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Why Quality Professional Development for Teachers Matters

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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"Please look at the labels on the walls and with your elbow partner; pick the top three priorities for educators and schools." Posted around the walls were the words: Curriculum, Assessment, Instruction, Professional Development, Student Learning, Equity, Differentiation, and Classroom Management. I gave the principals a few minutes to chat and come up with a prioritized list and then we began discussing their conclusions.

Some thought it was an obvious trick question and chose student learning as the number one priority. Others chose curriculum because, "If you have nothing to teach, students can't learn -- beat that!" Still others countered, "But if you have the best curriculum but low quality instruction, students won't learn either -- so there!" "If only affluent students learn, then there is no equity for poor students -- try that on for size!" This lively discussion continued for each of the elements.

Eventually, the principals who chose student learning stated, "If students aren't learning, it doesn't matter what we do; we are just spinning our wheels!" and that convinced the rest that they were right. Yet all of them were wrong. To get them on the right track I asked the principals, "What can any teacher do to assure that students are learning?" One principal said, "Well, we can make sure we have the best teachers and the best curriculum."

"Does that guarantee that the students will learn?"

"Well, no, but it makes it more probable. You know nothing is guaranteed."

"Can we control student learning?"

"Not fully, but. . . ."

"Who can control student learning?"

"The teachers... or, hmm, the students themselves I suppose."

"Exactly! We cannot control student learning, only the student can. Student learning should be the eventual goal and outcome of all of our efforts, but it is not what we do to get there. Now let's rethink your priority list.

What We Can Control

The discussion began in earnest again. Then the light bulb went on for one principal, "If we want students to learn, the most critical element is the teacher. So professional development is the overall most important thing we can do to help students learn." That principal got a gold star that day because he understood why he was participating in a teacher quality professional development.

I know this seems counterintuitive, especially since student learning is the standard for school success. While schools and teachers have a tremendous influence over student learning, there is nothing the teachers can do to make it happen. It is completely out of the control of teachers to make students learn; the students have to do it by themselves.

Teachers can entice the students and invite them to learn, and create wonderful learning environments that incite the students to learn, but the work and effort of learning rests solely on the shoulders of the students. So where should a school invest effort, time, and resources to help students? Invest in either finding the best teachers or providing exceptional professional development to help them become the best.

As another example of how those in education sometimes put emphasis on the wrong things, I read an article lambasting Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. chancellor of public schools, after she stepped down from her last position at StudentsFirst. The author of the article had little good to say about her or other school reformers but what troubled me most was how he blamed her for not addressing student (child) poverty. How does a school system fix student poverty? Like student learning, isn't it completely out of our control? His solution was to provide students with an allowance. Having a bit of money in their pockets doesn't address the conditions related to poverty that affect students' lives.

Ever since educator Ruby Payne introduced her debatable assertions that economically disadvantaged students are different than other students, poverty has become a talking point for educational pundits. Data does indicate that students who live in poverty are at risk of not being successful in school (here's an informative article on the effect of poverty on executive function). Further, data also indicates that schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be underperforming. However, data also does point to the notion that good teachers can overcome societal problems interfering with an individual student's learning.

The cycle of poverty does not have a quick fix though we know one powerful element that can work against it: education. It's important that we should stick with what we are good at -- we are expert educators (not social workers, family counselors, or financial planners). There's so much we can't control, like poverty, but we do know we can control how we invite and inspire student to learn. We can find creative ways to deal with whatever issues the students bring with them. And we can earnestly strive to send them home more prepared each day than when they arrived.

Developing as Teachers

Being concerned about student learning and child poverty are laudable concerns, but true educators reject the premise that students struggling with poverty cannot learn as well as middle- and upper-income students. Both of these related issues should not be the focus of educators. The undeniable truth is that exceptional teaching inspires exceptional learning, and that can be helpful when it comes to addressing the cycle of poverty afflicting some of our students.

Meanwhile the focus of educators should be, and for most educators is, "How do I prepare myself to be the best teacher possible?" Having said that, what professional development has made a lasting impact on your teaching? Please share in the comments section below.

