Administration & Leadership

Supporting Teachers in Implementing Professional Learning

A look at some ways schools and districts can provide ongoing support as teachers use new strategies in the classroom.

February 21, 2024
Drazen Zigic / iStock

When we talk about rethinking professional learning, it’s not enough to create a dynamic workshop. We need to start reflecting more systematically on our processes for teacher training, professional learning, or recertification. It takes time to implement new ideas, and unfortunately, time is a commodity we don’t seem to have enough of in education. If we want innovation, educators must have time, space, and support to instigate ideas.

Many teachers need to gain some sort of recertification hours to maintain their licensure. Leaders should assess what that journey looks like for their teachers. Are they able to get time to try new ideas, or are they just collecting certificates from the workshops they attend (e.g., the seat time model)? 

It might be worthwhile to take a look at how we design our professional learning systems so that we weave these hours into the school year. There’s often ample opportunity to be more strategic with professional learning and design systems that make it easier for teachers to focus on implementation and innovation. The implementation of ideas shouldn’t feel like extra work. 

Putting new ideas into action

Workshops are beneficial in that they disseminate new ideas. It often takes a lot of effort, however, to bring those new ideas back to the classroom, and this is where district design can make all the difference. It’s district design that will facilitate innovation (or not). Leaders can create pipelines that facilitate innovation by designing programming or finding opportunities in which teachers can dedicate time toward the design and implementation of ideas so that changes actually make it back to the classroom. 

For example, at Lakota Local School District in Butler County, Ohio, the district-level professional development (PD) team works with a team of innovation specialists from each school building to create pathways that work best for the teachers in their respective buildings. Krista Heidenreich, director of digital learning for her district, strives to create a system so that “professional learning feels ongoing and not just something teachers feel they have to do on designated days.” 

The district team works with innovation specialists to provide vision and strategy centered on what professional learning looks like for their district, as well as carve out opportunities for teachers to gain hours improving their practice and working on ideas that will be impactful for students. They have a kickoff each year to explain these opportunities to teachers, so that teachers understand what opportunities exist. 

This past year, the district launched Challenge Accepted, a blended model with synchronous and asynchronous programming where teachers can choose to work on areas that are aligned with district goals (e.g., culture, instructional strategies, student reflection and ownership, data-driven decisions). They created a series of virtual innovation modules that enabled teachers to gain badges (which equate to recertification hours) for applying the innovation process and working toward goals.  

They also created a Personalized Learning Cohort for teachers who want in-person connection as they implement new ideas. Once a month, teachers get together driving their own professional learning as they share what’s happening, what’s working (or not), and what’s next. In addition, teachers know their innovation specialists are always available for a one-on-one PD session. From coaching to co-teaching, teachers know they have someone to reach out to if they ever need support. 

While there’s no fixed model for creating programming that facilitates innovation and implementation, there are many ways to create spaces so that teachers feel supported. From designing cohort options, accelerators, incubators, or action research labs, we can help make professional learning feel more applied and impactful. 

The Leysin American School has incorporated an in-house teacher-driven research lab so that teachers have the opportunity to develop their own projects. Each year, the PD team works with administration to establish building goals. A call for projects is sent out to staff, and selected projects get the green light to try something new.

After the kickoff, teachers can get coaching throughout the year, and the PD team works to share innovations (e.g., creating articles or talks that teachers can use to share with colleagues, submit for publication, or share with the wider educational community). Paul Magnuson, director of the research lab, highlighted what he feels makes this kind of professional learning successful. “Teachers feel supported knowing that administration has their backs. It can feel risky to try new things, and this sort of programming makes trying new things feel safe.”

Implementing These Ideas in Your School or District

Each school and district has opportunities to embed time so that implementation is recognized as a key part of professional learning. The first step seems to be prioritizing the professional learning journey for teachers. Work with teachers to uncover their needs and how to build professional learning opportunities into the work day so it doesn’t feel like something extra. From there, it’s a matter of accessing your current system and finding opportunities to build time into what exists. We already have in-house days, meetings, and virtual learning. These provide entry points so we might redesign for implementation. 

For instance, start small with staff meetings and in-service days. Use a flipped classroom model so content is given in advance (e.g., via video or email). Then shift the focus from content toward idea exchange, collaboration, and implementation so that these precious minutes where everyone can get together are used for something meaningful. 

Assess your in-house coaching. Do teachers have someone in their building to go to when they need to exchange or test ideas? Sometimes coaching is seen as a punitive measure for those who need to improve. Make sure your coaching model feels like teachers have a personal cheerleader. 

Being more strategic with our professional learning systems results in multiple benefits. When professional learning models the type of pedagogy we want for students, teachers get to experience innovative pedagogy and apply it in the classroom. It also allows teachers to personalize their professional learning so they can devote time to what they feel matters generating impact for students while also recognizing and valuing their great ideas. Finally, ensuring that time is directed toward actual implementation gives a higher likelihood that teachers truly get the chance to innovate. 

If we want agency, innovation, implementation, and ongoing improvement, we must create pathways that realize that vision. While we often strive to create innovative or transformative workshops, it’s hard to achieve much in a single day. The conversation on rethinking professional learning needs to evolve from an amazing one-day experience to how we might design a better system of professional learning within our schools and districts.

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