Essential questions that need answering when determining the professional learning that teachers should receive

Where should schools start when determining how they are going to spend their available funds on professional learning for their teachers and who makes such a decision?

This question needs to be addressed each and every year as part of a school’s planning cycle, so that it gets the best out of the resources that are allocated towards professional learning. The decision-making part is hugely important. Do decisions rest with one person, multiple individuals, or a committee? This needs to be carefully thought through. If decisions rest with one person, there are pro’s and con’s to such an approach. There is the danger that they can become isolated, as arguments can emerge about who gets what professional development. If there are a number of people making individual decisions about professional learning, there is a chance that they may not be pulling together in one direction in the best interests of the school. Teachers may also expose the fact that these individuals may not be aligned or consistent in there approach, which creates significant problems for the decision-makers to deal with when it comes to allocating the professional learning resources. I believe committees are a better way to go in terms of setting direction but bringing a committee together for every decision that is made with regard to professional learning may be an unnecessary use of time that could be spent elsewhere. A balance of committee and appointed decision-makers is the probably the better way to go.

Once the decision-makers are clearly identified, it is absolutely vital that the processes for decision-making are outlined and communicated to all stakeholders on multiple occasions throughout an academic year. It may not always be possible to have a black and white, super-clear, decision-making process but school leaders can still be transparent, especially in terms of highlighting to teachers where the grey areas lie. Transparency is essential when it comes to things that really matter to teachers such as professional learning; a high level of communication and transparency can keep a lid on the rumour mill and the development of cynicism among the teaching team.

There will, however, always be a tension in the building when it comes to professional learning. Decision-makers will wrestle with teachers in terms of what the actual professional learning needs are. Teachers complain of top-down decisions when it comes to professional learning yet school leaders complain about the areas of student need that teachers fail to address. So, where do we start?

Good professional learning decisions in schools are tied to the school’s overall planning process whether that be long-term strategic planning or more short-term annual goal setting. That said, if the school’s planning process does not focus enough on student needs, then things get more difficult when it comes to integrating planning for professional learning. The fact of the matter, however, remains in that professional learning decisions should be driven by what students need from their teacher(s). This leads to a questions that school leaders must consider within the context of their own schools:

Do teacher professional learning requests reflect the highest needs of their students?

Note that I have deliberately added the words ‘highest needs’ to this question rather than just ‘needs’. Anyone can justify that they should receive professional learning based on a need and we know that there are multiple needs within a classroom but some needs are more important than others. If the above question is not considered, then a school is in grave danger of allowing its teachers to avoid the most important work that needs to be done to support its students. For example, if a school has a high number of students for whom English is the second or additional language and teachers do not spend time developing professionally in mastering pedagogical approaches that support these students in favour of other less important professional learning, then it really is avoiding a significant need and doing its students a disservice.

Herein lies the tension. The school leaders making the decisions around professional learning may be seeing a need that their teachers are not. Conversations, therefore, need to take place between school leaders and teachers, informed by evidence, so that appropriate decisions can take place. Many teachers, on the other hand, may argue with school leaders that they know what they and their students need, and school leaders should support their request to attend professional learning. This, however, has a problematic assumption in that we then assume a teacher has the expertise to know exactly what they need, which is many instances they do not because the decision-making is not evidence based enough. School leaders must challenge teachers to show, in detail, the evidence of highest need. Exceptions to this may be training that enables teachers to be more productive and / or efficient in what they do e.g. IT skills training to perform their role.

Ultimately, for school’s to make better decisions about professional learning, there is a need for more teacher feedback; to encourage teachers to look more closely at what are the priorities in there classroom drawn from evidence of student learning. This involves taking the time to have significant conversations, which should start with a teacher’s own self-assessment of their practice against what the key goals of the school may be.

 

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