As a school leader, your job is to promote learning for all of your students. Most educators agree that the quality of a school’s teachers is the key variable in determining the learning that happens within the school. But for students to learn, teachers must be learning, too. And that is where we see a disconnect – many American teachers simply are not getting the professional development that they want and need in order to help their students learn.

According to research from the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) – recently renamed as Learning Forward – and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), American teachers attend workshops and other short-term professional development activities in similar numbers to teachers in other nations. However, when it comes to longer-term professional development and ongoing collaborative time within their schools, American teachers sadly are lacking. In fact, teachers in some higher achieving countries have five times the number of hours per week for collaborative planning and learning than their American peers. Why does this matter? Well, it turns out that the most effective forms of professional development for teachers involve extended learning opportunities and collaborative work with colleagues. As per the NSDC/SCOPE research:

Those opportunities allow teachers to work together on instructional planning, learn from one another through mentoring or peer coaching, conduct research on the outcomes of classroom practices and collectively guide curriculum, assessment and professional learning decisions.

So how can you give your teachers the kind of professional development that will promote student learning? That is a complicated question, but two parts of the answer can include professional learning communities and job-embedded professional development.

Professional learning communities promote collaboration and a team approach, and can be useful in any professional field. The main components of a professional learning community are:

  • Shared leadership
  • Shared creativity, values and vision
  • Shared and supportive practice

Within a school environment, professional leadership communities involve teachers working in teams, sharing resources, sharing questions and answers, and sharing responsibility for teaching all of the school’s students. Teachers observe each other’s classrooms, collaboratively plan and problem-solve, and make it a priority to support one another. As opposed to the more traditional notion of a school where the doors of every classroom are literally and metaphorically closed, schools built around professional learning communities turn collaboration into the everyday norm. Some of the many benefits of the professional learning community model include:

  • Teachers are in a constant state of self-improvement because of their intensive ongoing work with their peers; as a result, their content knowledge and pedagogical skills improve and they are better able to differentiate their instruction (since they are always considering the teaching and learning of all the school’s students)
  • Teachers are more likely to buy into the school’s shared vision and culture because they are working each day not as isolated agents, but as members of a larger school community concerned with the learning of all of the school’s students
  • Teacher morale and job satisfaction greatly improve, leading to better performance by the teachers and the students

If you are used to thinking of professional development as a one-shot workshop on a predetermined topic that may or may not be supported by data analysis, the idea of a professional learning community as professional development may be new to you. But it can greatly improve the teaching in your school, especially when it is combined with…

Job-Embedded Professional Development

Not surprisingly, job-embedded professional development (JEPD) centers on teacher learning while on their particular job. It focuses on the specific content, the students and the resources that the teacher works with everyday. Because the PD is so specific to the particular teachers involved, it is differentiated to meet the needs of those teachers. While JEPD may build upon additional, more theoretical professional development, it is ultimately all about the here and now and usually takes place at the school – and often in the classroom – where the teacher teaches.

Some of the forms that JEPD can take include:

•   Action research
•   Critical friends group
•   Lesson study
•   Peer coaching
•   Mentoring
•   Study groups

JEPD can happen across departments, grade levels or any other variable that makes sense in terms of the school’s PD goals. It almost always entails at least two professionals working together over an ongoing period of time within the school setting.

One of the key elements in many kinds of JEPD – particularly coaching and mentoring – is the role of the facilitator. The facilitator could be the principal or another school administrator, a department head or even another teacher. While the facilitator clearly has to have a deep knowledge of the school and the particular content area and grade level, it is also essential that they have a firm grasp of adult learning principles as well as excellent interpersonal and assessment skills. Because of this, JEPD facilitators should receive professional development of their own to support their efforts to become effective facilitators.

Professional learning communities and JEPD can both promote professional growth and collaboration, and are budget-friendly in the sense that they typically happen on-site and involve people who are already part of the school’s staff. They do require time, though, and plenty of leadership. You can learn more about your role in the professional development at your school here.

Learning for all of your students

The NSDC/SCORE research indicates that only 42% of teachers received professional development on teaching students with disabilities and 27% received PD on teaching English language learners. If you want to promote learning for all of your students, you need to ensure that your teachers know how to teach all of your students.
Critical Issues: Finding Time for Professional Development

Redefining  Professional Development

“Professional development can no longer be viewed as an event that occurs on a particular day of the school year; rather, it must become part of the daily work life of educators.”   NCREL

Differentiated Lessons Plans

Maryland teachers and related service providers have differentiated existing general education English Language Arts and Math lesson plans from Maryland Blackboard Learn. These model lessons aligned the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC) Core Content Connectors with the Maryland College and Career Ready Standards (MCCRS). These resources are available to members of the Special Education Leaders in Maryland Community of Practice.