Professional Development Is Dying — and It’s Most Evident in My Local Teacher Community

In early spring this year, the local chapter of my teacher professional development organization held our first in-person conference since the pandemic. In the weeks leading up to the conference, I obsessively checked our registration platform almost hourly to see if the confirmed attendee numbers had increased beyond the low double digits. Sadly, I never received the confidence boost I had hoped for as our attendance numbers remained, and were, embarrassingly low.

In contrast to the heyday of the chapter when our yearly conferences would draw participants by the hundreds, and speaker and presentation opportunities were competitive, the low turnout for this conference felt agonizing and disgraceful.

You would think that after emerging from the pandemic, teachers and educators would be clamoring for the opportunity to engage with one another in person and share experiences and best practices. Ironically, that seems increasingly far from the reality in our classrooms; if anything, it feels like the state of teacher professional development is dying at a time when we need to engage and connect the most.

As someone who still values professional development (PD) and has seen this decline firsthand, it feels like a symptom of the growing unease I am now experiencing in my school, and the growing impotence of the local teacher community that should be at the forefront of providing it.

Detachment and Disengagement Leading to Decline

Right from the start, I knew planning the conference would be an uphill battle. From securing a venue and recruiting speakers to publicity and promotion, it takes a dedicated group of leaders to make these PD conferences happen each year. Having served on the leadership team of our local PD organization for many years, I’ve planned numerous conferences and knew what needed to be done, but this year was different.

Despite many long, unnecessary and unproductive meetings, we struggled to find a focus for our conference, let alone a venue or an interested audience. Rank-and-file teachers concluded that there wasn’t anything new or relevant for them to learn, and instead chose to do something else on a Saturday morning. Even for newer and less seasoned teachers, it wasn’t that they felt their teaching was perfect, but rather that our meager offerings for PD could not improve their practice in a meaningful way.

I believe this mindset shift is emblematic of the widening gulf between national professional organizations and local teacher communities. Without us, the local affiliates, there was no source for teacher PD in K-12 mathematics that was run by and for local teachers. Thus, the only PD many teachers are receiving are often less-than-inspiring offerings put forth by the district.

Pandemic exhaustion is also real. While the classrooms in my building have returned to the bustling, lively places they were before 2020, I think many of us are still coming to grips with that experience. Increases in teacher expectations and scrutiny are staggering, and many of my colleagues simply do not have the energy to think about anything other than what’s happening within the walls of their classrooms. As a result, leadership positions remain vacant, and conferences go unattended.

The post-pandemic withdrawal from actively engaging with the wider community was evident everywhere, but it is hitting small local chapters, like ours, especially hard. In terms of recruiting speakers, attendees and workshop presenters, we primarily rely on teachers to spread the word in their professional networks and departments to drum up interest. When those connections are severed or stale, we end up dead in the water before we even start.

Since I was not the president or conference chair, I didn’t want to be too bossy or aggressive about what I felt needed to happen to make the conference successful. I wanted to make space for others to share their ideas and practice exercising leadership. However, the hard truth remained that we were only operating at half-strength and well below capacity as a board.

Whereas I had once been so eager and proud to be involved with the chapter, I began to flirt with the once unthinkable idea of stepping down from my position due to my increasing frustration, feeling leaderless, directionless, irrelevant and demoralized.

Static Practice and Static Student Achievement

While none of us expected our conference to make a huge splash in our local community of teachers, the lack of impact was sobering and noticeable, even among those teachers who attended and gave favorable reviews of the workshop sessions.

After poking my head into the classrooms of the few attendees in my conference circle in the weeks following the conference, I saw almost no change in their classroom practice — not even aspects of their curriculum and instruction they went to the conference to improve. Similarly, those who attended the larger national conference of our parent organization the previous year buzzed with excitement upon their return, only for their classroom practices to remain unchanged in the long term. I began to suspect that buzz might have had more to do with being away from home in an exciting new city and not so much the desire to implement new best practices.

In the absence of a vital and teacher-led PD independent of the district, teachers have no viable options for on-the-ground PD that is raw, real and catered to their specific needs and wants. The motivation teachers once had to make meaningful changes to improve student learning and engagement had become static and stale right before my eyes. While I have my own feelings about how this realization influences morale among teachers, it is always our students — the ones receiving the back end of our PD practice — who are ultimately shortchanged.

Although the factors contributing to the decline of my beloved local chapter — the organization to which I’ve dedicated many years of service and from which I’ve received the inspiration and support to grow as a teacher — are beyond my control, I refuse to give up on what still has the potential to be an important professional resource for teachers.

Reinvigorating Local Teacher Communities

Successful teaching is based on successful relationships, we are told. This is not only true of teachers teaching students but also of teachers leading other teachers.

The camaraderie of a group of friends and colleagues who get it, the camaraderie that initially attracted me to our chapter and made me want to give a big piece of myself to it, is the same camaraderie that gives me hope for a more bountiful future for local chapters and affiliates like ours.

Local chapters like ours must adapt and embrace the new realities of teacher professional development, including the digital landscape where most PD has moved since the pandemic. However, whether in-person or virtual, the goal should be to enhance our desire to grow professionally and learn in community again, while noting the specific needs we have in our local education ecosystems.

Teaching is too hard to go it alone, and it is the strength of our local teacher communities that will dictate the quality of the education our students receive. The renewal of these communities should be the mission of professional organizations, especially if they are to survive our new reality.

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