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Professional Development Opinion

What Do Educators Want From Professional Development?

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 04, 2023 7 min read
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Today’s post highlights results of a recent study surveying teachers and administrators about what they want from professional development.

A Tangible Feeling of Discontent

Denise Furlong is an assistant professor at Georgian Court University in New Jersey and the author of Voices of Newcomers: Experiences of Multilingual Learners.

Carly Spina is a multilingual education specialist for the Illinois Resource Center and the author of Moving Beyond for Multilingual Learners: Innovative Supports for Linguistically Diverse Students:

While it is clear that educators value learning and often consider themselves to be lifelong learners, there is a tangible feeling of discontent with respect to the requirement of traditional professional development.

Many question the lack of measurable impact on student achievement (Kirsten et al., 2023) and the agendas that influence these initiatives. There has also been talk about a difference between “professional development” and “professional learning.” Professional development has a connotation of something that is an obligation or requirement that is planned without the voice of the participants.

The term “professional learning” considers engagement in a variety of ways that educators access experiences that improve their instructional practice, understanding of pedagogy, appreciation of cultures, and consideration of social-emotional mental health of themselves and their students. Professional learning may be measured by feelings of teacher efficacy and student outcomes; professional development is measured by compliance.

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In our study about perceptions of professional learning of educators who identify as holding different roles in education (Furlong & Spina, 2022), administrators, teacher leaders/instructional coaches, and teachers all report frustrations (and successes!) considering accessing opportunities for engagement in meaningful professional learning.

Some frustrations from all groups include requirements that are viewed as inauthentic or not applicable to their current role(s). Successes consistently reflected professional learning that was specific to their district and provided ongoing support and follow-through.

Some key takeaways include:

  • Access to different formats of professional learning is critical. Participants reported that they have relied on varied professional learning methods, including in-person or virtual workshops, book studies, committee work, or job-embedded professional learning such as instructional coaching, collaborative teaching, or mentoring. According to one teacher in the study, “I learn/gain the most (and I think my students do, too) when I am able to spend time with other teachers.”
  • The invitation to participate in professional learning also matters. When educators are “voluntold” to participate in a program or initiative, this can negatively impact their feelings of efficacy, buy-in, and agency.
  • The professional learning provider is also important to consider. When participants of workshops feel that their facilitator is knowledgeable (both in content and also how adults learn), approachable, and has relevant in-classroom experience, that makes a difference in overall perceptions of the effectiveness and quality of the professional learning experience. Credibility matters.
  • Leveraging local talent is a great way to empower professional learning alongside people who know the specific needs of the district and may be able to continue the support past a one-time workshop. Districts who acknowledge that their current educators (teachers and coaches) have valuable skill sets and experiences can design initiatives with long-lasting support. One participant shared, “Many times there is no follow through on the PD. Even if it’s a beneficial PD and presented well, it’s a one-time thing that doesn’t develop nor see how the PD is actually being used or benefiting teachers and students.”
  • Choice and voice are the most important factors, and often it is considered more effective if the learning is guided by someone who knows the content and (just as importantly) their district and the diversity of the community. It is here that educators report that there are measurable outcomes in terms of student engagement and progress.
  • The view and outcome of professional learning are also very important to consider. Participants reported that they spend countless hours learning on their own only to learn that they cannot accept those hours in their monitoring system. Even while educators may have felt that their professional learning experience was valuable, it may steer educators away from engaging in authentic professional learning experiences in the future. When the focus is on requirements and compliance, the notion that learning is not expected to be meaningful is disheartening.
  • Professional learning must go beyond learning new academic programs or instructional strategies. An administrator reflected that there are several initiatives to support SEL for students in their district but little professional learning that is designed for the health of the staff. Rather, much of the PD is a requirement or is something that adds more responsibilities onto the plates of the educators. A teacher agreed that “teachers are stretched too thin these days, and many don’t even have the stamina to consider PD,” especially when it doesn’t meet their specific needs.

Educators today reflect how they can best improve their practice, learn about their students’ diverse needs, maintain positive mental health, and support one another as they contribute to the field. As an administrator shared, “PL [professional learning] keeps me rooted in my why. Not every educator feels compelled to engage in ongoing PL so I work hard to listen and find ways to offer meaningful opportunities or time.”

Educators want to engage in professional learning and want to continue to learn and improve their practice—as long as it is authentic and relevant to them and their students.

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Resources

Kirsten, N., Lindvall, J., Ryve, A., & Gustafsson, J. (2023). How effective is the professional development in which teachers typically participate? Quasi-experimental analyses of effects on student achievement based on TIMSS 2003–2019. Teaching and Teacher Education, 132. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X23002305

Furlong, D., & Spina, C. (2022). Holistic professional learning in times of crisis. In C.S

Thompson & Wilmot, A. (Eds.) Handbook of research on activating middle executives’ agency to lead and manage during times of crisis. (pp. 274-302).

Thanks to Denise and Carly for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What do educators want from professional development?

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.

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