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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: Do Professional Development ‘With’ Teachers, Not ‘to’ Them

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 07, 2018 25 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the biggest problems with common teacher professional development practices and how can they be fixed?

Every teacher has sat through some awful required professional development sessions.

This series will explore the biggest problems with typical educator professional development what could be done, instead.

Today’s contributors are Diana Laufenberg, Dina Strasser, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Debbie Silver, Rita Platt and Dr. Melissa C. Gilbert. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Diana, Dina, Heather and Debbie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

You might also be interested in previous related columns on Professional Development, as well as The Best Resources On Professional Development For Teachers.

I’ve been leading a fair amount of professional development for our faculty lately on teaching English Language Learners. One of the key components of each session is having multiple student panels comprised of ELLs.

In these sessions, the student panels are clearly the high-points. I always tell the students afterwards that the anonymous evaluations always focus on their talks, with very little comments made on my parts of the training. They think I’m just trying to make them feel good until I actually show them the sheets!

Response From Diana Laufenberg

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught 7-12 grade students Social Studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Most recently, Diana Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a new non-profit working to create and support student centered learning environments that are inquiry driven, project based and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the Executive Director and Lead Teacher for Inquiry Schools:

#1 - Common Problem - Teaching teachers in a way that is inconsistent with the mission and vision for learning that has been identified for students.

A teacher’s professional development experience needs to be in agreement with the overall approach to teaching and learning that defines the learning environment. If the school is focused on PBL - teachers need to be engaged in PBL style learning activities as a part of PD. If the school is about Deeper Learning - the learning opportunities need to include the Deeper Learning tenets. If the school wants their students to personalize their learning, teachers need to personalize their learning. When you believe something about learning, it needs to permeate all aspects of learning in the system, not just for the children.

#2 - Common Problem - One Size Fits All

In an attempt to have a common experience and make sure everyone gets the same thing, professional development is often targeted at the middle. Those that are pacing faster or have more experience are bored and those that are new to the concept and struggling are swimming. People that plan professional development need to address the scope of learners that they are working with on a continuum. I often present a range of resources and points of entry to the learning to allow for teachers to come into the concepts at a pace and range that make sense for them as a learner. This isn’t the fastest way to plan PD, but it often yields a more effective outcome than having large swaths of the staff not getting what they need.

#3 - Common Problem - Talking At...

Talking at folks often makes people feel as they have done due diligence in relaying some important message. It’s relied on far too heavily in the professional development world. Matching the experience around the learning to the information that is being relayed is important. Use strategies that you would like teachers to be using in the classroom, to craft learning experiences for the teachers. It’s important to remember that often teachers are so cooked by the time its PD time, that they are ready to be talked at... resist the urge to fall to ‘talking at’ as the dominant method of ‘instruction’ in PD time.

#4 - Common Problem - Timing

Think intensively about when is the best time for professional development and what your school is prepared to accomplish in that time. I grew up in a system that did teacher PD on Monday mornings and let the kids sleep in for a late start, every week. I’ve worked in systems that did early release on certain days of the week. Some schools try to squeeze in 45 minutes after the school day. I even knew a school that did PD from 3-5pm on Fridays. With the exception of the Friday time slot, all of those options can be productive as long as the PD planners are being mindful of what shape their learners are going to be in as they entering the learning space. Teachers are people too and need consideration given to what they can be expected to accomplish based on the timing. Think about pacing, chunking, interaction as you plan the time.

#5 - Common Problem - The Principal Just Got Back From a Conference

Learning is fun. Principals love to learn about new things. Often they return from conferences with all kinds of new learning to share. When planning professional development for the year, try to exercise some discipline in not blowing up the yearly plan with new initiatives throughout the year. Decide what your focus is for the year and try so very hard to hold yourself and your community to that bar. Introducing new initiatives in the middle of a year send some really disjointed messages to the teachers. Bringing in a new tool or resource to enhance the current initiatives is a wonderful thing. Walking in with a plan for PBL mid year, after defining the goals for the years differently, is painful.

