Maybe the Key to Teacher Professional Development is Not Professional Development

How can it be that professional development is not the key to teacher professional development? What I mean is that the common understanding of professional development as training events is not what actually results in teachers growing professionally.  If we focus upon the events and activities, we may miss out on what actually helps educators refine their knowledge, skill and ability to help students learn. If it doesn’t come from in-services, conferences, workshops, and courses, then what does help?

To be fair, these can help, but other factors come first.  These are the conditions that allow those other professional development activities to have a significant impact upon teachers.

1) A Culture of High Standards and Expectations

This does not mean that I champion some sort of merciless, top-down drill-sergeant leadership. It does mean that a culture of high expectations impacts us.  It is not a coincidence that history is full of innovators, authors and change-agents who spent time with each other.  They challenged each other toward greatness.  When I was a child, someone once claimed, “Show me your friend’s and I’ll show you your future.”  There is much that I didn’t like about that statement and I still don’t.  At the same time, there is a proverbial truth to it. The culture and standards of those around us can inspire, encourage, and challenge in positive ways.  A culture of low standards, minimal expectations for teachers, and one where teacher’s don’t except one another to be their best for the students will have an adverse impact on teacher growth and development. I’m one of the last people to argue for rigid and legalistic standards for teachers, but in all of my visits to schools over the years, it is hard to deny that high expectations among teachers make a difference.

2) A Culture of Formative Feedback 

We get better with specific feedback on how we are doing.  This is why many emphasize the importance of reflective practice for teachers.  That is essentially a form of formative self-feedback, and it helps us think about how things went, what we want to keep doing, what we need to change, and how we can better meet the needs of different learners.  At the same time, self-feedback is often not enough.  Feedback from students, parents, other teachers, and coaches also helps. Each gives insight on something of value.  Students help us to see things from their perspective and they might offer us with an insight about what they need that we are unable to se from a teacher or parent perspective. Fellow teachers give us good and important feedback based upon their own knowledge of teaching and learning.  In addition, a gifted teaching and learning coach, trained to focus upon that which has the greatest impact, can be a powerful resource for personal and professional growth.  However, all of this is largely ineffective without a person (and even a teacher culture) that values, accepts and embraces formative feedback, and sees it as something than can help one grow as an effective educator.

3) A Growth Mindset and a Culture of Trust

This requires teachers having a growth mindset (confidence that they can get better) and for there to be a community of trust, one where teachers are not fearful of letting some of their limitations and challenges be seen by others. For the growth mindset, that means letting go of this idea that teaching is nothing more than a gift that you have or you don’t, that it is somehow a genetic trait. Anyone can become a better teacher, and it is important for each teacher to believe this. Once that is in place, then the trust becomes important. Not only do we need to believe that we can get better, we need to be able to be vulnerable and trust others to help us grow.  This vulnerability can be difficult for any of us, but as we develop a culture of trust and openness, we also help build a culture that embraces the power of formative feedback.

4) A Culture of Teaching and Learning

Already a decade ago, the idea of professional learning communities started to gain attention in schools.  Not long after that, we found countless schools hosting “professional learning teams” that rarely discussed student learning, strategies to improve student learning, and how to make adjustment to help students learn.  Instead, I found many groups of teachers gathering to discuss how to address behavior in the hallway or any number of secondary issues.  At the same time, when I visited schools that were known for high levels of student growth and learning, I heard teachers, students and administrators talking with each other about teaching and learning. Their focus was upon what students were learning, how they were progressing, how they could make adjustments to help with the learning, how to remove barriers to learning, and how to further support and empower students.  These conversations were often specific, practical, and quickly turned into action. If we want to see teachers thrive in helping foster high-impact learning communities of students, then that requires having a community that truly places learning as a core value.

5) A Student Learning First Mindset

This seems obvious, but if we watch the policies, rules and practices in learning organizations of all levels, we quickly see things set in place based upon teacher need, interest or preference. Usually, this is easily seen in scheduling of classes, the structure of classes, grading plans in courses, and many classroom rules and procedures.  In fact, we’ve become so used to this that we sometimes don’t notice such things even when they are brought to our attention.  Consider, for example, what day of the week certain assignments are due. What about policies on “late work”? While the reason given might sound like they are about the students (to teach them timelines, for example), that is not always the full story. There is a need to be realistic with this fifth point.  This is not about letting students do everything they want or about teachers burning themselves out. This is simply about re-evaluating our practices and polices in view of what will best help students learn, even when it requires teachers to change.

As we have these five elements in growing measure, then we are likely to see professional development having a greater benefit for teachers.  They will seek out and learn from these other PD activities in a way that helps them genuinely grow as effective educators.

There are certainly examples of excellent teachers who cling to these five values even when they are not present in their school as a whole, and these teachers often continue to have a large and lasting impact.  Nonetheless, it is a wonderful and exciting thing to see an entire learning organization that holds to these five values.  It can made for a pleasant, challenging, inspiriting learning community where students and teachers are growing and learning together in often impressive and unexpected ways.

Posted in blog, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

2 thoughts on “Maybe the Key to Teacher Professional Development is Not Professional Development

  1. Bernard Bull Post author

    That makes great sense, Steve. I appreciate the idea of an authentic learning experience, especially one that does not become overly adorned with less authentic trappings of schooling. I wonder if constructs like grades, homework assignments, quizzes and tests quickly diminish that sense of authenticity. So, if a community of educators experiences learning that is more authentic, perhaps that will help cultivate small shifts in thinking as they live out roles a “classroom teachers.” Maybe another way of getting at this is just idea idea that a primary calling of a “teacher” is that of a “learner.”

  2. Steve Hargadon

    Bernard–would you add authentic personal learning experiences to this list? The primary benefit of the large-scale, participative conferences I hold is that I think they place teachers in authentic teaching and learning roles with their peers and colleagues, and it would seem self-evident to me that if you want to help learners, you need to be a learner. That assumes, of course, that the goal of education is to ultimately help cultivate the capacity for self-directed learning, and not just the ability to be compliant recipients of information. 🙂

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