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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Follow-Up Is Critical For Successful Professional Development

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 29, 2015 17 min read
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(This post is Part Three in a four-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

This week’s question is:

What are the do’s and don’ts of professional development?

This is the third post in a four-part series exploring how we can improve the state of teacher professional development today. The original questioner also raised concerns about a number of inappropriate and distracting behaviors exhibited by attendees of PD sessions.

The series began with Part One of an essay by well-known educator and author Rick Wormeli, who finished it in Part Two. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Rick at my BAM! Radio Show.

Today’s post shares commentaries from educators Sean McComb, Robyn R. Jackson, Kelly Young, Paul Cancellieri, Jason Flom, and Barbara Blackburn.

Response From Sean McComb

Sean McComb is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year. He has served as an English, AVID, and Staff Development Teacher at Patapsco High School in Baltimore County, MD. You can connect with Sean via Twitter at @Mr_McComb:

Research and lessons from abroad have shown that the quality of teaching must be of utmost concern to continually improve our schools. Yet, developing teacher practice often seems to be pushed too low on priority lists. In my experience working for effective administrators and as a teacher-leader, there are three places folks need to feel motivated to change: the head (an intellectual understanding of reasoning and direction), the heart (emotional urgency), and the hind end (a clear path with short-term steps to get moving). While applying this framework within each school requires an intimate familiarity with that school’s particular conditions and staff, below are three key factors in the professional development that I have found effective for change as a classroom teacher and teacher-leader:


As teachers know, students can be coerced to do work and turn in papers, but they must make the choice to open their minds to true learning. This holds true for adults as well. Anyone who has been required to attend a professional development and felt it was disconnected from their work in the classroom can attest to the frustration created by the loss of precious time. I believe choice is vital for effective professional learning. This connects to the heart’s sense of urgency. Where is each teacher motivated to see change in their own practice? If they are not seeing the change, how can that individual be motivated to have urgency?

Relevant and Job-Embedded

Building from choice in content and attendance, when teachers can see a direct correlation between professional learning and practice, the work becomes more meaningful. Practical ways to move toward this is for teachers to see techniques in action, for teachers from the same content areas to collaborate in planning how to integrate a new strategy or technique, or for teachers to bring lesson plans to sessions to revise for a particular focus.

The most direct way to make professional learning relevant is to make it job-embedded. Though a structure for this might be more logistically challenging, I have seen incredible growth from coaching, lesson studies, and tuning protocols used in my school and for my own practice. For these practices to be effective, however, there must be a culture that allows for teachers to safely make themselves vulnerable to feedback in order to grow. This must be done carefully.


Research has also shown that effective professional development is not based on a single delivery. To truly make an improvement in practice, teachers need to learn about a way to improve, have the opportunity to plan and implement, and then reflect and adjust, ideally in company and collaboration with colleagues or a coach. Simply having a trusted critical friend available to prompt reflective thought can be vital. But the key is to not leave the professional development up to a single session with no follow-up. The opportunity to continuously improve and adjust, once teachers have had an opportunity to implement, is vitally necessary to sustain change.

Response From Robyn R. Jackson

Robyn R. Jackson is the founder of Mindsteps Inc., a professional development firm that helps teachers and principals solve their most pressing challenges. She is the author of nine books including Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching (ASCD, 2009) and Never Underestimate Your Teachers; Instructional Leadership for Excellence in Every Classroom (ASCD, 2013). You can reach her at robyn@mindstepsinc.com:

I have sat through my share of really bad PD. In fact, I got really good at being able to tell whether a workshop was going to be useful within the first 5 minutes and if I determined that I wasn’t going to get anything out of the workshop, I would quickly tune out. I even carried a “workshop survival kit” with things I could do to surreptitiously occupy myself while pretending to participate. I thought I was being polite and more than a little clever, but really, I was wasting valuable opportunities to learn.

A few years into my teaching career, I started taking a different approach to PD. I decided that no matter how bad it was, I tried to get something from it. At the very least, I wanted to take the time away from my classroom to work on my own teaching. So, rather than occupy myself on my phone or secretly grade papers, I would bring materials that were related to the workshop and try to apply what I was learning to my classroom. Sometimes, I will admit, it was a struggle to find something valuable in a workshop or district-enforced PD. But when I came to each session with the attitude that there was always something I could learn, I would find little hidden gems that ignited my own thinking and helped me refine my practice. Here are my best tips for making the most out of any PD situation.

  • When you hear something you already know, don’t say “I know that already.” Instead, ask yourself “How good am I at that?” or “How could I get better at that?”

  • When you see a typo or a grammatical mistake or you hear the presenter say something that you don’t like, try not to let it get in the way of the overall message or keep you from getting what you need to get out of the experience.