Response From Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser was a public school ELA and ELL teacher for 14 years, and wrote an award-winning blog on education for eight years. She is an author of the book Management in the Active Classroom. Currently Dina serves as the Manager of the Curriculum Implementation Team at EL Education:

For me, the biggest problems with common teacher professional development practices can be summarized--and solved--in three sentences:

Take a look at best teaching practices for students.

If it doesn’t work for students, it’s not going to work for teachers.

If it works for students, it will work for teachers too.

The amount we have learned about best teacher practices in the classroom over the decades I have worked in education is truly thrilling. Our advances in brain science, our knowledge of how memory and retention works, a more expansive and accurate definition of what student achievement means: these things make for some of the most effective and exciting teaching I have ever seen. Yet in my own professional development and others’, I am consistently struck by how our knowledge of best practice continues to be applied to students in the classroom, but rarely--if ever--makes its way over to the teaching of the teachers themselves.

I often remember a story a colleague told me of taking a class on student differentiation--in which my colleague sat in a chair silently and was lectured to for hours. What teacher hasn’t experienced irony like this? We have to do better, and I contend it is far easier than many people think.

Below are four “moves” that EL Education, my professional home, regularly employs in its professional development with teachers. To any experienced educator the moves will look suspiciously familiar. That’s because good professional development for teachers doesn’t have to be rocket science, or especially tweaked for the adult brain. It’s a simple approach: if it works for students, it will work for teachers too.

1) Meet the teachers’ needs.

My favorite example of the need for this seemingly obvious, but all too rare move is the following: few educational researchers or teacher preparation programs in the United States address effective classroom management (Emmer, Sabornie, Evertson, and Weinstein, 2013). We’ve done our bit to address this through writing a book on the essentials of good classroom management and creating PD that walks teachers through this oh-so-critical, but chronically overlooked component of teacher development. It is consistently one of our best received programs. You wouldn’t think PD could make you cry, but that’s exactly what I did in Memphis recently when a novice teacher came up to us after our classroom management PD and stated bluntly that she would have quit that year if she hadn’t come to our training.

It’s important to give teachers what they need so that they can be the best teachers they can be. In your setting, classroom management may not be the top need for teachers--perhaps it’s reading instruction or meeting the needs of English language learners. What’s important is learning from teachers what it is, and providing it.

2) Make the students present.

“Wait--you have STUDENTS run teacher PD?” I can hear you hollering. In fact, yes. We believe firmly that student ownership is critical to learning, and perhaps their presence is even more critical in teacher training. Where students cannot be physically present, we approximate as much as we can by examining oodles of genuine student work, watching videos of kids in real classrooms, and demonstrating lessons for teachers by asking them to act as students (“putting on the student hat”).

3) Assess, and help teachers self-assess.

A critical challenge of many classrooms is providing clear guidance on what is being taught, and whether what is being taught has been mastered. We structure our PD in exactly the same way we ask teachers to structure their lessons: by providing clear learning targets and self-reflecting on them actively and often through journals, note-catchers, and checks for understanding. In this way, teachers never leave us feeling confused or doubtful about what we’ve been teaching them and whether they’ve grasped it.

4) Perfect the “double dip.”

Teachers’ time is precious. We make sure every minute of our PD not only teaches teachers the content, but also immerses them in tips and techniques they can bring back into their classrooms the very next day. When we introduce a learning target (see #3), we do it in the way we would want teachers to do it with students. When we run an activity, we use activities that work well with students. When we ask questions, check for understanding, or assess our audience’s work, we use strategies that students respond to and enjoy.

Writing about this topic gives me great joy: not only because I believe so strongly in the approach I’ve outlined here, but also because I have seen with my own eyes over many years how effective it is.

Take a look at best teaching practices for students.

If it doesn’t work for students, it’s not going to work for teachers.

If it works for students, it will work for teachers too.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher. She is a staff blogger for Edutopia and also blogs at tweenteacher.com She is the author of such books as: Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin, 2017), DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge, 2015), and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge, 2016):

There are multiple problems with current PD practices. For instance, there’s a lack of accountability in how PD is implemented. This makes the training itself a waste of time. However, the biggest problem is in the quality of PD itself.

