Foster teacher knowledge and joy with evidence-based learning strategies.
It’s no secret that, among teachers, professional development doesn’t have the best reputation.
And I get it.
During my days as an 8th-grade math teacher, I sat through my share of boring or not-very-helpful PD.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, I’ve seen some truly stellar professional learning experiences in my time as Chief Services Officer at Carnegie Learning. The kind that’s actually productive, empowering teachers and reigniting their passion and purpose.
Here’s what Linda Darling Hammond's research summary tells us are the six most important components of effective professional learning. It’s the criteria we use when designing all our professional learning services, including The National Institutes.
1. Effective professional learning must be relevant and content-focused.
I still shudder a little when I think about the reading/writing workshop I attended as a math teacher. It could have been great—I would’ve loved to learn how to teach more literacy skills in my math class—but the workshop was clearly aimed at English teachers and thus not very helpful to me.
Teachers have zero time to waste, so professional learning should focus on teaching methods, strategies, and content specific to their classroom context. This means subject-specific learning for middle and high school teachers and grade-level learning for elementary school teachers.
PD for middle school math teachers should provide the opportunity to bust out uncooked spaghetti as they discuss best practices for teaching lines of best fit. Elementary teachers should be given time to explore Cuisenaire rods, pattern blocks, and strips to model fractions. And high school English teachers should practice analyzing poems and collaboratively draft discussion questions to drive student discourse.
These are just a few examples of what relevant, subject-specific professional learning could look like, but you get the point.
Whatever form it takes, when PD is connected to a teacher’s daily practice, it will have waaaay more impact.
2. Effective professional learning is active.
Teachers already know what countless studies confirm: active learning that honors student input is the most effective way to engage learners. According to Carnegie Mellon University, active learning “results in improved academic performance” because it “uses not only hands-on and minds-on approaches but also hearts-on ones.” Again and again, we hear that if we want to engage students, we must first involve them—holistically.
Teachers deserve the same high-quality learning experiences that students do. What’s more, how teachers learn is often more important than what they learn for the simple reason that we often teach the way we were taught.
Effective professional learning should model pedagogical approaches and let teachers repeatedly practice implementing them—not just provide content. This is why in our Learn by Doing® model, math teachers work through problems together, using the materials they will use with their students, be it patty paper or popsicle sticks. ELA teachers close read, discuss texts with each other, and experiment with new writing prompts.
I have heard some administrators say that they would like to give their teachers more active, hands-on learning, but they don’t feel like there is enough time, so they just lecture. I would counter that sit-and-get PD is so unproductive it’s not worth doing at all. If you don’t have the time to allow teachers to experience active learning in a workshop, it might be time to rethink your approach to professional learning.
3. Effective professional learning supports collaboration.
Professional learning is not something you do to teachers; it’s something you do with them.
Whatever the format, productive teacher PD must create safe spaces for educators to not only learn together but to share their joys and challenges. Any professional learning you facilitate needs to build in plenty of time for educators to talk, listen, and learn from each other.
Moreover, educators should feel empowered to create ongoing professional learning communities to observe each other’s classes, plan and troubleshoot together, and identify how they want to impact instruction and school culture.
4. Effective professional learning provides expert coaching and support.
Research shows that teachers usually only change their underlying beliefs about how to teach something after they’ve experienced success with that strategy in their own classroom with their own students.
Even when a teacher leaves a PD session completely pumped to try something new, if that particular lesson or technique doesn’t go great the first time, the teacher is likely to abandon the strategy or approach and go back to whatever they were doing before.
This is where the magic of job-embedded coaching comes in. When we support teachers as they implement newly learned strategies, they are less likely to give up when it isn’t perfect on their first try. When teachers have space in their own classroom to reflect on a lesson, diagnose missteps, and celebrate moments where they truly did knock it out of the park, they are way more likely to invest the time it takes to master a new strategy.
Some studies suggest that teachers need 50 hours of practice before feeling comfortable with a new technique, and the only way to get professional learning to stick is to get expert coaches into classrooms where the rubber meets the road.
On-site coaching and support help teachers feel confident implementing something new and refining and personalizing a lesson, approach, or technique until it becomes part of their practice. And when teachers can expand their toolboxes, they aren’t the only ones who benefit—students do too.
5. Effective professional learning offers space for reflection and feedback.
Almost any teacher will tell you that reflection is critical if they want to improve their teaching.
And, in the same breath, they will tell you that there is no time to reflect.
Generally speaking, teachers aren’t wrong about this, which is why reflection time—individually, in groups, and with a coach—should be built into your professional learning program.
What’s more, processes of giving, receiving, and incorporating feedback need to be standard components of professional learning.
6. Effective professional learning must be ongoing.
Professional learning is not a single event; it’s an ongoing process. And schools that create a culture of continuous learning will improve teachers’ sense of purpose, connectedness, and joy.
The single workshop model assumes that the problem teachers face is a lack of knowledge about best practices. If they are just told what to do, the thinking goes, their practices will change.
Of course, things are never that simple. In most cases, teachers already know best practices in theory.
So the greatest challenge teachers face is implementing newly learned strategies based on best practices. This implementation phase is where professional learning should be the most consistent and collaborative.
Of course, like so many other aspects of teaching, strong relationships are key to making ongoing support work. Coaches and other facilitators need to work hard to establish trust and rapport with teachers so there is no stress or friction during classroom visits, debriefs, or co-teaching.
Effective Professional Learning Is an Investment in Your People
Sometimes as a team leader, I get distracted by the work: the annual goals, the deadlines, the to-do lists.
And when this happens, I sometimes don’t devote enough time to my highest calling: the growth and development of the people under my care. None of those other things matter (or will be completed optimally) if I have not first invested in my team and ensured they find joy and purpose in their work and are equipped with the tools they need to excel.
And when I provide them with what they need—professional growth opportunities, safe spaces to practice new skills, and a collaborative work environment—they’ll rise to the challenges of the work.
Even when things get tough.
When done correctly, professional development is an investment with exponential returns.
Effective Professional Learning Really Can Spark Joy
At Carnegie Learning, we believe in educators.
We know they are creating the next generations of thinkers and change-makers. We always want educators to feel supported in the important work they do, which is why we provide personalized, ongoing professional learning experiences that inspire, empower, and honor all learners.
Want to learn more about building a professional development program that cultivates joy and retains teachers? Check out my free webinar, “Bring Back the Love of Teaching and Combat Burnout by Investing in Professional Learning.”
Happy viewing, and here’s to your teachers!
Kasey is a passionate leader striving to make a big impact on education across the country. She is an advocate for student thought and is driven to support educators as they create their own classrooms full of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.
As Chief Services Officer, Kasey is now living out her passion by leading the superb work of Carnegie Learning’s professional learning and tutoring groups in schools and districts across the US.
Before joining Carnegie Learning full-time in 2011, Kasey taught middle and high school mathematics for eight years and served as a mathematics consultant and coach for the largest educational cooperative in Kentucky.Explore more related to this author