goals in those plans, along with a realistic timeline for accomplishing them.

5. Less Is More, and More Is Better

It’s tempting to blow the PD budget on a big speaker or a single conference, but faculty get more from smaller, frequent professional development opportunities. “You want to give people lots of small lifts rather than one big one,” said Kuh. He also recommends arranging multiple sessions over time on any one topic. In a revision of its science curriculum, for instance, the Fayerweather faculty is meeting with a local consultant several times over the course of two years in different configurations.

More is better in another way, too. By sending multiple faculty members (ideally with different styles) to professional opportunities, your school will benefit when they discuss their experiences with one another and with colleagues. While it’s wise to be wary of big spends, especially if your budget is limited, you may see value in enabling more than one teacher to participate in a significant learning opportunity.

6. Learn Locally

Some of the best professional development opportunities, especially those that serve school-wide strategic goals, require little or no expenditure of PD funds. By serving on regional accreditation groups and visiting schools in your location, for instance, faculty and staff can get valuable glimpses into other schools’ cultures and expand their professional networks. Internally, teachers can hear what their colleagues are doing through professional learning groups and faculty-guided presentations or conversations. These opportunities also provide the chance for school leaders to highlight best practices and to showcase expertise that already exists among staff.

7. Share the Learning

Whether measured in money, faculty time or both, professional development is expensive. Establish a clear protocol for staff who engage in PD to share what they have learned with colleagues. They can report back in any number of settings — in a department or division meeting, or with the full faculty — even if the content of the conference or seminar was specific to a particular grade or discipline. After all, as Wirtz noted, a primary goal of PD is to develop a culture of professional learning within a school’s adult community. Learning from one another is a great way to accomplish that goal. 

The Emily H. Fisher Research Fellow of Bard College, Peter Laipson is the former provost of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the nation’s only liberal arts and sciences college designed expressly for students of high school age. He is former dean of faculty at Concord Academy, in Concord, Massachusetts.
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