When a teacher is participating in PD, they are students. So why don’t we differentiate for teachers as well as students? We talk about differentiation in how we deliver information to our students. We talk about differentiation in how we allow students to present their learnings. Yet, so much PD is still “sage on the stage” - and many times that “sage” hasn’t been in the classroom for years or has only taught in a specific, idyllic model of school. In many instances, there is a disconnect between teachers and trainers. Nevertheless, if we were to adopt a more differentiated mindset in how teachers can continue to improve their practice, we might see more engagement in our educators. And that means we’ll see more innovation trickling down to our classrooms.

Teachers come to the PD table with different needs, challenges, and interests. You want a teacher to sit up and better their practice? Let them have some ownership in what they are learning and how. Try giving choices in what to discuss, as in an EdCamp model. Try giving choices of artifacts that teachers might need to pilot after a PD session by using a Tic-Tac-Toe board of options. Prioritize what’s needed face-to-face vs. what can be accomplished online, or give teachers a choice in how to journey through their professional development.

I use 3DGameLab (Rezzly.com) to create blended units for my students, a series of lessons that are gamified where one lesson is accomplished and submitted, thereby opening up the next to accomplish. It allows students to earn badges and certificates to prove their learning. This same program can be used for professional development and there is an archive of adaptable, gamified PD lessons already out there. Imagine using a window of time to accomplish a series of lessons. Imagine going through PD that models the strategies we all should be using with our students. And the units teachers can go through can be as varied as the teachers themselves. Maybe one teacher embarks on a series of lessons in the RTI process, and that leads to a culminating project implementing a particular strategy. Perhaps another teacher goes through a unit that challenges them in how to integrate technology into their particular subject area, and in the end they must create an artifact of a hyperdoc or show a lesson using Nearpod. It’s like the Google EDU model where a menu of lessons is on hand for you to discover at your leisure. Differentiating PD treats teachers like the professional adults they are, and gives them buy-in to their own learning.

Response From Debbie Silver

Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and an internationally known presenter. She is the author of the best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. She co-wrote Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success. She can be reached at www.debbiesilver.com:

Self-Determination is the Key to Positive Professional Development Practices

As someone who has planned, presented, researched, and attended more professional development (PD) programs than I can count, I have reached the conclusion that the biggest problem with most PD is its disconnection with the educators it is supposed to influence. Surely at this point in our pedagogical understanding we can appreciate that differentiation, personalized learning, and learner-centered instruction are key factors for not only student growth but for teacher development, too.

Holding teachers in a captive audience to listen to some top-down-chosen program presentation that has little to do with their students or personal goals is as ineffective as it is insulting. While purposeful presentations can act as an impetus for change, long term transformation requires attention to teacher values, beliefs, and attitudes towards learning. (Silver,1999)

Positive school cultures strive to give voice and choice to students. Progressive professional development demands equivalent considerations for teachers. Educators need the same kind of self-determining agency Deci and Ryan (2000) advocate for students, which include autonomy, competency, and relatedness.


Differentiated professional development provides teachers more flexibility in where they want to spend their time and efforts. Offering many options allows them to be architects of their growth plans and puts them in charge of what they need to improve. Giving teachers a choice about how and when they learn sends a powerful message about the school/district’s faith in them and a respectful nod to their personal responsibility.


  • If the school or district is sponsoring a workshop day, why not ask the teachers what kinds of sessions they want to attend? Ask a committee of classroom teachers to plan a myriad of options for both beginners and advanced participants so they have an opportunity to maximize their present levels.

  • Give teachers the option of participating in online learning opportunities.

  • Create opportunities for teachers to form small groups who can meet together to plan, discuss, and practice new ideas.

  • Find the money to send teachers to conferences (both in and out of state) that provide quality learning experiences for them.

  • Encourage teachers to organize and participate in one of edcamp’s Unconferences .


Teachers who feel competent are more likely to be flexible, to take learning risks, and to stay in the profession. Professional development should be treated as an opportunity for growth rather than just another box to be checked. Educators need to be encouraged to choose PD that challenges them and gives them a hard-earned sense of accomplishment. To internalize new ideas, teachers need a chance to learn, to practice, to reflect, and to share.


  • Plan for PD that provides time for practice, feedback, and reflection. Arrange for follow-up activities with teacher leaders to reinforce ideas and hone new skills.