  • Be a participator rather than a spectator. You are a co-creator of the professional learning experience and your participation influences the direction, pacing, and value of the professional learning experience.

  • If what you are learning does not directly apply to your teaching situation or context, look for ideas you can use and make them fit. Always ask how you can make something you are learning fit in your classroom, school, or district.

  • Hold the presenter accountable for helping you learn. Ask questions when you don’t understand something or cannot see how to make what they are presenting relevant to your teaching situation.

  • You do not have to agree with everything the presenter says but you should be open-minded. If you don’t agree, don’t dismiss what the presenter is saying out of hand. Consider how their perspective might challenge your own thinking and present a new way of looking at things.

  • Bring whatever you are currently working on and look for ways to immediately apply what you are learning. If you can’t apply it to your current situation, look for ways to tweak what you are learning so that you can make it fit.

  • “Adapt, don’t adopt.” Don’t try to apply everything you learn exactly as the presenter presents it. Focus on the underlying principles and adapt the particular strategies to your own context and teaching style.

  • Provide the presenter and workshop organizers with honest but respectful feedback. Don’t just say what you didn’t like; give them suggestions for what they can do differently or better.

Response From Kelly Young

Kelly Young is founder and executive director of Pebble Creek Labs, a training and curriculum consulting company focused on instruction, literacy and leadership development. Since 1998 Pebble Creek Labs has partnered with schools and districts to promote student achievement and develop educators. Kelly can be reached at kelly@kellyjyoung.com (From Larry: I’ve learned more about teaching from Kelly than from anyone else):

As with students, passionately investing in the growth of staff should be a way of life in a progressive school and district, not a series of often unrelated events and meetings. Good professional development begins first with an overriding philosophy that the study of teaching and learning is routine, a commitment to on-going teacher learning that is regular and comfortable. It is not something cute on the side, not something to be endured, not something to “wait out”. It is a philosophy where “here we all are going to school"--that the study of teaching and learning never ends. It is rooted in a belief that schools are centers of inquiry, intellectually exciting places for students and teachers alike.

Does this resemble your experience? Sadly, probably not. When I was a young teacher, “staff development” consisted of three or four contractually agreed upon days before the school year and then sprinkled throughout. They were long meetings really, where we were talked at, and as a participant you prayed the presenter was either attractive or funny, ideally both. Later in my career, professional development became cute somehow, and we were asked to play warm-up games and genially interact with tablemates. Next it seemed to be about textbook adoptions, learning endlessly about standards, and implementing testing programs.

So I think we have failed as a profession in principle objectives, design, and topic emphasis.

Given the complexities of teaching and learning, and the enormous demands on our systems, it is critical we create human resources systems that prioritize the intellectual health of teachers and re-conceptualizes schools as centers of inquiry, staffed by scholar-practitioners.

Relative to design, the focus needs to move from dissemination of information to one of implementation. Professional development should be about changing and elevating practice. It should be about “transfer” and “use”. As a teacher I want to attend training sessions where I learn things for use in my classroom. But this involves a different type of training environment, one where we see demonstrations, engage in simulations, have time to practice new technique with expectations of on-going support and collaborative reflection and sharing. It’s an ethos of implementation and experimentation, of inquiry and problem-solving. In good staff development we “do” work--we converse, create, share, problem solve, and plan; and such interconnected parts of a larger emphasis on dynamic and ever-changing classroom practice.

There is little need for professional development if classrooms remain unchanged, and the heart of such change is in the design of teacher learning experiences.

Lastly, I would suggest professional development is too often on the wrong core topic. We have sessions on everything other than classroom instruction, the heart of our work. Training about standards, common core, testing, curriculum mapping, technology, textbook adoption, and grading abound, yet there is simply not enough on developing powerful pedagogy. As a long time principal and staff developer, it was not the lack of teacher knowledge about curriculum, technology or assessment that was at the root of disengaged or unmotivated students, it was the lack of powerful repertoire.

Make the study of teaching the core of professional development, conducted with comfort, lightness and a spirit of inquiry, and schools will become more passionate, exciting and powerful learning centers--where the quest of the elders becomes inspiration for the young.

Response From Paul Cancellieri

Paul Cancellieri is a National Board Certified middle school science teacher with 12 years experience, plus a recent year-long sabbatical working for the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching as a data literacy trainer. His passions include grading practices and tech enology integration, which he writes about on Twitter (@mrscienceteach) and on his blog ScriptedSpontaneity.com. You can find more at PaulCancellieri.com:

As a classroom teacher who has led teacher training and who took a year-long sabbatical to work as a full-time professional development leader, I have seen more than my share of both wonderful and painful PD. I have also experienced a wide range of responses and behaviors from those whom I was training. Sometimes, it seems that the fault lies with the participant who doesn’t take the training seriously or who doesn’t behave professionally. More often though, I think that it is the trainer who needs to change. Here are the three biggest changes that I think will lead to more engagement from teachers and more effective PD:

  1. Give teachers choice. It may sound obvious, but teachers will respond positively when you let them decide the topic or the method of their professional development. Consider creating a menu of options, or asking members of a learning team to take different courses and use the jigsaw method to share with one another.

