Opinion
Professional Development Opinion

How You Deliver Professional Learning Says a Lot About You

You should model the instructional approach you want to see in the classroom
By NaTasha Woody-Wideman — July 05, 2023 4 min read
Digital illustration of a woman of color contemplating her reflection, in the foreground there is a classroom of silhouettes.
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We’ve all seen the apocryphal Gandhi quote on social media and inspirational emails: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Though the true source of this saying is up for debate, its relevance in the biosphere of instructional leadership is not. It’s a poignant call to action, reminding us to look in the mirror and model the professional practices we admire.

As leaders, we observe teachers, address gaps, and provide written feedback. We lead professional development sessions and hope to cultivate more leaders.

In providing professional learning, we must ask if we are modeling the instructional strategies we expect of our staff members. What do we see when our teachers mirror those behaviors back to us? How are the professional development practices we display showing up in our classrooms?

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

Before I get too deep, I want to remind my leadership compatriots that I’m still on “the team.” I believe in coaching cycles, staff evaluation, and accountability measures. I know what you endure daily as school leaders. The load is heavy, and I carry it with you, but I also pose a key question: “As an instructional leader, are you what you want to see?”

Humor me, please!

In our leadership practices, we provide professional learning for staff all the time. We gather our participants in a room and share a riveting PowerPoint presentation. We tell them to sign in and we hold them accountable for the learning. They are supposed to be taking notes and paying attention, right?

We then go into their classrooms to see if they learned what we taught them, and you know what? They did! They read their own “riveting” PowerPoints to a classroom full of less-than-enthusiastic students.

We rarely model internal dialogue or critical-thinking practices in our professional learning presentations. There is no checkpoint to maintain engagement and no time to practice the learning.

How can we as leaders go into classrooms and ask teachers to chunk the lesson, check for understanding, model excitement of the learning, and maintain student engagement when we don’t do the same in professional learning? There’s no way!

We aren’t consistently providing teachers with strategies they can take from the professional learning to the classroom. They aren’t being shown the processes for providing in-the-moment feedback to kids. We are failing our teachers and our kids.

We all want what’s best for our students. We want highly engaging lessons that model critical thinking, ignite passion, and push students toward their best. We want a staff that facilitates this every day. Leaders desire schools that are fired up about learning from the staff to the students—but we have to be fired up first!

We have to be the change or we will continue to facilitate the lukewarm practices that cripple our teachers and hinder our student growth. Luckily, it begins with just a few steps:

1. Remember who you are. Every school leader in the world was once a student, and most (don’t get me started) were once teachers. Start with remembering what it’s like to be a student and a teacher. We can cure the epidemic of terrible professional learning when leaders become as reflective as we require teachers to be.

It can be hard. It can make us feel vulnerable, especially when we’ve become used to being in charge, but we must step out of our ego and remember that those seats were once ours. Once we put ourselves back into the seats, the learning and growing can begin.

2. Write a lesson plan. We ask teachers to plan for instruction. In most states, they are even evaluated for instructional planning. Leaders should do the same when planning professional learning. Use your school’s planning template to make a plan for the professional learning you’ll deliver. This allows you to see struggles that teachers may have. This practice helps leaders relate to our teachers and address mistakes in instructional planning. If you, as a leader, think that planning isn’t needed and takes too much time, stop requiring it from your teachers.

3. Consider the impact. What is the expected outcome of your professional learning? If the goal is to “get it out of the way,” then we have a problem. Setting intentional goals for professional learning provides focus to the work. It models the use of essential questions and learning objectives and allows for leaders to determine effectiveness.

If the focus of a session is to provide teachers with tools for formative assessment, the lens of subsequent teacher observations should be formative assessment. After a session on building a strong classroom culture, walk-throughs should focus on culture.

Serving as an instructional leader is important work. In it lies the monumental power to shape the hearts, minds, and outcomes of those we serve. They are our customer and village, as well as a true mirror of our effectiveness. We must purposefully reflect the beauty we desire in our schools. Beauty is hard work, but so worth it.

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