Professional Development

10 Simple Strategies for Creating a Better PD Program

Peer observation can be used as free, ongoing, effective professional development—and can draw faculty closer together.
November 9, 2016
A teacher shares a book with students as another teacher looks on.
© iStock.com/DGLimages

We’ve probably all sat through a professional development day like this: The school hires a speaker to come teach its faculty a new instructional strategy. The speaker arrives on an in-service day, the faculty gather in an auditorium, and the speaker stands in front of everyone, microphone in hand, going over the strategy outlined in a presentation being projected behind them.

This kind of “dump-and-run” professional development promotes the counterproductive idea that PD should be neatly confined to a handful of days a year. It’s also costly and ineffective.

Creating a peer observation program where staff members can visit other classrooms any day of the school year and use fellow teachers as professional development resources is an easy alternative to traditional PD strategies. Inspired by an idea in the book Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School, we created a schedule at our school where teachers could post any lessons they were willing to allow other teachers to observe. Then, if others had a prep period or free time, they could get quick, free professional development by seeing a colleague at work.

A program like this has many benefits:

  • The observer gets to pick up strategies both big and small.
  • The observer gets to see students in a different learning environment.
  • Students see teachers as collaborative learners.
  • It strengthens collegiality between professionals.

Here are 10 ideas we used to create our successful peer observation program.

1. Recruit early adopters. Get the program off on the right foot. Before launching it, recruit two groups of amenable colleagues—one to invite others into their classrooms and the other to go observe lessons for the first few weeks. This will kick-start the program.

2. Make it accessible. Putting the schedule of lessons in a shared Google Doc that anyone in the school community can access and edit will reduce the barriers to participation. With a shared document, everyone can see which lessons are available to observe.

3. Don’t attach mandates. Mandates and accountability measures might be good for compliance and participation, but they tend to stifle teacher buy-in. The focus of the program should be picking up new ideas, connecting with other educators, and gaining a deeper understanding of the students and school.

4. Make it inclusive. The more staff that are participating, the better. Administrators, teachers from various content areas and grade levels, and support staff will all gain something from observing a variety of classrooms and contributing to the cross-pollination of ideas.

5. Build trust. In our world of high-stakes evaluations, teachers are understandably wary of others coming into their classrooms. And some might be self-conscious with another adult watching them and their class. It’s vital to build trust with teachers and reinforce the idea that observers are coming in not to judge but to learn and improve their own practice.

6. Incentivize it. Even great programs need to provide a little extra motivation. Consider encouraging participation by creating incentives like excused absence on a PD half-day, drawings for gift cards, free dress-down days, and the like.

7. Promote it. The peer observation program requires little maintenance, but promoting the great things that are happening encourages more participation. Writing a quick weekly email to staff detailing great lessons from the past week and highlighting upcoming lessons available to observe will keep interest stoked.

8. Expand it. There are many ways to expand the program beyond in-class observation. For example, allow those opening up their classrooms to request feedback from observers. And you can film lessons and make the videos available to be accessed anytime.

9. Encourage teachers to make it their own. Teachers can do more than just open their doors for observers. At our school, an art teacher allowed observers to come make art alongside her students. The options to hack the format are endless.

10. Create a hashtag and share it. Have staff share what they learn during observations with the rest of the community. A great way to do this is to create a hashtag for the program and encourage observers to tweet the great things that they see and ideas they pick up.

The Power of Peer Observation

While many at our school were immediately receptive to the idea of peer observation and eager to get involved, some were not. Little by little, though, we worked on the ideas above and increased participation. Maybe the best outcome of the program is that it shifted our teacher culture toward one that is more open and collaborative. But the shift did not happen overnight—it grew steadily as the school community became more comfortable with the concept and began to see its worth.

Peer observation creates an environment where collegial relationships are more readily formed, more ideas are shared, and instruction is more well-informed. Try it out and watch teachers throughout the school start to share and grow with each other like never before.

Have any other ideas for creating a great peer observation program? Share them in the comments below.