The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the need for effective professional learning (PL) or professional development. Offering professional learning experiences is education’s “go-to” strategy for implementing change initiatives—the United States spends $18 billion each year on PL for teachers, according to Education Next. As former district leaders and consultants, we are at the forefront of supporting these efforts, partnering with districts to assist in planning and implementing PL with the goal of promoting shifts in professional practice.
The pandemic has accelerated our urgency to ensure that the good intentions of districts’ efforts in professional learning ultimately impact teachers’ professional practice and student learning.
We have asked ourselves: Have students and teachers received a return on the large investment of time and financial resources for PL? Has student learning been impacted? Our experiences show that it is what happens after the professional learning that matters. Because there is not a clear set of expectations, support, and accountability for administrators and teachers, most PL ends with few implemented strategies. Districts plan PL sessions with a clear purpose, but many fall short of actualizing the desired change. We have learned that the follow-up collaborative learning process of the school leader is critical to transform practice and performance.
Prior to embarking upon any PL, a leader must self-reflect. Consider the following questions so there is clarity of purpose and stakeholder involvement resulting in a plan for high-quality PL. Understanding the context of a school is vital to forming a personalized plan that meets the individual and collective needs of leaders and teachers.
- Does the leader have a clear vision that is communicated and shared with teachers and the leadership team?
- Are the identified instructional priorities aligned to the vision and communicated?
- Are professional learning structures and planning time of teachers available and flexible to meet the identified goals?
- Are leaders and teachers clear about their roles in achieving the goals?
- Does a culture of learning and continuous improvement exist in the school?
- Does the Board of Education support the identified goals?
Coupled with self-reflection, our partnerships reveal the following four essential areas that matter most in transforming professional practice and impacting student achievement.
Qualities Necessary for Transformation
1. High-quality PL must be connected to the vision and goals identified for the school or district. It includes identifying and communicating clear learning targets for teachers. Clear learning targets ensure that teachers know what they will learn, how it connects to their daily work with students, and why it is important to learn the identified content and skills. Teachers, like all learners, need models of what the learning looks like as it is implemented in classrooms. The PL should include opportunities for teacher engagement and provide models from which teachers can plan for their students. Within the PL experience, connections to lesson design must be reinforced, given the importance of instructional purpose and focus to meet the needs of students participating in various learning environments—in-person, hybrid, or fully online—synchronous and asynchronous.
Importantly, school leaders are the chief learners and should model engaged thinking during professional learning opportunities. Leaders must attend professional development as active participants and collaborators. In this way, leaders cultivate collaboration within a continuous learning context, the use of common language, and support beyond the initial learning experience. Then they can reinforce their vision and monitor progress toward shared goals.
2. Follow-up support to faculty communicates the importance of the investment in sustaining professional capacity as new learning is practiced and applied in the classroom. Follow-up sends the same message to teachers that we want teachers to send to students: It is through guided practice that we learn to build our capacity to effectively use our new strategies. It communicates the message that the work is important, and that they are supported. Instructional coaches, consistent modeling in faculty meetings, and nonevaluative feedback from administrators support teacher risk-taking and allow educators to practice implementing new strategies.
We find value in teachers visiting colleagues’ classrooms. Teachers who are skilled practitioners and are willing to open their classrooms as a “demonstration” of sorts work to share their practice with colleagues. Such visits have shown great promise in the schools we have worked in because they offer avenues for teachers to receive feedback. This feedback must affirm their practice and deepen the implementation of professional learning—steps that are sometimes missing when turning PL into professional practice.
3. Systems of accountability for learning are in place for students through regular checks for understanding, formative and summative assessment, and authentic tasks. As leaders, we need to establish systems of accountability for ourselves and our faculty. Leaders with whom we partner clearly communicate the expectations and alignment to the school and district vision. They also develop systems to regularly support and monitor the implementation of professional learning, particularly through consistent classroom visits that include the recursive feedback cycle so that they see both cultural and technical changes to instructional practice. We include teachers in the development and sharing of the tools and expectations for these systems of visitation and feedback. We feed the culture of continuous learning and collaboration using supervisory (nonevaluative) classroom walkthroughs of 10–20 minutes followed by handwritten notes, use of a specific tool, or emailed feedback that is crafted to affirm, advance, and refine teacher practice. These practices exist in schools where the collective agency of adults impacts everyone’s learning.
4. Practicing a growth mindset among adult learners is the heart of this work and may be the most necessary element for the transformation of PL into practice. As a profession, we have worked diligently to encourage and teach our students to develop and exercise a growth mindset. Have we expected the same of ourselves as adult learners? Too often, PL can be viewed as taking teachers away from the “real” work. Choice is important within the content and practice of the PL. The choice, however, is not about whether to implement the PL or change the practice. Leaders who model a growth mindset for teachers—and teachers who model it for students—set up the conditions for success. A growth mindset allows for risk-taking, failure, and ultimately successful implementation of new instructional approaches that are responsive to students’ needs. It promotes a culture of professional respect as colleagues share with one another how they have undertaken new practices and the results of doing so.
The challenge presented during the pandemic—to ensure high-quality, responsive instruction in different environments using new tools—has increased the need for more and different professional learning. Our goal is to encourage leaders to reflect on the culture and conditions that exist within their school to better plan their next steps in PL and their integral role in it. We want to lead PL that makes a difference moving forward. These qualities allow schools to realize a better return on their time and financial investment. What is done between PL cycles to foster the conditions that support change in practice is the difference that will make professional learning stick.
Tamara Lipke, EdD, is an assistant professor in Educational Leadership at SUNY Oswego in Oswego, NY. Jan Lutterbein is a consultant with Lutterbein Consulting LLC in Rochester, NY. Cindy Rice is a school coach at EL Education in Rochester, NY.
Sidebar: Building RanksTM Connections
Dimension: Reflection and Growth
Strategy 4: Supporting staff members and students in reflecting on practice and feedback. Supporting reflection and collective understanding of individual strengths and areas for improvement can result in an environment receptive to feedback. When you make an effort to get to know your staff members’ work styles and personalities and demonstrate that you value staff members for who they are, you help create the conditions for them to seek and reflect on feedback from instructional leaders and peers. When teachers reflect on their own decisions, action, and growth, they are also more likely to lead classrooms that foster students’ own individual reflection and metacognition. As a principal, you can also explicitly train staff members on delivering and receiving feedback—skills they can use with one another and with students. When staff members are comfortable receiving feedback and reflecting on how to improve their practice, they are not only able to improve their own practice; they are also better equipped to foster student reflection that furthers student learning.
Reflection and Growth is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.