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I am so excited that you are finally going to experience real PLCs. I am so tired of schools saying that they are doing PLCs but they know nothing about the six standards and they spend all of their time talking about how to prepare for the state exams, complaining, or partying. I had lunch with the DuFours and one thing that impressed me about them was their message that PLCs are not something you do, it is what you are. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the role of the principal in math and science teacher collaboration. I used the six standards as the theoretical foundation of good collaboration and I am sold on the PLC concept. I wish you great success in collaboration.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I appreciate your comments. I have heard students make similar ones. If teachers find it hard to "stay all in" so do students, even to a greater degree. That is why teachers need professional development that gives them a choice of what they want to learn. Teacher selected learning communities is a good term--I hope it is not just a different label for the same sit and get instruction that already frustrates us. Yes, teachers need uninterrupted and guilt free time to participate in effective professional development. Keep pushing for better PD and you may get it. Have a great year.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

techteachmatt's picture
Elementary Technology/Music Specialist

PD through Twitter and other Social Media tools connects you with other people and topics of PD that are relevant to you.

BxNS_Kevin's picture

In countries like China and Finland where the teaching profession is just as respected as professions like medicine or law, the number of hours teachers meet to plan and collaborate almost equals the number of hours they teach. They may teach three or fours hours and spend the rest of the day collaborating. Could this be one factor as to why these countries have by far surpassed the United States in education? It seems like common sense that quality professional development needs to involve the collaboration of educators actively learning together, reflecting together, discussing best practices so that they can find out what works best for their community of students, however the number of PD's I have attended where facilitators read verbatim off a power point presentation have been numerous. I always found it funny to be learning about how to actively engage students in hands on and investigative learning by some one reading a bunch of acronyms word for word off a slide.

Paula's picture

Thank you for this blog which focuses on doing what we can do for students in the classroom! Because there are many obstacles and barriers that make education difficult, poverty, resources, a challenging work environment, time, quality professional development needs to do just that-focus on the quality of what we can control which is our teaching and how we invite and inspire students to take risks.

One of the best professional development classes I attended had to do with Learning-focused Supervision (Laura Lipton, Ed.D. and Bruce Wellman, M.Ed). This book explains that when supportive conversations or "an invitational inquiry" between two teachers are focused on a "third point" or piece of data, questioning which engages a teacher to consider student work using data their skills and previous experiences, can led to thoughtful plans of action as teachers try to increase the quality of student work. It makes sense that the heavy-lifting of learning we ask students to do, is more successful when we first learn what we can.

Michelle2's picture

There is a saying that, "Hearing is not the same as seeing." I agreed with you that it is great to have the opportunities to observe colleagues teaching. I learn a lot by visiting colleagues at my school. I learn how teachers come to class with great ideas and strategies. I learn how teachers deliver the lessons and engage students in learning as well as how they manage the classroom when kids misbehave. I feel lucky to be working in the school where the all teachers work collaboratively and where the principal provides us the opportunities to learn from one another to enhance student learning.

EmilyLiebtag's picture

Ann C, I totally agree! I feel that teachers in PD need to be connecting and collaborating with others - not just doing the learning on their own. Our PD modules invite teachers to collaborate with other educators not only at their school, but also around the world!

Lindsay Pugmire's picture

I firmly believe that professional development and creating learning communities for teachers and staff will help students receive the best education possible. My concern, however, is that when people have developed these types of learning communities, there is no sense of accountability or strong leadership to set the example of what professional learning should look like. What leadership qualities would be most effective in inspiring a school to focus more on professional development?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Lindsay, I believe a leader should visibly model continual improvement him or herself. A solid leader should be willing to admit mistakes and missteps when they occur. Strong leadership requires someone who is willing to show their human side. My last two administrators have fostered a continual improvement mindset for our school which has resulted in excellent professional development. Some professional learning opportunities should originate from the administrator leading the educators through the school change process. However, there should always be some PD which originates from the educator's individual needs and desire for improvement. Solid professional development should be a mix of whole school, small group and individualized learning to target the needs of the community. Hmmmm...not that different from a solid student learning community. ;)

RISKOUT Edu Consults's picture
RISKOUT Edu Consults
Learn and Teach

Mr Ben, I agree with you that the most important thing in education is CPD (continuous professional development), results has shown that countries like China and Finland are doing quite well in education owing to the fact that the teachers spend more time collaborating and developing themselves. however, in most developing countries, teachers are disregarded and not trained and due to poor remuneration, this teachers cannot afford this training and retraining which is basically required. i hope that we will someday create a free online training community for teachers in developing countries.

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