Teaching is an ever-evolving profession.

A new batch of students arrives every year. Cutting edge research with new ideas about best practices rolls out constantly. And seemingly every year the state changes its assessments guidelines and rules for how Ohio students should be educated.

To make sure their teachers are on the same page and are providing the best education possible, districts carve out a few days every school year for professional development. The days are often labeled as “teacher work days” “teacher in-service days” or “waiver days” on district calendars and can be seen as a nuisance by working caregivers who need to find a babysitter when students have the day off. But district officials say it’s a necessary part of the school year that creates a culture of collaboration that ultimately benefits students.

“Professional development helps all educators to continually improve. Excellent teachers are constantly evolving their practice. They recognize that as soon as they stop progressing and rest on ‘good’ teaching, they fall behind in best practice and their students are then at a disadvantage,” said Aurora Assistant Superintendent Mike Roberto. “If teachers are to be most effective, they must not work in competition or isolation but instead work together to diagnose why a student is struggling. These teachers should also use data to inform instruction rather than drive instruction. PD, and [professional learning communities] in particular, allows the time for teachers to have such discussions which leads to growth.”

Under Ohio law, districts are required to establish local professional development committees — including at least three classroom teachers, one principal and one other employee — but does not require districts to hold any professional development days. 

The state does, however, require teachers to renew their licenses every five years, and as part of that license renewal, they must complete six semester hours of coursework related to classroom teaching and/or the area of licensure, or 180 contact hours of continuing education units, for which professional development days can count, according to the Ohio Department of Education. As a result, in most districts the number of professional development days is determined by their negotiated agreements with teachers union.

In Portage and Summit County, districts typically embed two to three days in the school year calendar for professional development days, although some districts offer more, like Nordonia which has six days during the school year. Many area professional development directors noted that professional development also occurs in meetings before or after dismissal that can be on a weekly basis.

Kent Roosevelt High School teachers, for example, will often meet during their early dismissal times, while Aurora holds weekly meetings for Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, when teachers of the same grade level or subject area meet.

“There are typically three main areas of focus for PLCs: Pedagogy (best practices in teaching), Data Analysis and Common Assessment Development,” Roberto said.

Those three areas are often the subject of professional development days in Stow-Munroe Falls, Nordonia, Streetsboro, Waterloo and Kent. In the last decade, more professional development time has been spent on mental health and wellness or new technology.

“Whatever we do, it has to be connected to improving instruction for our students. We look for if teachers have left with the tools they need to help their kids be successful, whether it’s health and wellness or creating assessments that generate a depth of knowledge. We always judge it by whether it’s improving our students’ capacity for learning and helping them in whatever their needs are,” said Julie Miller, Stow-Munroe Falls curriculum supervisor for 7-12.

Teachers in Stow-Munroe Falls also have a half day of PD every year that is devoted to public works training, covering topics like child abuse, neglect and homelessness.

Todd Stuart, Nordonia’s director of curriculum and professional development noted that PD days are not a time for teachers to catch up on grading.

“It’s a time for them to bring their grades and assessments together, a benchmark assessment or a state assessment. We use them in those meetings to talk about student results and how to provide personalized instruction to individuals,” he said.

While most professional development stays in house, teachers can also be sent out to conferences like the Ohio Council of Teachers of Mathematics or Advanced Placement training.

“Expenses tied to these PD events are covered by the district, as the teachers are representatives of the district and will be bringing that information back for the betterment of their colleagues, and most importantly the young people in our district,” Roberto said.

Not all districts, however, can afford these additional workshops and conferences, and instead rely on grant programs or the local educational service centers to cover the costs.

Whenever teachers are sent for professional development to outside conferences, districts weigh the value of the programs against the cost of the program, the time the teacher will spend away from their students and the cost of hiring a substitute, Streetsboro Director of Curriculum Matt Ile said.

“It’s a balancing act and we can’t send everyone to everything. That’s why we try to employ the ‘train the trainer’ method and send a few select teachers out to bring back the information. It’s a good model. It’s effective and economical and the teachers obviously like teaching, so that collaborative culture is really critical,” Ile said.

“We try to make the best use of the time because it’s a chance for us during the school year to get everyone on the same page. It gives us a common focus. It’s difficult, and it’s challenging. Teachers are on 99% of the time, and we need opportunities to take a step back and continue to learn ourselves.”

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@recordpub.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.