Why Your PD Program Sucks and How to Fix It

After working with over 60 districts and watching teachers complete over 100,000 lessons, we’ve learned that there are concrete, actionable steps you can take to increase the likelihood that your program succeeds. The great news is that it doesn’t require a lot of money and it doesn’t require active support from district leaders. The good news is that it requires a change in mindset and consistency. There is no bad news.

It’s not me, it’s you.

Do edtech initiatives struggle to gain traction at your district? Do you find yourself thinking, “That idea would never work in my district! My teachers don’t want to learn about technology.” Do your teachers complain about “initiative overload?” If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” then there’s a good chance that it’s not your teachers, it’s your initiatives.

Almost like real people, teachers have a limited amount of attention to give you. They have families, friends, hobbies, and, oh yeah, teaching. Surprisingly, they very likely don’t care as much about your edtech initiative as you do. Your initiative lies somewhere between “getting the kids to soccer practice on time” and “what did I have to pick up at the store?” In order to win some of their limited attention, your initiative has to provide meaningful value - “what’s in it for me?” - and it cannot not waste their time - “how is this different than the last 5 initiatives no one cares about anymore?”

Why Programs Fail

Conventional wisdom says that programs fail due to lack of support from leadership, lack of budget, lack of interest from teachers, etc. In my experience, these are rarely the reasons a program fails. Certainly, having leadership actively against an initiative will end it, but this is rare. More often, district leaders’ attention falls to the top priorities for the district and unless yours is a top-level priority you won’t find much support. Lack of budget is why initiatives don’t get started, but it’s rarely why they fail. As far as lack of interest from teachers goes, this is generally a catch-all excuse - “my initiative would have succeeded if it weren’t for those lazy teachers and their pesky dog!”

The reality is that most EdTech initiatives fail for two reasons

  1. They are built on a “build it and they will come” mindset -- built on a foundation of untested assumptions.

  2. Readiness and adoption is performed as an afterthought

Fortunately, your teachers hold the key to your successful initiative. Follow the tips below to learn how to gain teacher input, find the right training delivery method, market your program, leverage technology and more.

9 Tips for Building a Successful Program

1) Prove Your Value

Identify how your initiative provides value to your teachers. Will it improve student outcomes and therefore make teaching more joyful? Will it make using technology easier thereby giving teachers time for other activities? Whatever value you think it provides, it’s just a guess until you talk with listen to your teachers.

Once you have identified how you think your initiative will provide value to teachers, there are several ways to gather feedback - some of which we outlined in our building a PD plan series. The approach I like to start with is 5 - 12 face-to-face conversations. Be sure to have your questions ready, but treat the meeting more as a conversation than an interview. Let the teacher do most of the talking.

An additional benefit of starting with an interview is that it demonstrates to your teachers that their opinions matter. This can work wonders in districts where teachers feel that they aren’t being heard.

Note: You might be wondering why “5-12”. You should start hearing similar responses within 5-12 interviews.

What If My Teachers Don’t Agree with My Value Proposition?

Stop! Determine a new value proposition and test it again with a new set of 5 - 12 interviewees. It’s much more effective to stop here than to launch a PD initiative that is of questionable value.

2) Decide how you will deliver training to teachers

Once you have validated the value proposition of your professional development program, now it’s time to determine the best way to deliver the PD. Just like determining the value, you need to validate that the style you choose meets the needs of your users and the constraints of your district - e.g., in-person training might be the best, but your district might not be able to get substitutes to cover classes.


What If I Can’t Deliver the PD?

Stop! Brainstorm to see if an alternative delivery model will meet the needs of the teachers and verify that your district has the necessary resources.

The “M” Word

Despite the recent rise of social media personalities in education, marketing still has somewhat negative reputation. Label it a necessary evil if you wish, but you need to consistently promote your program to make it successful.

3) Establish a Brand

Find a way to make your program exciting by giving it a name and a ‘brand’. Teachers will be much more enthusiastic about participating in something fresh than in something called ‘Professional Development EdTech Initiative’. Taking the time to put thought into how you present your initiative will lend it more authority, and make it more memorable.

Pro Tip: A great time to get ideas for your brand is during your teacher interviews. Not only does it help with idea generation, but your teachers are more likely to feel a part of the program.

4) Determine your Communication Channels

Decide what you want to do to get the word out to teachers; whether it’s an email blast, website or a staff meeting that details your plan. Whatever you choose to do, make sure teachers have the opportunity to provide feedback and ask questions.

