What Does Professional Development for Teachers Entail?

Teachers should model lifelong learning for their students. Part of this process is to continuously grow academically and professionally. Teachers owe it to themselves and their students to focus on improving their craft. Education seems to evolve constantly (especially if you factor in the speed of technical change and the adaptations we had to make for COVID-19).

On the other hand, it is the responsibility of the leaders in the school or the district to ensure that the professional development provided to teachers is timely and relevant. This seems to be a given, but if you have been in education for any length of time, you have experienced at least one professional development where you ask yourself the age-old question, “what does this have to do with me?” School leaders have long wrestled with the problem of finding professional development that is not just simply “sit and get” and will be useful for their staff.

Benefits of Supporting Teacher-Led PD

School leaders need to let go. That sounds like a pretty simple concept, but most school leaders are Type A personalities which means that they like to have control. School leaders know that what happens in their schools and classrooms ultimately falls upon their shoulders so they feel the need to orchestrate things like professional development.

Teacher leaders, as a former school administrator, hear me out: trust your staff. You have to trust the teachers you hired to know what will benefit their learning and benefit the students in their classrooms. We espouse the merits of shared ownership in schools. Professional development is an opportunity to practice what you teach. If teachers are empowered to lead PD in their schools, they will gain ownership in the teaching and learning that occurs day-to-day in the school.

Not to mention that after a while, teachers tire from hearing PD coming from a top down approach. As a principal, I would conduct walkthroughs each week and when I observed a powerful practice in a classroom, I would circle back to that teacher and ask them to lead a faculty meeting or PD centered on what I had observed. Inevitably, when teachers led PD, I found that their fellow teachers would be more engaged and pay more attention because the people standing in front of the group was one of their own. These were the people in the classrooms facing the same challenges the audience faced, therefore lending more credibility to the PD. After the aforementioned PD, I found the best practices I had initially observed were more likely to spread throughout the school.

Teacher-led PD seemed to light a fire in the school because the school leader had demonstrated trust in the faculty and sent a message to the staff that we truly believed in building shared efficacy in the school. A teacher, or a group of teachers, delivering PD to the rest of the faculty invariably delivered the PD with more passion and enthusiasm because these teacher leaders were in the trenches with their colleagues and had more of an understanding and connection to their colleagues and the students they served. This is not to say that the teacher leaders stopped being the instructional leaders in the building, but they recognized the appropriate time to step to the side and let teachers lead teachers.

Ways to Support Teacher-Led Professional Development

Many administrators quite possibly recognize that powerful professional development starts with giving teachers the power to control their own professional development. The question is, “how do we start?” In the book Hacking Leadership by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis, the topic of adult passion projects is noted as one way to allow teachers to take control of their own professional development. “The passion project professional growth model allows people to choose topics and decide on a personalized learning plan” (Sanfelippo and Sinanis 108).

Teachers have the opportunity to reflect on their growth areas and decide their own professional growth goals that are tied to their individual classes. Teachers are given time to research the resources they need to accomplish their goals and then come back together as a collective to share their passion projects with one another as a whole group. School leaders find that many teachers have the same pedagogical goals and their needs are not isolated as previously believed.

Once a teacher, or a group of teachers, creates a goal and plan, they meet with administrators and present their plans. The plans must be tied to student growth, must be measurable, and must connect to the vision and mission of the school. This practice promotes collaboration among faculty members but also gives teachers the trust and freedom to tailor their professional development to their specific needs.

Another strategy to consider is to meet with individual teachers or groups of teachers during the school year to ask them how they want to improve their practice and what resources and/or PD those teachers need to accomplish their goals. Teachers just want the chance to voice what they deem important in the teaching and learning that occurs within the walls of the school. Committing time and resources to teachers and giving them an audience to learn about the needs of their students goes a long way to building a true sense of trust in the school community. Many times, PD is seen as something that is determined in the administrative suite and is seen as one more thing added to the already full plates of the teachers, but giving the staff a voice in their own learning is a powerful practice. In order to truly move a school forward, school leaders must listen to the needs of their teachers and then give the teachers the trust and resources to make those goals become reality.

Sanfelippo, Joe & Sinanis, Tony. Hacking Leadership: 10 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Learning That Teachers, Students, and Parents Love. Cleveland, Times 10 Publications, 2016.