Boosting the Potential of Professional Development

Principals often have the final say in what types of professional learning school staff receive and which teachers get to attend professional development (PD) events off campus. We know some forms of professional learning opportunities, such as coaching, peer observation, or book studies, are crucial elements of a continuous improvement plan. However, sending teachers to a one-shot, off-campus professional development event that is not clearly connected to school improvement goals can be like taking a shot of tequila: You know little good will come of it, but you occasionally find yourself doing it anyway. When principals want to maximize professional development resources, they will establish expectations for selecting PD events that support a larger school improvement plan and work with staff members who attend PD events to implement new knowledge and skills on campus.

PD Without Intention Is a Definite No-No

So what if a PD event is just an event—an all-expenses-paid trip for some hardworking, deserving teachers to participate in professional discourse? Maybe you have money in the budget for professional development (but not for salary increases), and sending your best teachers to a national or regional conference is a way to reward them for their service to your students. What happens when these teachers return to campus and actually want to implement what they have learned, and your school is not ready for such changes? Sending staff to a conference and then telling them that the ideas they bring back are not a priority or cannot be realistically implemented can cause frustration among your teachers.

Additionally, when the teachers who are not selected to attend external events see no changes resulting from others attending, resentment can be a roadblock to your school improvement efforts. School culture can be tainted when members of a learning community do not see a shared benefit of investment in PD, or if they sense favoritism because there is no accountability for the staff members who are selected to attend external PD events.

Plan Before Implementing

Before signing off on the expenses for a short conference or seminar, consider whether what the staff will learn is sufficiently aligned with the school or district goals and whether it can realistically be applied in the school setting. Some schools only require teachers who are applying for professional development funds to show how the themes of the event are relevant to the individual teacher’s job. Rather than ensuring that a PD event can help the individual teacher or group of teachers attending the event, it makes more sense for the principal to evaluate how having teachers attend the event can benefit the whole school.

Gather as much relevant information as possible before you decide to send staff to an external PD event; it can assist you in determining whether the school can support the teachers’ implementation of new learning or skills. Consider whether there are any district or school policies that would limit the implementation of the new learning. Gathering this information up front will prevent you from wasting resources, like sending staff to learn about a new assistive technology program only to find that the district’s IT policy will not allow certain programs to be installed on district devices.

A useful tool for evaluating your school’s need for and ability to implement a new practice or program is the National Implementation Research Network’s Hexagon Tool. This tool can help in implementation planning as well as determining whether a proposed PD event fits your systems and current needs. To make more intentional decisions about how professional development resources are spent, gather as much information as you can about the event, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Why do we need this? How does this tie into the teacher evaluation plan?
  • Does it fit with our current initiatives?
  • Do we have the resources, such as coaching, staff, time, materials, and money to support implementation?
  • What tangible outcomes are desired by attending this type of professional development?
  • What types of improvement will we see in instructional practice and student achievement?

If you cannot make a strong connection between the content advertised in the event literature and your school’s goals and capacity for change, then the event may not be worth the investment.

Tool for Capacity-Building

Sending staff to an external event without follow-up expectations is not only a waste of resources, it is a waste of opportunity for distributed leadership (or “parallel leadership”) in which teacher leaders and principals work together to build school capacity. Teachers who represent your school at conferences and seminars can lead professional learning communities, facilitate internal professional learning, and help to build a knowledge base at your school from which every teacher can benefit. They can be masters of new practices and promote shared pedagogical approaches—approaches that are aligned with school improvement goals—by teaching other teachers about them.

Post-event requirements should be well-defined prior to attendance. Requirements should go beyond giving a generic five-minute recap at a staff meeting. Teachers should be expected to truly help build colleagues’ capacity to use the new practices for improvement by leading a workshop, conducting a collaborative lesson study, or implementing a peer coaching relationship. Another way to build capacity in your school is to establish a professional knowledge base, or a “repository of knowledge” where teachers can archive their learning from professional development so that other teachers (and students) can benefit from it. More ambitious teachers might write about applying the new practices and submit the text for publication or post it on education networking sites so that they can share their expertise with colleagues.

Principal Support After the Event

Principals hold some responsibility that the content and skills teachers learned will be implemented after the PD event. To help teachers implement the new learning, think about what organizational supports will be needed. Thomas Guskey’s book, Evaluating Professional Development, is a useful resource even for small-scale implementation of professional development. Planning for evaluating your staff’s use of new knowledge and skills can help to ensure that the knowledge teachers bring back from PD events will lead to changes in teacher behaviors and ultimately changes in student achievement.

After selected teachers participate in an external PD event, work with them to create implementation goals for themselves and for the teachers that they will lead. Then schedule time to periodically meet with them to discuss how the implementation is progressing. Identify any potential roadblocks that might interfere so you can be proactive in addressing them, and then periodically meet to discuss additional problems that occur during the implementation of the new skills and the capacity-building activities with other teachers. Keeping open lines of communication with the teacher leaders can help with addressing problems quickly and effectively, and it also provides time for the teacher leaders to share any successes in implementation.

To help school staff be as effective as possible in improving student learning, principals can provide them with more targeted professional development opportunities that are well-aligned with a larger school improvement plan. Establishing post-event expectations and guiding staff in knowledge sharing on your campus will help maximize PD resources and create a culture of continual learning toward common goals among your staff.


Oran Tkatchov is a former teacher, school administrator, and director of professional development in the areas of special education and school improvement at the Arizona Department of Education. He is a co-author of Success for Every Student—A Guide to Teaching and Learning, and he currently supports professional learning at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. Mary Tkatchov is an assessment developer for the Teachers College at Western Governors University with more than 15 years of experience in secondary and higher education.


To Learn More …

Check out these resources:

  • Blase, K., Kiser, L., & Van Dyke, M. (2013). The Hexagon Tool: Exploring Context. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Bradley, J.T. (2015). Designing Schools for Meaningful Professional Learning: A Guidebook for Educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Crowther, F., Ferguson, M., & Hann, L. (2009). Developing Teacher Leaders (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Guskey, T.R. (1999). Evaluating Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Mizell, H. (2010). Why Professional Development Matters. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.