Many people don’t know what teachers do on planning and in-service days. They wonder what these days are, why teachers need them, and how they benefit students. There’s a lot that goes into putting these days on the academic calendar. It’s worth it to find out what’s really going on in schools when teachers go to work with no students.
What are teacher in-service days? Teacher in-service days are days set aside by school districts so that teachers can learn new strategies to improve their lesson planning, content delivery, data analysis, and related professional practices. Sometimes the term is used interchangeably with teacher planning, but it should not be.
The difference between teacher in-service days and teacher planning days is clear. Teacher in-service refers to the time set aside for teacher training, also known as professional development. Teacher planning refers to the time set aside for lesson planning, curriculum mapping, and strategic program development.
It sounds pretty straightforward, but a lot more goes into making these sessions beneficial than one may think at first glance.
Teacher In-Service Days
Teacher In-Service days are days built into the academic calendar that give teachers the opportunity to grow professionally by taking time out of their schedule to learn new things. Teachers are presented with information about emerging trends, best practices, and data-driven strategies to improve student outcomes. Teacher in-service days are also known as teacher training days, teacher professional development days, inset days, or teacher development days.
What Do Teacher’s Do on In-Service Days?
On the best teacher in-service days, training is provided by teachers for teachers. They are structured as small group sessions where the presenter is a teacher from the school who is addressing a challenge that is being faced at the school. Teachers choose to attend that session because it addresses a challenge they want to take on. They contribute to the conversation as best they can for their ability and experience level.
By the end of the session, a plan of action is devised to address the problem and each teacher is responsible for following up on their part of the project. The group comes back together to meet several times throughout the year to ensure progress is made in addressing the problem. By the end of the year, the groups evaluate their successes and shortcomings and determine whether the project needs to be continued in the next year.
Another effective research-based approach features dynamic and engaging professional development sessions that inform and inspire teachers to create better work. The sessions present new information to teachers and give them time to process what they are learning so they can consider how to use it in their classrooms.
Time is broken up between collaborative periods to work in groups with colleagues and individual periods to reflect on how they will use what they are learning in their classrooms. The session is not repetitive and does not present information that most teachers in the room already know.
By the end of the session, teachers are given the opportunity to build what they learned into their lesson plans so they get the chance to practice the strategies they thought were useful. A follow-up is scheduled with their collaborative group so they can share their progress at the school level.
The follow-up session gives teachers the opportunity to share out how they applied what they learned with colleagues, allowing the group to benefit by learning from each other. Then, teachers in the group can try the strategies that their colleagues implemented and consult with them if they have any questions.
Unfortunately, teacher professional development isn’t offered at a high level very often. Mainly, this is due to budgetary and time constraints.
On the worst teacher in-service days, the same old information is presented that has been recycled time and time again. Buzzwords are prioritized over substance. Teachers spend the day learning about a “new concept” that is not really any different from an old one in practice. For example, professional learning communities (PLC’s) became communities of practice (CoP’s) somewhere along the way. Fundamentally, they are not different when implemented at the school level.
Throughout the day teachers take the time to check in with their colleagues to make sure they didn’t miss something. They are assured by those they trust that they did not, and the difference between the old term and the new one is mostly semantic with no significant distinction that will change anything for them in their classroom.
They leave feeling like they were talked down to for not being aware of the latest “research”. They go home knowing that their day would have been more productive if they were just left alone to strategize and plan with their colleagues or by themselves.
Many times, the reality is somewhere in between. Teachers do their best to stay positive about the training session knowing full well they are going to hear much of the same research they have heard throughout their careers. Out of respect for their students, colleagues, principal and themselves they work hard to pull out at least one or two things from the day that they can use in their classrooms.
The presenter does their best to share the information they are told to present in a respectful manner, knowing full well that most of the teachers in the room are familiar with the content. They take the time to get to know the teachers in the room and hear them out, so the teachers feel like their voices matter and the presenter is making an attempt to connect the material to their professional needs.
Educational researchers, policymakers, and leaders know of the chasm that exists between what should be happening in PD versus what is happening. However, they have not been able to devise a valid solution to the problem. All too often, the answer is more new research, without replicating the findings from previous studies. Predictably, this leads to lower quality professional development and lower morale for the teachers who are being presented with the same information they have heard before.
Benefits of Teacher In-Service Days
There are benefits to teacher in-service days when they are done right. Let’s take a look at them through the lens of the main beneficiaries:
Students benefit from teacher in-service days through improved instruction. If their teacher really learned something new that helped them grow, they will probably bring it into their classroom with excitement and vigor. Most teachers are in the profession because they really enjoy helping kids. When they are exposed to a resource that helps them do a better job meeting that goal, there is usually no hesitation in taking advantage of it right away.
