Administration & Leadership

How School Leaders Can Support Effective Professional Development

A professional development specialist and a principal describe how they work together to ensure that PD is meaningful.

September 22, 2022
Georgijevic / iStock

What can school leaders do to support professional development (PD) so that it impacts teaching and learning? A PD provider has an area of expertise, but the school leaders know the community, the faculty, and the students.

Here, we share five important practices for school leaders to use to help ensure quality PD based on our experience working together—Angela as the provider and Charles as the school principal.

1. Be Part of the Planning Process

Quality PD doesn’t come in a packaged program because no two schools are alike. In Charles’s building, professional learning needs were identified through classroom observations, instructional rounds, and feedback from teachers, coaches, and students.

To manage multiple initiatives, Charles enlisted the support of the school’s PD committee. They created a calendar to communicate the focus of each session; and members of the committee played an essential role by serving as liaisons between consultants, administrators, and teachers.

One need that emerged in Charles’s school was a curriculum revision. Angela was invited to conduct a curriculum audit and facilitate a PD program on aligning curriculum to valued outcomes for student learning based on her book, Making Curriculum Matter: How to Build SEL, Equity, and Other Priorities into Daily Instruction

After having a conversation with school leadership, reviewing the existing curriculum, and engaging with teacher and student focus groups, she worked with Charles to construct a PD plan. The plan included the entry point into the revision process, a grade-level teacher leadership model, the specific outcomes for each session, and embedded opportunities for Angela to provide feedback on the units of study.

The grade-level team leaders debriefed with Angela and Charles after each session. Angela and Charles used this information to design the next session to ensure that all needs were addressed.

2. Your Presence Matters

Principals, assistant principals, directors, and chairpersons are all busy people, and so are the teachers they work with. Angela notices when school leaders attend PD sessions, and the teachers also notice. Being present at these sessions communicates that professional learning is valued and necessary to impact student learning and is worthy of everyone’s time.

Charles served as the administration’s representative with new initiatives like the curriculum revision program. As a full participant, Charles read handouts, books, and articles; asked questions; and participated in the conversations. Charles’s presence helped him support teachers when giving feedback during implementation and when addressing teachers’ questions or concerns as they emerged during the program.

3. Practice the Dispositions You Hope the Teachers Will Display

If school leaders want teachers to be learners, they must be willing to be learners as well. Angela sees school leaders demonstrating the dispositions of learners when they ask questions, try new strategies, and adjust when things do not go as planned.

As an example, Charles looked for ways to implement the new practice, curriculum-embedded performance assessments, that Angela shared during her sessions. Curriculum-embedded performance assessments require a change in thinking about assessment practices. In this student-centered approach, students engage in multistep projects in which they work collaboratively to apply their learning to real-world situations. During the process, students assess their own learning and engage in peer feedback, making adjustments and revisions to their work along the way.

After PD sessions, Charles visited teachers, asking questions, celebrating their successes, and addressing challenges. Angela provided teachers with written feedback to support the curriculum revision and development process. In this way, both Charles and Angela encouraged teachers to try new approaches with the knowledge that they were supported in doing so.

4. Focus on Student Learning

The purpose of PD is to empower teachers to impact student learning. Angela asks teachers to routinely reflect on what has changed in their practice and how that change impacts their students.

The teachers in Charles’s school regularly used established protocols for looking at student work. In this way, teachers examined how their teaching impacted student learning over time. The systematic review of student work identified patterns of success and areas for improvement. This led to further teacher inquiry and discussion of what adjustments were needed to achieve the desired student outcomes.

5. Give It Time

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Teacher feedback from Angela’s PD programs shows that as teachers see the value and impact of what they’re learning on their students and themselves, they’re more willing to further refine their practices.

Charles engaged teachers in PD in different ways. He planned for the long term, building capacity by finding the right teachers to lead the work. He made sure to distribute this responsibility to different grade-level teachers to honor their areas of interest and experiences.

Grade-level leaders shared their learning with their grade partners and together worked on their curriculum. Teachers deeply engaged in designing new learning experiences as they saw students take ownership of their work and be genuinely excited about coming to school.

When school leaders engage in these practices, they convey the importance of PD in teaching and learning and truly serve as instructional leaders. Teachers feel valued, and students benefit as a result.

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