Most teachers are lifelong learners. A passion for their discipline, a desire to spark a love of learning in students, and a true passion for helping others are part of what attracted most to the profession. Nevertheless, until recently, most school PD has consisted of sitting in large groups, going through power-point presentations, with the occasional “turn-and-talk” for interaction. Even when teachers attended conferences where they were exposed to amazing new ideas and great ways to engage students or present materials, these “one-and-done” experiences didn’t often lead to enduring change or revision of classroom practices. Unless there was follow-up, or the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues on an ongoing basis to rethink what was happening in classrooms, teachers didn’t often have the time or the guidance to make meaningful changes. Consequently, these experiences did little to improve the learning outcomes of students in their classrooms.
In Guskey’s article, Professional Learning with Staying Power, he comments,
“Although researchers don’t always agree on the specific elements of effective professional learning, they generally do agree on how effectiveness should be defined. Most concur that professional learning is effective when it has a positive and enduring impact on school leadership, classroom practice, and student learning.”(Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017).
Additionally, Professional Development experiences often failed to align with a school’s mission or values, and there was often no strategic plan for the goals or allocation of PD dollars. Faculty could be engaging in a wide variety of experiences with objectives from the strictly personal to those wanting a great trip to attend a national conference in a desirable destination. Schools were not considering the implications of large amounts of money spent on PD experiences that were not having a substantial impact on classroom practice. Over the past five years, I have seen schools increasingly turn their focus to ensuring that PD dollars are spent in furthering their mission or strategic goals. Many schools spend a great deal of money on professional development opportunities for their faculty, and it stands to reason that there should be a plan for their allocation so that it is equitable and meaningful. These funds can be a powerful tool in leveraging change and innovation if they are thoughtfully used.
Traditionally, most PD for teachers consisted of school in-services where faculty sat through slideshows or lectures, sometimes followed by workshops, occasionally revisited during the course of the year by departments or administration. Other options consisted of national conferences like NCTE or NCTM, or smaller-scale workshops and events, and even the MOOCs which began to pop up at the turn of the millennium.
Often, the experience for teachers was more about entertainment and engagement than learning about and adopting practices to improve student outcomes. Unfortunately, with many of these events, there was no follow-up, continuing education, or feedback, faculty weren’t asked to do the work of rethinking their practices, and thus not much growth occurred. I remember attending many conferences that sparked my interest and motivation. However, upon return to school and the crazy pace of daily life as a teacher, very little of it was implemented or changed what I did in my classroom. The follow-up and accountability piece was missing, there was no expectation that the learning is incorporated into our work as teachers, and what was learned was seldom shared with peers or students. This was a loss. A loss for students and a loss for institutions.
Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of various types of professional growth opportunities provided asynchronously and online. These range from the completely open, asynchronous experiences with little input from instructors, to the more heavily interactive experiences such as the courses offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and other institutions of higher learning. Schools often have large budgets for PD, but unless it is thoughtfully and purposefully allocated and spent, it is not moving the needle in terms of what is happening in classrooms and departments. There are ways to change this.
Professional Development should be personalized, on-demand, and bite-sized. Smaller chunks of learning, aligned with values and missions that are shared by the leadership of a school ensure that the learning experience for faculty is meaningful and supported. There are a few main elements that are necessary to ensure that faculty Professional Development will lead to better outcomes for students and their learning experiences. If we want these experiences to lead to changes in teacher practice which improve student outcomes, there needs to be a focus on experiences which engage educators in productive work and feelings of pride.
In his February 2021 article in Educational Leadership Magazine, The End of Boring Online PD, Mike Flynn talks about how to build more relevant, impactful professional learning opportunities. He adopts the acronym EPIC from Chip and Dan Heath’s book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Not surprisingly, much of what he describes as the necessary elements for PD that sticks are ones we know from SEL and Neuroscience, make all learning “stickier” and more impactful. The “E” in EPIC stands for moments of Elevation, activating the sensory appeal and the engagement that SEL tells us helps us enter the Zone of Proximal Development where we are most likely to learn.
Flynn goes on to describe the moments of Pride, which
“occur when individuals and teams accomplish something or work through a challenge on their own. That means facilitators need to resist the temptation to be overly helpful and let participants work through a task together. We should structure the session so participants’ ideas surface and are celebrated—so they have that moment to shine.”Mike Flynn
Useful feedback that is timely, specific, and actionable from a leader or expert in the field or discipline is imperative. With feedback, educators are pushed out of their comfort zone and asked to reconsider some of their craft. The challenges that are created when a teacher is asked to reconsider their mindset or thinking can lead to the next piece.
As educators, we know that Moments of Insight are important for all learning. Therefore, for the most effective professional learning, there needs to be a clear alignment with the specific desired outcomes for the classroom and student learning. Professional learning should build experiences for teachers that allow them to experience these moments of insight or “aha” during which they understand the connection between pedagogy and impactful learning. Build the program so that teachers themselves have these moments and aren’t just told about the ideas.
Lastly, effective PD should build Connections. As a teacher, I meet each week with my colleagues as we plan the curriculum for our course. This has been some of the best professional learning I have had, as we discuss what is working, what is not, and how to go about crafting learning experiences for our students which build their skills and competencies. Teaching can be an isolating profession, with individuals shut away in their own rooms and working in silos, but the best learning experiences are collaborative. Effective professional development experiences need to build communities and collaborative experiences. When an instructor builds a dialogue with a learner, asking them to share their thoughts and feelings about what they are learning, while providing feedback and soliciting responses, we begin to have relationships of trust and community that lead to deeper changes in practice.
There are a plethora of online courses, webinars, and learning experiences available today. But schools should think carefully about their goals before embarking upon any professional learning for their faculty. As Guskey states,
“those who maintain a laser-like focus on the broad range of student learning outcomes, help teachers adapt evidence-based strategies and practices to their unique context, and find ways for teachers to see tangible results from their efforts, will undoubtedly improve the effectiveness of all professional learning experiences and increase enthusiasm for these opportunities in the future.”Thomas R. Guskey
When a school is transparent and clear about what they intend for teacher learning and ensures that the experiences build community, pride, and a commitment to growth, all learners win.