  1. Differentiate for ability levels. Teachers are not all equal in terms of their skills or experience, especially when it comes to technology. So, why do we usually treat them that way? Of course, it is easier (and, often, cheaper) to create a one-size-fits-all training program, but you’ll get a lot more teacher engagement when you allow them to take a pre-assessment and be placed in a more appropriate class.

  1. Plan sustained learning experiences. No classroom teacher believes that a one-hour lesson in their classroom will significantly change the way her students think or behave. Yet, that’s what school leaders often try to do with professional development. Long-term change comes only with long-term learning. Teachers need to learn, and then be given time to put the knowledge into practice. They need to reflect and collaborate. And then they need to provide feedback and learn some more.

I am confident that putting these ideas to work will fundamentally improve professional development and leave teachers feeling eager to participate, instead of playing Candy Crush during training sessions.

Response From Jason Flom

Jason Flom is director-elect at Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Fla. He has significant experience with curriculum development, organizational structures related to democratic practices in schools, and teacher leadership. Jason is also a member of the ASCD Professional Learning Services faculty, providing customized professional development solutions for school districts:

Imagine a three-circle Venn Diagram of transformative learning experiences. One is for “young learners,” another for “adolescent learners,” and the third for “adult learners.” In working to design staff-wide opportunities for growth I wonder, “What are some of the qualities found at the intersection of all three? “

Inevitably my list includes (but is definitely not limited to) the following:

Learning experiences that are . . .

  • Meaningful
  • Applicable
  • Interactive
  • Seen as valuable
  • Provocative
  • Develop a sense of ownership
  • Emotionally stimulating
  • Novel
  • Authentically challenging
  • In an environment that makes it safe to take risks

In the case of adult learning practices in schools, how many fail to meet a low threshold of at least three of these qualities? Too many. How many of us have sat through a speaker or PD “experience” that wasn’t experiential or engaging, much less offering authentic challenges to grow as learners ourselves? Too many.

In their book, Leading for Powerful Learning (Teachers College Press, 2012), authors Angela Briedenstein, Kevin Fahey, Carl Glickman, and Frances Hensley write:

“One way of understanding the intricate ways that adults know and learn is by using constructive-developmental theory of adult development (Kegan, 1998). Constructive-developmental theory suggests that much of what we already know about student learning is also relevant to adult learning. The two fundamental premises upon which the theory rests are: (1) adults continually work to make sense of their experiences and (2) the ways that adults make sense of their world can change and grow more complex over time. In a school, this means that adults, depending on a variety of factors, will understand their experiences in very different ways.”

With this in mind, what does professional development look like when it honors, leverages, and supports the variability of adult learners?

Toward answering this question, Ellie Drago-Severson, author and professor of education at Columbia’s Teachers College, advocates for four “pillars of practice” for cultivating and sustaining professional growth.

  1. Teaming
  2. Providing Leadership Roles
  3. Collegial Inquiry
  4. Mentoring

Will implementing these practices solve the problem of educators multitasking during speakers? No. Probably not. However, setting a goal of developing “professional learning” (something one does with oneself and/or others) rather than “professional development” (something one does to another) begins to shift the paradigm toward educators owning their learning.

And, as we know from working with younger learners, when ownership happens, transformation is soon to follow. Turns out, adult learners aren’t that different after all.

Additional resources for developing adult learners in a school setting:

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is a nationally recognized speaker and consultant in the areas of rigor, motivation, and leadership. She is also the author of 14 books, including the best seller, Rigor is NOT a Four Letter Word. She can be reached through her website at www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

While working on my doctorate, I studied schools that had won a national award for their staff development (Blackburn, 2000). From that, I learned there are seven key elements of effective staff development.

Key Elements of Effective Staff Development

  • Clear purpose linked to research, student data, goals, and needs.

  • Accountability through classroom use of ideas and impact on students.

  • Development of a common, shared language.

  • Shared decision-making that includes an emphasis on 
teacher input.

  • Incorporation of relevant,practical, hands-on activities.

  • Integration of opportunities for follow-up and application.

  • Strong leadership and a positive, collegial atmosphere.

Thanks to Sean, Robyn, Kelly, Paul, Jason and Barbara for their contributions!

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