Each year, school districts invest time, energy, and resources into professional development for teachers, but the translation of theory to practice to the classroom is difficult. Meaningful and authentic professional development has a clear outcome, effective modeling, and active participation. Creating professional development opportunities with lasting effects can take time.
Start With a Clear Objective and Focus
When determining what types of training to offer, solicit needs from the staff. Gather feedback through an online survey tool or in focused conversations with staff members. Not only will leaders not have to guess what teachers need, but also the staff will see that their voices are heard.
Creating a clear deliverable before initiating professional development can help teachers implement what they learn in the classroom. Consider the value of sessions that allow teachers to depart with a product they can use the next day in the classroom. For example, when I lead a session on differentiated practice, I frame the session around a playlist of resources from a variety of content areas. Teachers can take the resources back to use in their classrooms immediately.
Every school has myriad needs, and it is tempting to want to fix everything at once. Identifying the urgency of each need and prioritizing the work is key in making lasting change. To guide the process, look to the overall vision or instructional focus of the school. For instance, if a primary school is focused on incorporating increased reading initiatives into all classes, then professional development methods for text inclusion in all subject areas would be a top priority. Identify one or two key goals, and focus on those before moving to other priorities.
Model and Empower
Modeling instructional practice is one of the most vital elements of an effective session. For instance, if equitable calling practices are expected in classrooms, include a vehicle to model this practice in the session. An easy method involves having participants write a favorite song on an index card, and then the facilitator can pull cards randomly from a pile whenever contributions from the group are needed.
Rely on the strength of existing knowledge. While teachers might listen politely to a trainer lead a session, they will have far more buy-in and investment if a colleague leads the learning. Collaborate with teachers to identify where their specific skills can contribute to professional development. The shared responsibility empowers all staff to work together to develop meaningful learning experiences. For example, if a teacher is particularly adept at disaggregating data and drilling down to individual students, have them demonstrate their best practices. If another teacher is known for developing creative lessons from a set curriculum, give them the floor and let them demonstrate their approach.
One of the most challenging aspects of professional development is transferring what is learned outside the classroom to instructional practice. For example, I led a department meeting about enhancing student language by changing the nature of how we ask questions. When I observed classes after the session, there was no noticeable difference in practice. After exploring this disconnect between theory and practice by talking to the teachers, I realized the issue was not the teachers’ will or skill with implementing change; rather, habits got in the way.
We can alter habits in our teaching behaviors, but it requires not only concepts but a variety of tools to enact change. The next time I met with the teachers, I brought several planning templates and models that demonstrated where intentional questioning could be placed in the lesson. The training became a work session where teachers collaborated to test the new approach.
Successful professional development also requires follow-up. After a session, look for ways to coach teachers in whatever capacity they desire. Leverage one-on-one interactions to reinforce the concepts discussed in a session. Visit classrooms to both observe and model instruction.
Meaningful professional development takes time. Organizational research shows that any lasting change usually occurs on a trajectory somewhere between three and five years. Measure success by incremental outcomes. For instance, if a school is focused on improving staff morale, the professional development opportunities might first explore how morale is defined. School leadership can then decide what incremental goals might move toward the larger objective. A sign of increased morale might be measured by such indicators as more productive teacher engagement in monthly staff meetings or the number of people who volunteer to aid school beautification efforts.
Over time, collect data about the smaller goals that may signify improvement on a larger scale. Make sure that professional development occurs gradually and allows for course correction if the need arises. For example, if a teacher voice survey indicates that several participants do not find the training applicable to their work, include those teachers in the next planning phase for professional development. They can share ideas and perspectives that may have been overlooked or unknown by school leadership. Holding periodic focus groups with a variety of school staff also helps expand the diversity of perspectives and enhance understanding of participants’ responses to the sessions. Professional development as a whole-staff initiative with appropriate buy-in and feedback helps schools succeed.