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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

Want Successful Professional Development? Try Promoting Curiosity

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 31, 2022 10 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

What is the best professional-development session you ever participated in, and what made it so good?

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., Justin Lopez-Cardoze, and Marina Rodriguez kicked off this series.

In Part Two, Pat Brown, Mary K. Tedrow, Jeremy Hyler, and Altagracia H. Delgado shared their experiences.

Today, Tonia Gibson, Becky Corr, Luiza Mureseanu, and Helen Vassiliou.

‘Collective Efficacy’

Tonia Gibson, a former teacher and school leader in Australia, is a senior managing consultant at McREL International and a co-author of Learning That Sticks:

The best PD I experienced as a primary school teacher in Australia was peer coaching with a particular twist: when I was matched with a colleague from a different grade level. Then we weren’t obsessed with critiquing the quality of the content; rather, we could observe each other’s classrooms based purely on what we’d discussed in our preobservation. It also prevented us from comparing one another’s kids, which of course isn’t the point.

Pairing teachers separated by at least one grade level, such as kindergarten and 2nd grade, was even better. That also removed another potential distraction, the temptation to judge one another for promoting underprepared students. With that definitive break in content between us, we could concentrate on observing teacher use of effective practices and positive student learning behaviors.

Ultimately, the question we wanted to know focused on our students and their perception of what they were learning through classroom activities—not, “What are you doing?” but “What are you learning?” We visited each other’s rooms four times per quarter and focused on giving feedback on the learning behaviors of the students. I came to realize that the way my students would answer three simple questions told me more about what was happening in my classroom than any formal evaluation or teacher-focused observation: “What are you learning?” “Why is this learning important to you?” and, “How will you know when you’ve been successful?”

I should add that teacher quality is not assessed through high-stakes formal observations in Australia. When I was promoted to leadership, I was encouraged to continue to be visible in classrooms via the peer-observation model. If you’re wondering how we managed to assess teachers without high-pressure formal observations, it was based on the effectiveness of their planning, knowledge about particular students/cohorts, and their depth of knowledge about teaching and learning, along with support-focused discussions about what we saw and heard through these more frequent, informal observations.

Now that I’m with an organization that produces in-person and online PD, I put a lot of thought into what makes such sessions valuable. Many districts in the U.S. and worldwide are still using the “sit and get” model that rarely translates into improved practices at a school or classroom level. Reflecting on my own experiences as well as the research of Linda Darling-Hammond and others, here are the qualities I like to see:

  • Job-embedded and collaborative—like those peer-coaching sessions I experienced earlier in my career.
  • Supportive of professional curiosity. Curiosity is essential for effective learning to occur, yet traditional PD models skip it entirely. Just like students, teachers need opportunities to ask such questions of each other as: What do we need to improve? Why is this important? What evidence do we have that supports this need? Involving teachers in identifying their PD needs makes them partners in the process.
  • Focused on collective efficacy. When we approach our work with the belief that together we can address and be successful in tackling our identified challenges as a school staff, then we are more likely to develop a culture of support and collaboration.
  • Followed up with sustained support from school leaders. “One and done” professional learning needs to be a thing of the past. Most teachers will tell you that when they participate merely for compliance, they don’t learn much.

Professional development for teachers is a wonderful concept that must have seemed shockingly progressive at first, but it needs to keep up with the times. I hope we’ll move away from a compliance mindset and instead help each other grow curious and continuously learn, just like we strive to do with our students.


Student Panels

Becky Corr is an English-language-development team lead for the Douglas County school district in Colorado. In her role with DCSD as well as the owner of EdSpark Consulting, she provides coaching, professional development, and family-engagement opportunities:

Several years ago, my team and I facilitated a professional-development session centered on teaching multilingual learners that teachers have said was one of the best sessions they have participated in. The concept was simple, it elevated student voices, and was ultimately quite powerful.

The professional-development session began with an introduction to our multilingual learners. We provided some school and district demographics, including the top languages spoken by our students. We shared data that illustrated the growth of our multilingual learners specific to the school. The heart of the session was a student panel where students responded to teacher-generated questions. About a week prior to the session, we had provided an anonymous opportunity for teachers to submit questions, which provided a safe space to ask about what they wanted to know.

Preparing students and teachers for the student panel was the key to success. Our teaching team screened the questions and then selected the top questions in partnership with the students. An integral step in the process was partnering with students to select the questions. This provided students with a platform to share their stories and elevate their authentic voices.

For the next week, we supported students in writing responses to the teacher-generated questions. Some students wrote full responses while others jotted down some notes or bullet points. Students practiced responding to the questions to become comfortable with the format and speaking in front of an audience. The questions ranged from, “What can teachers do to help you?” to “What do you wish that your teachers knew?” Another teacher also asked, “What can we do to help you feel welcome?”

During the professional-development session, we introduced the student panel and communicated the norms. Delineating the format of the session was especially important. Then, our team took turns asking students the questions, and students responded. To wrap up the session, teachers shared with each other in small groups about what they learned and what they would like to implement.

Teachers continue to comment that the professional-development student-panel session was impactful for them.


Topic Self-Selection

Luiza Mureseanu is a secondary school teacher currently working as instructional resource teacher, K-12, for ESL/ELD programs, in Peel DSB, Ontario:

The most rewarding professional learning happens when given the possibility to select or self-register a topic of interest.

Recently, I participated in a few professional learning sessions about MCT (multicultural teaching) that I found equally interesting and rewarding. The value of these sessions got enhanced by a few specific factors.

First, the content was relevant and applicable to my teaching setting as I work with a large population of multilingual learners. These professional-development sessions provided me with instructional strategies and resources applicable to my daily teaching and learning.

Second, the sessions provided a good balance between theory and practice in using MCT. The reference list was extremely helpful and rich but also very practical.

Finally, the participants demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm and passion in addressing the topic, so the learning process was really enhanced by the desire to do the learning together. Teachers learn best when they are invested in the professional learning and share a plethora of resources with each other. These professional learning experiences eventually generated a strong PLN (professional learning network) among educators from various geographical areas and boards.


‘Lightning Round PD’

Helen Vassiliou has been working with ELs for the Lakota Local school district in West Chester, Ohio:

The best professional development I have participated in was called “Lightning Round PD” held by teachers for teachers. Professional development should be taught by active teachers in 30 minutes or less, contain no fluff, be easy to implement, classroom-tested, and doable to implement the next day.

In the lightning-round session held via Zoom, each teacher was asked to prepare either an idea, tech tool, or strategy they use in the classroom and share it in no more than two minutes. This kind of low-stress, less-prep professional development is energetic, quick-paced, and lively keeping everyone engaged. There is a genuine element of competition and creativity that gets showcased, and the zero down time between each share-out pulls people in to learn more from a colleague without distraction. Each staff member leaves with a menu of ideas to try that piques their interest and warrants them to learn more from each other.

I implemented this style of PD this year, and two weeks later, teachers are coming to me and others with a newfound curiosity to try something in their instruction for the benefit of their students. The best teachers are still learning and igniting fires into their instruction, which brings about a contagious spirit that keeps students at the heart. When thinking about the “knowledge loop,” teachers are learning, creating and sharing strategies and tools with each other, strengthening our practice, and not being stagnant.

As an educator, I expect to grow every time I come to a learning community. Learning from each other elevates our voice and our niche in the world. There is something imperative about teacher trust and the richness of our experiences that impacts us


Thanks to Tonia, Becky, Luiza, and Helen for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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