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Seven Deadly Sins in Professional Learning

Professional Growth

If engaging, collaborative, relevant-to-classroom-needs learning opportunities represent the best of what professional learning can do for teacher growth, there’s also a flip side. Everyone decries those stay-for-two-hours-after-school-and-sit-in-a-large-room-and-passively-listen workshops.

Still, most teachers are quite familiar with well-intentioned learning experiences that fail to address their needs.

What’s the solution? That’s a question no single post can hope to cover adequately. But for starters, here are seven deadly sins in professional learning to steer clear of.

1. Ignoring your teachers.

Teachers are the “boots on the ground” in your school district. More than anyone, they have their finger on the pulse of the student body, they look at the data and know the student needs in their particular building, and they know the areas where they need to grow as educators.

Teachers benefit from being able to propose topics and learning approaches for their own professional growth. When they have a say in what and how they learn, they’ll respond with greater engagement than they will to a top-down approach that mandates topics and specific classes for everyone throughout the district.

Professional development is often more about connecting resources and enabling teacher-driven professional growth than about telling people what their PD should look like. And not only each teacher, but each building likely has different needs as well. The larger the district, the more important it is to take a targeted approach to professional learning.

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2. Overlooking in-house expertise.

Encouraging educators to lead and facilitate professional learning opportunities will naturally draw teachers into the process. While some may not initially love the idea of standing in front of a room full of their peers, it can be an empowering experience — even for those who are hesitant at first.

Most educators are already skilled at teaching. That’s a skill that can be put to use in professional learning and is often much more effective than bringing in an outside person.

For districts that are trying to stretch budgets — and who isn’t? — using in-house talent just makes sense. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience already under your roof. As long as you’re modeling good teaching and learning practices, that’s going to lead to effective professional learning.

3. Anemic support.

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics are striking. The 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) found that people who received active support (think release time from teaching, receiving education credits, being reimbursed for fees, travel or tuition, receiving stipends, etc.) from their organization were far more likely to voluntarily participate in professional learning than those who received no support.

The 2018 TALIS findings were related to these. In that survey, among the biggest barriers to participation in professional development were:

    • Conflicts with the teacher’s work schedule
    • No incentives for participation
    • Lack of employer support
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4. Not setting quantitative goals for each building.

Consider asking every school to provide a certain number of hours of professional learning per month. This can take the form of faculty meetings, PLCs, after-school professional development and full faculty in-service days, as well as instructional coaching.

Let’s say you set a goal for each school to offer 20 hours of professional learning per month. That’s a high bar to reach, and not every school may meet it. But you will likely still see a dramatic increase in the amount of learning opportunities offered. Simply making an intentional effort to increase and measure the amount of professional learning time for teachers will have an effect.

Giving schools this responsibility can also contribute to each building’s autonomy, especially if instructional leadership teams that are comprised of teachers are tasked with planning learning opportunities that teachers want, need and request.

5. Working without a map.

“If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” – Zig Ziglar

Backward design isn’t a new concept for you. What are your desired outcomes? Student achievement is probably at the top of your list. And while teacher quality correlates to student outcomes and sets the stage for students to thrive, in professional learning it’s better to focus your outcomes on teachers developing specific qualities or capabilities that have been shown to be supportive of student achievement.

Additionally, your district probably already has specific initiatives and desired outcomes. So how do you support these goals as well as offer learning that teachers need and want? One way is to slice up the pie of a teacher’s professional development to give time to each of these. If teachers are responsible for participating in 30 hours of PD each year, you might consider setting guidelines like this:

6. Disregarding short-term needs.

Anyone who is close to a teacher has seen the demands of the job. Educators are already working long hours, grading papers at night and planning lessons for the next day. Even when teachers are fully invested in professional learning opportunities, it’s critical to offer valuable learning that is applicable to their classroom immediately.

Professional learning that’s not relevant to what teachers face here/now/tomorrow/this week? That can simply be overwhelming.

7. Neglecting to track impact.

It’s vital to make it simple for teachers to craft their own professional learning plans to help them meet their defined goals and address their needs. Online professional learning management systems can provide catalogs of filtered professional learning opportunities, allow teachers to give feedback on what they’ve learned, and reflect on their learning and craft action plans. Districts can use all of this information to help determine what professional learning opportunities to offer in the future, and tailor already in-progress learning experiences to maximize learning.

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Professional learning is an ongoing process.

To be sure, there is no “we’ve arrived!” moment with professional learning. Avoiding these seven “deadly sins” isn’t a guarantee of success. But approaching the work as a community of learners — not a top-down power structure — is a crucial step toward greater engagement, greater effectiveness and greater impact.

Ryan Estes

Ryan is managing editor for the global award-winning creative team at Frontline Education. He spends his time writing, podcasting, and creating content for leaders in K-12 education.