Professional development is at its best when it’s practical, collaborative, and discipline-specific.
Hey, district leaders, principals, and administrators, it’s quiz time!
What’s the single most important influencer of student achievement?
A. Schools with 3D printers
B. High-quality teachers who are confident in their pedagogy, content knowledge, and classroom management
C. Active participation in extracurriculars
D. Friday afternoon pizza parties
Easy, right? While 3D printers, extracurriculars, and ample pizza can be great add-ons, research shows that teacher quality has an incalculable impact on students, academically and emotionally.
We’re guessing you already knew this, so here’s a more challenging question.
One of the most effective ways to build and support high-quality teaching in your school or district is to:
A. Require teachers to submit weekly lesson plans.
B. Invest in meaningful and ongoing professional development for all teachers.
C. Give teachers more time off.
D. Let teachers have extra pizza at those Friday parties.
Did you choose B? If so, you’re two for two. You already know that professional development is a crucial investment in your people, school, district, and students.
But what’s the best way to deliver meaningful professional learning that will genuinely assist your teachers in honing their craft and positively impacting their students?
Best Practices for Professional Development for Teachers
According to the Learning Policy Institute, for professional learning to be effective, it needs to meet specific criteria. With a whopping 90% of teachers reporting that the professional development they’ve attended is not helpful, it’s an excellent time to learn more about what ideal professional learning looks like.
As you select or develop professional learning experiences for your staff, seek these four characteristics that research has found are key to effective teacher learning.
1. Professional Learning Should Respect Teacher Autonomy
Most teachers have attended more than their fair share of “sit-and-get” sessions, and they’ve probably forgotten most of them. Attending ineffectual professional development is like eating at a fancy restaurant and going home hungry. You know you were supposed to gain something memorable from the experience, but you leave unsatisfied. Teachers are an active, passionate, and collaborative bunch, and professional learning should cater to this by recognizing teacher agency and autonomy. Just as we want students to take responsibility for and have some control over their learning, the same is true for teachers.
According to a study published by the British Educational Research Association, teacher autonomy and agency positively correlate with their engagement and motivation in the classroom. For professional learning to stick, teachers need to feel trusted and respected while being given the space to troubleshoot their own challenges and formulate their own solutions.
2. Professional Development Should Help Teachers Implement New Strategies
According to The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, if teachers don't implement a new technique within 90 days of learning it, the likelihood of doing so plummets. This is particularly true of newer teachers, although it also applies to veteran teachers.
The truth is, you can help teachers identify new classroom strategies and approaches all day long, but if you don’t support them during implementation, even the best professional learning will likely remain unused. Strong professional development moves from theory to practice quickly.
Think of it like this: when teachers leave a professional learning session knowing how to implement the techniques they’ve just learned, it’s like leaving the grocery store with the ingredients you will use to make dinner that night. That’s a different experience than leaving with a bag full of unfamiliar food you’re not sure how to cook. That food is much more likely to languish on the shelf.
3. Professional Learning Should Use Educational Best Practices
So much professional development does not employ educational best practices. And it’s not like teachers won’t notice this. They’re teachers!
We are told to engage our students through active learning, get them moving and talking to one another, and put them in the driver’s seat in our classrooms.
And then we’re asked to sit and listen to a lecture for three straight days. It makes no sense.
Research from Head Start tells us that teaching students multiple approaches by asking them to talk to and listen to each other is valuable, and teachers need to experience this too. Collaboration in professional learning that surfaces multiple approaches helps teachers understand that their best classroom practice is one where they can bring their whole selves with them–and where they have the support of knowledgeable colleagues.
Plus, the more flexible professional learning is, the more likely a teacher will find something in it that they can actually use. If I left a professional development session thinking, “well, that exact technique probably wouldn’t work with the way my class is structured, but here’s what I could do instead,” I’d call that a successful learning experience.
4. Professional Development Should Be Specific to Discipline and Grade Level
As an English teacher, I shared an office with the same colleague for ten years. A few months before every scheduled professional development day, we would brainstorm what we wanted the day to look like and put in the appropriate requests. We wanted to learn how to improve student writing, how to make older texts exciting and relevant, how to give helpful feedback that was not overwhelming, and so on. We scoured the web looking for people and programs to teach us, even citing experts at local colleges and universities that wouldn’t have to travel too far.
Every time, for ten years, our requests for discipline-specific professional learning were denied in favor of more general all-school initiatives. It was demoralizing.
According to research published in the journal Teacher Development, the best professional development addresses the specific challenges and opportunities of a teacher’s discipline and grade level. While some aspects of teaching are universal, a math teacher's daily tasks and challenges vary from those of an ELA teacher, and effective professional development should cater to these differences.
Discipline- and grade-specific professional learning is not only good for building effective pedagogy and curriculum; it also lets teachers deepen content knowledge which will boost their confidence, build morale, and ultimately improve student outcomes.
Learn By Doing® at Professional Learning Academies
One professional learning service with all four of the above characteristics is the Professional Learning Academies. These immersive, multi-day workshops for K-12 math and literacy educators deliver a Learning By Doing® environment where teachers receive content development and pedagogical strategies to amplify their impact in the classroom.
Professional learning isn’t something you do to your teachers. It’s something you do with them.
We wouldn't have it any other way.
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author
Teachers are an active, passionate, and collaborative bunch, and professional learning should cater to this by recognizing teacher agency and autonomy.
-Emily Anderson, PhD