  • Provide training and time for teachers to observe one another and give appropriate feedback.

  • Ask teacher to keep a portfolio or journal to document (for themselves) their growth over time.

  • Provide an opportunity for teachers to share their newly acquired skills and knowledge with others.

  • Ask leaders and administrators to meet with teachers on a regular basis to give them a chance to discuss their progress towards their desired


Professional development works best when teachers view themselves as an important part of the broader goals of the school community. Whether it is group or individual PD, teachers need to see a justification for their participation. Many administrators ask teachers to share what they learned from their training with other interested colleagues to further extend teacher relatedness. Connections are important in the business of schooling, and PD should be used to expand professional networking opportunities.


  • Offer a mix of both presentations by experts and local teacher-led training. Homebased PD is generally less expensive, more sustainable, and further empowering to teachers. However, bringing in guest presenters can often open new lines of thinking and offer different perspectives for educators. Specialists sometimes extend what has been done locally with further resource suggestions and examples from a wider experiential range.

  • Within the scope of the school’s or district’s goals allow teachers to make their own choices about their professional development. Prescriptive selections from superiors convey the idea that the teacher somehow needs to be fixed through corrective PD. Teachers need to decide for themselves where they need improvement.

  • Once a PD is approved, it should be supported by the school and district administrators philosophically and financially. Investing time and energy in a program that is later deemed “too expensive” or simply “not doable” in a school or district undermines teacher efficacy and motivation.

  • Treat professional development as a process, not a remedy. Encourage teachers to select one or two areas per year and focus all or most of their PD on building those capacities.

  • Arrange opportunities for teachers to share with their administrators as well as fellow teachers about why they chose the PD they did and how it impacted their classrooms.

Presently school districts seem to be holding our collective breaths about what will happen with the funding of teacher PD. No matter what happens in Washington, it is incumbent on our local systems to continue to provide opportunities for teachers to grow and learn. Professional development is an essential component for improving the teaching/learning process. The key to positive professional development is involving teachers in every aspect of its implementation and empowering their teaching efficacy with more self-rule.

Silver, Debbie (1999). A Study of Teachers’ Perceptions About Staff Development Factors and Their Classroom Implementation of Reform-Based Science Instruction. Doctoral Dissertation, Louisiana Tech University.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn:

I owe a lot to inservices. I met my husband, fellow educator, John Wolfe, at one. I fell in love with the somewhat irritated-looking teacher at the back of the room who passed me a note sharing the poem he has just finished, “Ode on a Boring Inservice.” An excerpt is below.

In dust dark halls, I feel my days collapse.

Dawn’s bright resolve drifts shuddering to gray.

Morning’s bright yes devolves to dull perhaps.

Minutes, years, months, days, hours drift away.

If I could run - but who can hit top stride

When stones and brush and mud lurk underfoot

To pull you down, to swamp you in a tide

Of meetings, agenda barely understood?

Though I think this poem aptly captures the soul-suck that often passes for professional development, as I said, I owe inservices big time for helping me find my soul mate. To pay them back, I am going to offer some tough advice.

  1. Stop it with the “one-size-fits-all” mentality. Teachers, just like their students, want, need and deserve differentiated instruction.
  2. No more “pound-of-flesh” and “meat-in-the-seat” mindsets. Not all professional development needs to take place on the hard seats of the cafeteria. Not everyone has to be in the same room. Timetables and agendas don’t need to be etched in stone.
  3. Don’t pull us in a million directions. We have a mission, vision, and school improvement plan. Let us focus on them. If you can’t tell us how the inservice will help us move us toward the school goals, don’t ask us to sit through them.
  4. Stop forcing us to PLC and let us PLN! I work with teachers all over the country who tell me the same story; “Professional Learning Communities” are not meaningful, mostly because they are too structured and too closely monitored. They also say that their more informal “Professional Learning Networks” comprised of online and face-to-face collaborations are helpful and inspiring.

Now, that I’ve shared the ways inservices, as John so beautifully put it, leads teachers through “dust dark halls” where our “resolve” to be better “drifts shuddering to gray” I want to share some ways to shift professional development such that it helps us “run” and “hit top stride!”

