Teaching Profession

Putting the ‘Professional’ Back in Teacher Professional Development

By Madeline Will — October 22, 2019 4 min read
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Teachers are the experts of the classroom, educators agreed at a recent forum. So why aren’t they leading most professional development?

Empowering educators so they can take charge of their own learning was the focus of two panel discussions on Monday, which were sponsored by the Learning Policy Institute, the two national teachers’ unions, and Learning Forward, a professional-learning membership organization.

The traditional narrative of professional development is “an expert from out of state who comes in and tells us how to do our job,” said Cecilia Pattee, a teacher-consultant with the Boise State University Writing Project, on the panel. “We have to change that narrative. ... PD is not a bad word, it can be good.”

See also: What Do Teachers Really Want From Professional Development? Respect

In connection with the panel discussions, the Learning Policy Institute released a report on California’s Instructional Leadership Corps, a teacher-led professional learning project launched in 2014 by the state teachers’ union, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center. Expert teachers and school leaders are trained to lead ongoing professional development to their peers, both within their own districts and their broader region.

Before participating in the Instructional Leadership Corps, “we struggled with professional development all the time,” Angela Hillery Stegall, the president of the local teachers’ union in Marysville, Calif., said on the panel.

One-and-done workshops weren’t meaningful, she said, and teachers felt like they weren’t given input into their own professional learning. Teachers were “sick and tired of the cafeteria-style [professional development]: Take a scoop of this, take a scoop of that, move down the line, and we’ll never see it again,” Stegall said.

Now, she said, the ILC model “allows teachers to reclaim their rightful role as professionals.”

Five Takeaways from Teacher-Led Professional Development

Researchers at the Learning Policy Institute studied the work of four ILC teams. Here are five key lessons from the teacher-led professional development in California, which were echoed by panelists from across the country:

1. As Monica Goldson, the chief executive officer of Prince George’s County schools in Maryland, put it: “Teachers want to learn from their colleagues. They don’t necessarily want to learn from paid speakers from vendors.” In her district, she said, teachers can go on “learning walks” to see their peers teaching. To make this possible, the district pays for substitutes to release teachers from their classroom duties.

In California, teachers who received training from ILC told researchers they appreciated that their colleagues understood the local context and the unique needs of their students.

2. Being a teacher-leader increases one’s sense of professional efficacy. ILC teacher-leaders told researchers that they had developed leadership skills and built professional relationships when they were tasked with leading professional development.

After all, teacher-leaders are given the opportunity to showcase their instructional expertise. Peggy Brookins, the president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, pointed to research that shows that students who are taught by teachers who have been mentored by National Board-certified teachers had a higher level of achievement than their peers whose teachers had not received this mentoring. The difference translates to six and a half months of additional learning.

3. School districts must create structures for teacher collaboration and professional development to effect real change. “If you’re just hanging around with your friends, it’s going to turn into a venting solution with no end and no solution,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. “It really has to be something structured.”

And American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the biggest challenges to maintaining an effective professional development program is “time, funding, and making it a priority.” Many teachers have never visited a colleague’s classroom, she said.

Researchers said a key structural change in California districts with the Instructional Leadership Corps is granting time and opportunity for professional collaboration. Teachers and teacher-leaders need time to plan lessons, observe each other’s classrooms, analyze student work, and reflect on their instruction.

4. To create lasting changes in pedagogy, professional development shouldn’t be “one and done.” Ideally, researchers said, teachers can improve their practice over the course of several sessions or workshops with their coaches. Follow-ups can consist of teacher self-reports, reflections, and samples of student work.

Panelists agreed that a big obstacle to implementing meaningful professional development is securing enough time for real change to take place.

“We’re in the microwave age—we believe everything should take one minute,” Goldson said. “We get money from our elected officials, and they expect change to happen by the next session. ... It doesn’t happen overnight.”

5. Teacher-leaders get the best results when they build a wide range of relationships. Researchers pointed to opportunities for partnerships with district administrators, teachers’ unions, county offices of education, universities, and philanthropic organizations.

For more on making professional development meaningful, see Education Week’s special report on PD blindspots, and register for a free virtual summit on Oct. 24 to discuss professional learning with expert guests.

Image: Jessica Smith, a 2nd grade teacher at Birney Elementary School in Long Beach, Calif., participates in group discussions during a professional-development session. —Meg Oliphant for Education Week-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.