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Professional Development in Rural School Districts: Challenges and Strategies for Effective Program Design

Professional Development in Rural School Districts: Challenges and Strategies for Effective Program Design

High-quality, ongoing, meaningful professional development (PD) is key not only to teacher success, but also to positive student outcomes. It helps teachers feel supported, connected, and able to continue growing in their sometimes isolated profession, leading to higher rates of retention. At the same time, opportunities to hone their craft help teachers remain learners themselves, and in turn help their students become the type of inquisitive, lifelong learners we all want them to be—and which they need to be for 21st century success.

How to go about providing this kind of effective PD is something that all administrators grapple with. However, as recent research from the American Research Institutes and Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance shows, it is a particular challenge in rural districts. Here, we’re taking a look at the factors that make PD more challenging in rural districts, as well as strategies to implement the kind of collaborative, job-embedded, continuous, and locally planned programs that the research shows are effective.

Why designing effective PD is more difficult for rural districts

1. Limited personnel

Fewer staff members mean every teacher has a smaller peer group—or maybe no peer group at all (if, for example, they’re teaching at a very small secondary school and are the only English teacher in their building). This situation makes it more difficult to implement “train the trainer” formats, observe one another, and offer other collaborative opportunities. Additionally, small staff sizes in rural districts typically mean staff members all wear many hats (like serving as coaches, counselors, and even bus drivers in addition to teaching), making it even more difficult to find time to schedule PD.

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2. Budgetary constraints

Fewer students mean less funding and fewer budgetary resources to dedicate to PD in rural districts. The fact that many rural areas are already economically depressed and experiencing population loss (and consequently have fewer tax dollars coming in) exacerbates this issue.

3. Geographic isolations

Rural districts are often truly isolated. Individual buildings within the same district may be far flung, and neighboring districts who could be possible PD partners are often a long drive away. These situations make it difficult and more expensive to physically meet up with other educators, attend conferences, host trainers, and provide other meaningful in-person experiences.

PD strategies that work for rural districts

1. Plan ahead

As the research shows, planning at the local level is one of the keys to effective PD. So, as an administrative team, don’t let PD fall to the bottom of the priority list! Make sure that it’s included in your next-year planning activities; set aside budget, review your data, and survey staff to determine training needs and goals well ahead of time. With a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, you can more effectively seek out the right programs and opportunities. 

2. Pool resources

Form a collective of small districts in your area to organize regular PD days, even thinking about them as “mini-conferences”. By pooling PD budgets, you can access more and higher-quality resources (for instance, bringing in known speakers, consultants, or technology trainers to address the group that you may not be able to afford individually). Plus, educators get the added benefit of being able to network with peers.

3. Create virtual PLNs

Again, partnering with other districts and educators makes a huge difference. One of the best things about this digital age is the ease of communication—even across huge geographic distances! So, encourage your staff to take to Twitter, the blogospheres, and any other online outlet they enjoy to create online personal learning networks, and virtually collaborate with educators they can relate to and learn from. Check out some of these many active Twitter chats, or start with one of the tried-and-true favorites like #edchat or #edtechchat.

4. Build a regular “Data Day” into your school or district’s schedule

If scheduling allows for it, try setting aside some regular time for your staff to dig into their data together. It’s a simple reality that today’s teachers have access to an unprecedented amount of data. By giving them dedicated time to analyze that information in a collaborative environment, they’ll be able to truly make the most of it. Not only does a “data day” (or afternoon, or morning, or whatever works for your schedule) help hold educators accountable for utilizing their data, but they’ll also benefit from one another’s ideas, expertise, and fresh eyes.

5. Leverage technology partners

Education technology companies pour their time and energy into creating tools that support teachers and students—and they want their programs to be successful! So, be sure to look into training, consulting, and support opportunities that your technology partners offer. Especially given the growing role of online programs in the classroom, getting your staff truly up to speed with the solutions you’ve already dedicated precious budget dollars to can make a big difference. Vendor-facilitated training opportunities can also help you develop a team of “teacher trainers” who gain deep expertise with the programs you’re using, and in turn can continue to be a resource to the rest of your staff throughout the school year.

Edmentum is proud to partner with rural districts across the country to provide research based, state-standards aligned courses, practice and assessments, and individualized learning tools, as well as ongoing consulting to support program design and fidelity. Interested in learning more about how Edmentum can support your professional development needs? Learn more about our expert services and consulting here.