It is heartening to see the number of articles and discussions that center on providing the best possible professional learning for teachers. Firstly, it is encouraging that professional learning is front and center on the agenda for many school leadership teams. Secondly, it is a positive development that teachers are being involved in giving school leaders feedback about the professional learning that they want or need. Even where there is little or no input is sought from teachers, there are a plethora of teacher-written articles or blog posts that articulate what teachers would like to see in professional learning.
Many articles are calling for professional learning from the ‘ground up’ and giving teachers more voice in their professional learning. Furthermore, there are initiatives such as EdCamp that support the movement of teacher-driven professional learning agendas. In reading, quite extensively, about the calls for greater teacher say in professional learning, there is particular frustration with a top-down approach to what teachers are being provided with and this is not what teachers want or need.
It is understandable, to a certain extent, that teachers may feel that some, or possibly all, the professional learning that they are provided with is a waste of time. There can be a number of reasons for this and here are a few that commonly surface:
- No reasoning is given for the professional learning and its importance of teachers’ attention to it. Teachers may not understand the purpose of the professional learning and how it relates to them.
- The professional learning presented to the teacher is yet another requirement, initiative or idea to think about in improving teaching and learning. Teachers can easily get frustrated by the number of initiatives or ideas thrown at them that they are either too overwhelmed to engage effectively. Alternatively, there is considerable frustration that they are not give the time to develop mastery in one or a few specific areas.
- Teachers may feel that the professional development given to them, or offered, does not meets their needs or wants. As Gabriel Diaz-Maggioli puts it, in her book Teacher-centered Professional Development: “Traditionally, professional development arrangements are made by administrators and consultants rather than teachers. By muffling the teachers’ voices and placing priority on administrative needs, these programs become a burden to professionals instead of a welcome solution to classroom problems.”
- There is little follow-up to the professional learning given. Teachers get frustrated, in a similar way to Point 2, as there is no further support for implementation of the learning. If a school-wide learning initiative receives no follow-up, how is it known whether the professional learning is being translated into action and how do we demonstrate the impact on student learning?
Based on the above, school leaders can certainly take action to improve professional learning in their schools. A good starting point is to better evaluate professional learning and adopt a backwards planning approach to its provision, as outlined by Thomas Guskey in the article ‘Does it make a difference? Evaluating Professional Development’.
While leadership teams in schools can always improve professional learning for their teachers, including providing more choice based on what teachers say they need and want, this can in itself cause problems, such as these below:
- The alignment of what some teachers want versus the vision and strategic direction of the school may differ. This can lead to a range of projects coming out of professional learning that they school may not be able to adequately fund and may depend on the interest of a few. More importantly, what teachers want may not match with the what the school board, leaders and parent community wants for its students. Issues related to this come from the fact that some teachers employed by a school may have little regard for its philosophy and approach to student learning.
- What some teachers want from professional learning may not necessarily what they need. There are teachers who do a great job of linking their professional teaching evaluations to their professional development. They are self-reflecting and self managed learners that understand how the evaluation and reflection process, if done well, links to professional goal setting. What’s more, many teachers are keen to learn new things to augment student learning in addition to the areas that may require their attention.
- On the other hand, we are only human. We have preferences for what we would like to do in the classroom and we may pursue these interests over other, perhaps, more important areas for professional growth that may have greater impact on student learning. For example, students in a school may be better served by their teachers attending a workshop on differentiated instruction rather than attending a workshop on digital storytelling, which is perhaps the teacher’s personal preference. Teachers pulling in several different directions based on preference, even while there is the intention to improve student learning, does not necessarily allow for coherent school improvement that supports student learning.
The crux of the issue, oftentimes, comes down to, who views themselves as the expert in terms of what is needed with professional development. Teachers may feel that school leaders do not know or understand what they need, while leaders may feel that teachers are not being supportive of the school vision and its priorities, whilst possibly ignoring important areas for improvement. To address this tension, we must work together to find a balance in the interest of putting our students first ahead of our differences.
Even more necessary is that school leaders must, if prescribing the professional learning that they want teachers to undertake, take part in that learning alongside their colleagues and be fully engaged in the learning journey with them. A leaders commitment to action in this regard is shown to have the biggest impact on improving a school and learning.
Dìaz-Maggioli. Gabriel. (2004). Teacher-centered Professional Development. ASCD press. ISBN-10: 0-87120-859-8.