Pro Tip: Make your emails/flyers/website etc. stand out with appealing graphics and comprehensive information. Consider enlisting the help of an art instructor or technology coach!

Pro Tip: If your channel is digital, collect metrics on email open rates and website activity to ensure you are reaching your audience. Work with your IT department on this - they will love working on these types of problems rather than resetting another password.

5) Over Communicate

Hopefully you’ve hyped up your program throughout the planning process. Teachers know when the program will start, how it will impact them, and how they can access their training and resources. Don’t lose that momentum - continue to send out reminder emails for the first few weeks, and include success stories from ‘early adopters’ to validate the effectiveness of the program.

Remember, teachers are busy people. They need to know that any extra work they’re taking on is worthwhile. While every initiative is ultimately designed to increase student success, it needs to be practical and useful for teachers in order to get their buy-in. Consider and share:

  • What will the program provide for teachers?

  • How are you creating value? How will teachers be able to immediately implement their learning?

  • How will you reward their successes?

Pro Tip: It’s not personal but most of your communications will be ignored so don’t be afraid to over communicate.

6) Leverage technology

Take advantage of tech tools to deliver training or information about your program to teachers. For example, you could use Padlet to collect questions or responses to learning activities, or Google Calendar to schedule initiative meetings with your team.

Pro Tip: Don’t overwhelm teachers with technology. Use the “right amount” for your audience. What’s the right amount? Ask the experts...your teachers!

7) Work backwards to set sustainable targets

To make a big idea sustainable, you have to break it down into smaller parts. Decide when you want your initiative to be fully implemented, then work in reverse.

  • Which grade level or department will be the last to get trained? Which will be the first?

  • How will you measure the success of your initiative after the launch and again at the end of the school year?

  • How will you get the information out to participants?

  • How much money can you allocate to each phase of the project?

  • How often will you meet with your team before and after the rollout? What do you need to accomplish during these meetings?

8) Secure a Budget

Now that you know the value your professional development initiative will bring and the best way to deliver it, you can identify a budget. You need to verify that you have the funding required to deliver. In addition to “cash costs”, be sure to capture other resources such as time.

Pro Tip: You will always need more money and resources than you think you will. Be conservative in your estimates.

Pro Tip: Determine the amount of time you will need to successfully drive the program and then tell your manager you need twice as much. It’s sandbagging but you will likely not get the time you ask for anyway.

9) Listen and revise

Regardless of how comprehensive your plan is, there are always going to be obstacles along the way, and your launch will take longer than you expected. Your teachers are the people receiving the training, so they have the best perspective on whether or not it’s working for them following the launch. Be open to their feedback and act on it to make ‘your’ plan become their plan.

Pro Tip: Schedule regular time to meet with your teachers in your program. This - more than almost anything - demonstrates that you are taking their feedback seriously.

4 Bonus Tips

Build a champion

In districts suffering from “initiative fatigue” you will often find a few cynical naysayers. Listening to them sometimes works - but confronting them doesn’t. Instead, I recommend building a champion. In building a champion, you identify an individual that is actively participating in your program - does not need to be a ‘go getter’ - and you ensure that they receive a little extra recognition from district leaders. It’s important that the recognition is genuine, public, and regular.

The technique of Building a Champion is based on two general notions: reward positive behaviour rather than punish bad behaviour; and people tend to emulate the behaviour of their peers that receives positive recognition.

Be consistent and predictable

Consistency sets expectations and builds trust. Execute your program as you planned and meet your deadlines. If you’ve promised a specific workshop or incentive, make sure you deliver. If you’ve planned to meet with end-users twice a month, make sure you show up. Lend your program as much credibility as possible by showing participants that you care.

Measure and Share Results

You should measure the success if the program regularly -- shortly after the launch, a few months in, and again at the end of the school year. Ask yourself: did the initiative accomplish what you and your teachers were hoping for? If so, how can you continue to build on it? If not, what adjustments do you need to make? How can teachers be a part of these changes?

Meet with Teachers on a Regular Basis

Set aside time each week to listen to teachers at their school site. Ask them how they are doing and how the program is working for them. Incorporate their feedback into your program and communicate with them when you do.

How you plan for, roll out, and maintain your initiatives will prevent ‘initiative overload’ -- and ensure their sustainability and success. Imagination and innovation are key to educational growth, but planning and people are necessary to turn these ideas into initiatives, and these initiatives into reality.

Free Successful Program Launch Checklist

Do you want to learn more about building a strong professional development program from the ground up? Download our free Successful Program Launch Checklist today!

Mike WashburnComment