  1. Let us make choices about what we need. Support our own professional development decisions and goals. Offer us supported options for our learning. From helping teachers pursue a master’s degree to cohorts for National Board Certification to offering personalized coaching, there are good ways to differentiate and support teachers with unique learning needs. Read, If You Need It, Go Get It: Do It Yourself PD in the 21st Century for more ideas.
  2. Offer a more active learning structure. Edcamps, instructional rounds, and Japanese lesson study are good alternatives to “sit and get” sessions.
  3. Align our learning with our stated goals. We can’t do it all. Help us do one or two things well. Help us focus. Help us connect the professional learning you offer to the school plans. Choose a basket. Put your eggs in it and watch that basket.
  4. Help us develop our PLNs, teach us to and allow us to use Twitter, Teaching Channel, and other online sources to collaborate with fellow educators near and far. Facilitate meetings between nearby schools and districts. Let us choose our own PLC groups and define our own goals and procedures for them.

Traditional inservices or professional development aren’t all-bad. Sometimes a good-old-fashioned meeting or workshop fits the bill. But, not always. Let’s never forget that.

Response From Dr. Melissa C. Gilbert

Dr. Melissa C. Gilbert is a credentialed mathematics teacher and teacher educator. At present, she is a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) where she serves as the Stanford Project Coordinator for the Instructional Leadership Corps Project, a collaboration among SCOPE, the California Teachers Association, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

For too long, professional development (PD) has been done TO teachers rather than BY and WITH teachers. Recent focus groups conducted by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd reiterate what educators have long known:

  • Effective PD is hands-on

    . Our default tendency is to teach the way we were taught. So, if we are to meaningfully implement instructional changes, as teachers we need to experience learning content in new ways. For example, don’t just tell me to use math talk with my students. Provide me with rich opportunities to participate in math talks as a learner.

  • Effective PD is peer-led

    . All educators have attended PD sessions presented by consultants who may never have been teachers themselves. They tell us how we should be teaching our students while we sit there feeling that they don’t really know our community, needs, motivations, etc. Instead, develop the capacity of PD providers Engage accomplished teachers in designing, leading, and facilitating their colleagues’ learning.

  • Effective PD is context-specific

    . Linda Darling-Hammond and others often use the phrase “spray and pray” to emphasize that too often PD is designed to be “one size fits all.” Instead, tailor the PD to the specific context, including knowledge of the students and the community being served. Find out what we want to learn more about. Don’t assume you know what we need!

  • Effective PD is ongoing. “One and done” is not sufficient for real professional learning to occur. Instead, provide ongoing opportunities to review student work, discuss pedagogy, and engage as learners. Well-designed professional learning communities that support authentic, ongoing collaboration and reflection about teaching and learning are one such opportunity.

The Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC) (www.cta.org/ilc), a professional development project among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford, is growing local instructional capacity throughout California. Accomplished educators within communities across the state are supported in providing effective PD for and with their colleagues. In its first three years, the ILC has reached over 77,000 educators from more than 2,000 schools in at least 430 districts. Feedback from attendees and their supervisors illustrates the impact of effective PD. For example, a principal whose staff participated in the project observed:

The difference [between ILC and typical PD] is that true collaboration between educators.... They are really working together on how would this best fit in your classroom? Here’s a great idea...now let’s put it into practice and see if this is doable and if not, then what can we adjust?

A superintendent reflected:

“I firmly believe that if we are going to have any deep learning throughout the district that is going to impact student achievement, we must include our teachers, and coming from the teacher voice, I thought it was important to engage with that...The whole concept of peer to peer learning was very powerful to us, especially if we are looking at sustainability. Throughout the first couple of sessions, we have learned that more and more of our own teachers want to jump in to be able to advance teacher learning.”

These supervisors articulate what we want for every educator: Professional development that is hands-on, peer-led, context-specific, and ongoing. Look for the Instructional Leadership Corps on Collaboration in Common (//collaborationincommon.org/) for PD tools ILC educators have developed and used with their colleagues.

Thanks to Diana, Dina, Heather, Debbie, Rita and Melissa for their contributions!

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