I have a clear memory from my first school. I was in an all-staff in-service education and training (INSET) session watching a short clip of one of the school’s most respected teachers in action. The clip was real and relatable. Students weren’t engaging well, and there was some low-level disruption. The same teacher then stood at the front of the hall and analyzed the footage.
Three minutes later, she had given herself an insightful and purposeful goal to improve her practice. But more important, her willingness to put herself in this vulnerable position sent two very clear unspoken messages. First, in this school, showing your authentic self was encouraged—not some over-polished and unattainable version—and second, the norm was that everyone should be trying to get better, all the time.
Professional learning is a vital component of good schools, and there are lots of great strategies to help teachers grow as professionals. However, without the right culture, these strategies are unlikely to have the intended impact. With that in mind, here are six practical steps that schools can take to develop a culture that supports and encourages professional learning.
1. Start with the end in mind
Before trying to change the culture, it’s critical for a school to first establish what they want the culture to be. What are their key operating values and principles? Determining and then implementing these values and principles should be driven by school leaders with consultation across all members of the school community.
Key values and principles might include, for example, ensuring that the input of every staff member is welcomed and valued, and every staff member receives regular constructive and productive feedback.
It’s important to get staff to buy into these principles in order for them to be accepted. This might be achieved, for example, through explaining the thought process behind each value, giving examples of what each one will look like in practice, encouraging debate around the principles, and then being open to modifying them based on feedback.
Once buy-in has been obtained, the values and principles should be consistently embedded and referred back to in order to establish them as the norm within the culture. They should guide decisions, praise, and corrections. It’s crucial that school leaders exemplify, reference, and continually signpost the behaviors they want to see, and when done right, the values and principles should be apparent in every decision made by the school.
2. value and use LEARNING productively and purposefullY
We disengage when we feel we’re going through the motions of just another checkbox activity, that the session is irrelevant to us or hasn’t been planned well.
There are some easy fixes here, including starting the sessions on time and making sure that the facilitator has had the necessary time, support, and guidance when planning the session. Adults don’t learn in exactly the same way as students, so facilitators should have a good understanding of adult learning theory. Professional learning sessions work most effectively when they involve teachers, staff, and administrators in understanding and constructing knowledge, encouraging them as learners to contribute their own examples and ideas. Focus on discussing and applying new learning, as well as providing intentional time for teachers to plan for how they might build the new learning into their teaching practice.
3. Encourage all staff members to get involved
This makes it clear that professional learning is something we can all do, at any time, and that everyone has something to add to the development of others, regardless of their experience and position. It removes the assumption that sometimes exists that professional learning is done by a small, elite group of people and then imparted to the rest of us. It can also improve mindsets on how staff in a school view the expertise of others.
For example, an early-career teacher whose ideas might have previously been overlooked on the basis of inexperience might now be seen as someone who has been most recently exposed to up-to-date pedagogical theory.
4. Encourage an open-door policy
Teachers benefit from an environment where teachers can pop into and learn from other teachers. Schools can provide a structure to facilitate this, including asking teachers to share times when they are available and willing to be observed in order to reduce potential disruptions, as well as establishing and sharing guidance for conduct when observing other teachers’ lessons. This might include, for example, not disturbing students during silent work, thanking the teacher, and saving questions until after the lesson. Senior leaders can champion and model the benefits of observing others: “Today I was fortunate to go into a few different lessons—here are some of the great things that I saw happening in our school.”
School leaders can also hold open office hours—dedicated time when anyone in the school can stop by to discuss ideas or concerns. This opens up a less formal channel of communication where individuals might be more willing to share ideas and concerns. Having open office hours sends the message that leaders value the contributions and concerns of their staff, and they have been shown to boost engagement.
5. Ensure that everyone knows how to give high-quality feedback
Being observed and given vague or disingenuous praise accompanied with numerous targets for development is overwhelming and usually not particularly useful. It’s important for all teachers, regardless of their position within the school, to be taught how to provide and probe for high-quality feedback, and this should be modeled and championed by school leaders.
Encourage individuals to be mindful of when it’s appropriate to provide feedback and what type of feedback to provide, depending on the needs of the observed teacher and the professional relationship of the two individuals. The ideal is to work toward a “feedback culture” where it becomes normal and expected to provide candid and constructive feedback.
6. Encourage vulnerability when talking about teaching
This final point brings us back to what was so well modeled to me in that INSET day early on in my teaching career. Encouraging vulnerability and openness sets the tone for conversations that are meaningful and solution-focused.
One easy way to encourage vulnerable and authentic conversations in meetings is to use “rose and thorn” check-ins, something that many teachers already use in the classroom. Each person contributes something that has recently gone well—a rose—and a challenge they have faced—a thorn. As well as being a great way to highlight successes, it sets the norm that everyone faces challenges, and we should be open to discussing them.