Professional Growth

From Staff Development to Professional Development to Professional Learning

6 min. read

My daughters are attending new schools this year, so I’ve been a nervous dad the past few weeks. How will they do? Will they make friends quickly? Will they learn and grow like we hope?

In the whirlwind of back-to-school ice cream nights and coupon book fundraisers, our family still manages to carve out time to talk. My favorite question: “Tell me one thing about your day at school that I didn’t already know.” It leads to some great conversations.

Every year I’m struck by what my kids are learning, the projects they’re working on, how chock-full their brains are becoming. It’s a lesson in humility: they know things now that I don’t. My kids are impressive. ← (dad brag, sorry) And it’s increasingly clear: their teachers are impressive.

That’s partly because teaching attracts skilled people who care about kids. It’s also because great teachers never stop learning themselves — and because schools pour time and resources into supporting them as they do.

When it comes to educator growth, “professional learning” is the forward-thinking term used today, but that wasn’t always the case. Let’s take a look in the rearview at how the language around professional learning has evolved over time.

“Staff Development” — Late 1960’s / Early 1970’s

In December, Learning Forward (the National Staff Development Council, when it began) will mark its 50th anniversary. Somewhere around the late 60’s the term “staff development” began to be used. Although people had already understood that teachers were important, around this time it became clearer that teachers are vital to student success, and that investing in teachers could lead to better student outcomes.

Staff development tended to focus on short-term needs. A school might determine that teachers needed to learn more about a certain topic, and then hold a workshop on that topic. The term “development” is important, since it indicates something that happens to teachers, rather than teachers being active agents in the process.

Kirsten Mattson, Ed.D. puts it well: “Developing is not a word typically used to describe consciously made actions. Often, development happens to people or objects. Policies, property, film, and expectations are developed by people for their purposes. The objects of this ‘development’ often have very little to say in the process.”

“Professional Development” – Late 1990’s / Early 2000’s

The shift in terminology to “professional development” reflected an increased focus on training individuals for a professional career, and an elevated view of teaching as a profession. This eye toward people and their careers — versus a focus on the needs of a particular position — enabled learning that was aligned with long-term goals, not just immediate needs. One example: professional judgment. Teachers make thousands of quick decisions every day, so how can schools equip them to make the best decisions possible?

At this point, more sustained forms of learning such as coaching and professional learning communities, gained footing. Yet the word “development” still pointed to top-down initiatives such as large group workshops, in-service days and after school seminars that were often determined and led by people other than the teachers themselves.

TIMELINE: Education, Technology and Professional Learning

— see how the fields of technology, education and technology have interwoven and evolved throughout history in the United States.

“Professional Learning” – Early 2010’s

In 2010, the National Staff Development Council changed its name to Learning Forward to reflect a greater focus on educator growth to impact student outcomes. At the same time, “professional learning” became the preferred term for ongoing educator learning. This term emphasized the need for teachers to drive their learning based on their own needs and goals and reflecting the needs of the communities and students they serve.

Time and money are always at a premium for schools, and it’s costly to take teachers out of the classroom for professional learning. At the same time, studies have begun to show that traditional forms of professional development weren’t having the classroom impact that was needed. These led, at least in part, to a trend toward more collaborative and job-embedded learning formats.

Of course, technology has also had a huge impact on what professional learning looks like. An article for Western Governors University notes that technology has taken interactivity and collaboration to new levels:

The Internet has made collaboration possible among educators on a global level, and therefore, teachers can interact across borders to better improve the education of their students. These professional learning communities found online have drastically shifted and changed the way teachers learn and improve.

The effectiveness of collaborative and job-embedded professional learning was forcefully stated in the Every Student Succeeds Act as well. The law listed those criteria alongside “sustained,” “intensive,” “data-driven,” and “classroom-focused” as hallmarks of effective professional learning.

A Trend Toward Impact

The changes in what we call professional learning reflect an increasingly individualized, targeted, goal-aligned and results-driven approach to educator growth. While it’s unlikely the educational world will ever reach the place where it can plant a flag and say, “We’ve arrived,” it’s always wise to learn from those who are leading the way in providing relevant and impactful professional learning.

Below are stories of several schools and districts that are striving to embody the vision for what professional learning can be.

  • Gresham-Barlow School District, Portland, Oregon. Through practices like collaboration walks, inquiry teams and reflective conversations, this professional learning is all about teachers learning from and with other teachers. Read their story. 
  • Kutztown Area School District, Kutztown, Pennsylvania. What began as a strategy to fill teaching positions by training college students turned out to be tremendous professional learning for teachers. Here’s how KASD thrives as a Professional Development School. 
  • Jenks Public Schools, Jenks, Oklahoma. How can you promote positive risk-taking and explore new ideas in professional learning? Jenks Public Schools is leading the way. 


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Ryan Estes

Ryan is a Customer Marketing Manager for the global award-winning Content Team at Frontline Education. He spends his time writing, podcasting, and talking to leaders in K-12 education.

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