Teachers benefit from teacher in-service days through the professional growth they experience from the new information they learned. However, the longer someone is in education, the less frequently they are exposed to new information. Therefore, I want to break this section out between inexperienced teachers and experienced teachers.
Let’s call inexperienced teachers those who have been in the field for less than five years. Employment trends with this group are clear. There is a very high likelihood an inexperienced teacher will leave the profession in less than five years. For this group, I understand the desire to present the same old content. The new teachers in the room need to hear the basics so they can grow. Additionally, the chances are high that there are many teachers in the room who are inexperienced.
When an experienced teacher learns something new they are absolutely thrilled to try it out and see if it produced results. Sadly this is rare because they are lumped into the same PD session as their inexperienced peers. There is no differentiation for teachers. If one person needs to hear it, everyone needs to hear it. So, the veterans are stuck in the room hearing the same old ideas they have heard their entire careers repackaged with new vocabulary.
This is because educational research has not changed much at all in the past 30 years (except for data analysis tools driven by technology). Innovation in educational research is low and yesterday’s ideas are often recycled today with new terms attached to them so they appear fresh.
The solution to this is pretty simple. Don’t make the veterans take part in professional development that is designed for newbies and novices.
When PD looks more like collaboration and less like training it is more effective. It is becoming clear that the best way to approach PD is to turn more of it over to the best teachers at the school level as much as possible. Such an approach would require funding that officials in many states are not willing to provide.
Teacher Planning Days
Teacher planning days are days built into the academic calendar that give teachers the opportunity to apply their expertise, enhance their classroom experience, and create plans that will improve outcomes for their students.
What Do Teachers Do on Planning Days?
On the best teacher planning days, teachers work to create dynamic and engaging lessons. They develop and modify thoughtful curriculum maps that reveal new information to students at just the right time. They plan their program strategically, laying out a strong vision for what students will accomplish throughout the year and how they will address the needs of the whole child.
Each of these tasks is supported by intensive data analysis that provides evidence for the direction they are choosing to head in, justifying what they already know most of the time. During the moments where the data points them in a direction different from what their instincts suspect, they are open to receiving that information and will work to evaluate it further. If necessary, they make the changes needed according to the data.
Most teachers are very capable of performing at this level when they are adequately resourced and supported.
The worst teacher planning days are wasted handling administrative tasks that won’t improve student outcomes. More time is spent making copies than thinking carefully about what will happen in the classroom. The teacher feels overwhelmed by everything that they need to do, knowing there is not enough time for them to thoughtfully accomplish their goals. They take a minute out of their day to talk to a colleague, and it quickly turns into a half hour. The teacher leaves for the day without accomplishing with they set out to do, and their classroom practices do not change when students return.
Most often, the reality is somewhere in between. Like in any other profession, teachers have good days and bad days. A teacher may spend a small part of their day talking a little too much to a colleague. Then they will get it in gear and accomplish what they set out to do for the day. Although there really is never enough time because teachers are notoriously under-resourced and under-supported, they do their best with what they have to put a quality product in front of their students.
Benefits of Teacher Planning Days
There are many benefits to teacher planning days when they are done right. To understand them, it helps to grasp how they impact both the student and the teacher:
When teachers have the time to plan effectively, students benefit through more engaging lessons. A lot more goes into planning a lesson than just the content itself. Teachers need to plan strategically for what they want to accomplish throughout the year, map the curriculum they want to implement so it aligns with their annual goals, then plan dynamic lessons that spark curiosity and creativity in their students.
This process is not neat, and it is not linear. However, it is productive. When teachers have the time to go through this process with fidelity the student experience is enhanced in every way. Teachers have a better understanding of the whole child, their key data points, how their needs can be met each lesson, and how each child fits into their curricular plans for the year.
Teacher planning days give teachers the time they need to think. This time is often not available to them during their normal workday, as there are usually 20-25 other human beings in their classroom vying for their attention. The professional benefit for them is substantial. Setting aside predetermined days to work on all the behind the scenes factors that contribute to effective instruction allows teachers to reset their perspective and remind themselves of the big picture.
When they do, they set the stage for reigniting their own curiosity and creativity. This process reveals the important issues they may have been avoiding because they needed to spend their time dealing with more urgent issues instead. These undercurrents are felt by both students and teachers alike. Most feel them before they are ever assigned words. With the time set aside to think clearly, teachers can begin to address these issues with the attention they deserve.
When the students return, we hope they will notice and appreciate the changes.