Professional Learning

Creating Your Own Professional Learning Practice

An instructional coach looks at several ways teachers can take ownership of their professional development.

June 17, 2024
ljubaphoto / iStock

I recently attended a team meeting for teachers at one of the schools where I provide instructional coaching. They were talking about how they felt as though they didn’t have any direction from their administration—a dilemma that many teachers face. 

This particular school had not had an internal instructional coach for over a year, and just that day, the district’s department supervisor—who had responsibility over this team—announced their retirement. I asked the group how they might respond to this situation. Several shrugged. Others jokingly welcomed me to their district. 

Though these educators may feel like they have no control over their situation, there are indeed several ways they might proactively increase their own professional knowledge and that of their colleagues. Students deserve top-notch teachers. And should any teachers wish to move on to new roles outside of their current district, they’ll need to demonstrate professional growth and their impact on student achievement.  

Here are several strategies teachers can use to take charge of their own professional learning, especially when they feel unsupported by administrators. 

Develop a Reading Routine Dedicated to Instructional Practice

We’ve never had more open access to research on best teaching practices. From articles written by educators for educators to subscription newsletters that synthesize new research, options abound. Two of my favorites are The Marshall Memo, which features a weekly roundup of articles on K–12 education, and The Main Idea, which summarizes books about teaching.

You might commit to reading three to five of these resources, daily or weekly, and then jot down your thoughts about each article in the form of a 3-2-1 exit ticket, meaning three things you learned, two things you found interesting, and one thing you might implement in your teaching practice. 

A subsidiary benefit might be using your 3-2-1 notes as an exemplar for students, inviting them to summarize their own learning in a similar fashion. If you and your colleagues feel inspired to form an education book or article club, you might apply a 4 A’s protocol as you discuss each text. The 4 A’s ask you to answer questions about the assumptions the author makes, the points with which you agree, those you want to argue with, and what you aspire to do based on the new information you’ve learned. 

Audit and Improve Lesson Planning and Delivery 

Generative artificial intelligence, or AI, has become a game changer, influencing how practitioners can control their own professional development. ChatGPT can help you not only design lessons in new and creative ways but evaluate existing plans. It can also answer questions about teaching. And you can transcribe video lessons using AI tools like Otter and Loom, and evaluate them through platforms such as Edthena and Sibme.

Teachers, therefore, no longer have to wait for administrators to observe their practice and provide feedback. Educators can now evaluate their own work with the help of AI and make changes accordingly. 

You can engage in collaborative action research projects exploring specific challenges or areas of interest within your classroom using these AI supports. By systematically investigating your teaching practices, basing such practices on student scholarship and other data, and then reflecting on outcomes, you’ll create a culture of accountability, enhancing student learning and achievement alongside intrinsic curiosity. 

Become an Education Thought Leader Outside Your School

When I was teaching, I had the opportunity to serve on several informal education committees. I also attended and presented at conferences. These activities provided me entry into like-minded communities full of talented educators who willingly shared their expertise with me—which, in turn, allowed me to apply their knowledge in practice. I also got involved in membership organizations that allowed me to shine as a rising leader, regardless of whether I was being considered for such roles internally at my school. All of this involvement opened doors to grant opportunities previously unknown to me. 

These days, I host my own podcast, Have a Life Teaching. While my goal is, of course, to connect experts in education with front-line educators, I, too, have learned from each of my guests. For example, I’ve directly applied what I learned in many of these conversations to specific coaching engagements. If the thought of starting a podcast seems daunting, you might seek out online professional learning networks on social media to learn with educators globally. This will expose you to diverse perspectives, innovative ideas, and current trends across education. 

Provide Emotional Support for Self and Group 

Taking time to enjoy life together helps teams bond and collaborate productively and proactively. Although, ideally, school or district administration should establish official mentorship programs and peer coaching initiatives, it’s also possible to foster those relationships by pairing experienced educators with newer educators during informal, fun activities that create camaraderie. 

Megan Conklin, a trainer with the Washington Education Association, recently told me in a podcast episode about the joy she feels when hosting informal dinners for substitute teachers working across the state. Alex Kajitani, former California Teacher of the Year, also talked with me about the healing power of surfing with colleagues every Thursday afternoon as a new teacher. Throughout my own career, I enjoyed participating in a few team scavenger hunts. 

To take ownership over our own learning, I invite us to consider this: How might we take inspiration from these examples of collective caring and of independent and collaborative learning to engage in something similar—infusing our practice with new information and meaning?

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