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Why Include Student Voice in Professional Development?

Professional Growth

Let me tell you what I got for Christmas.

It was a banner year for me, at least in terms of what lay inside that shiny package I ripped open. There, inside a long, thin, triangular box, was a brand new, heavy, matte black, metal, 0.5mm rOtring mechanical pencil. Alongside it came a gorgeous leather cover for my beloved Field Notes.

A bit nerdy? You bet. A rather poor gift for someone else? Perhaps. But was it exactly what I wanted?


And here’s the thing: I’ve gotten so much joy out of that simple gift — a gift that was easy to give and didn’t cost a lot — because the person who gave it to me asked me what I wanted.

What does this have to do with professional development?

Making sure that professional learning moves the needle on teaching and ultimately on student achievement means spending time and resources on the right content, methods and learning opportunities for each individual teacher. It also means thinking through the needs of each class, each group of students.

Increasingly, schools are bringing students into those conversations.

Last year an Edutopia article made the case for including students’ voices in the professional development process, either through interviews and surveys, or even inviting students to attend a workshop. By participating in this way, students can help to remove the guesswork, further focusing professional learning on not just what teachers believe will be most effective, but on what students see as their own needs.

Students are perceptive, and can also provide a unique window into a teacher’s practice. In a recent interview, Dr. James Stronge discussed indicators of quality instruction, and considered the merits and shortfalls of several often-used data points, like observations, self-ratings, peer feedback and summative evaluations.

But, Dr. Stronge said:

“The source that’s really good, over and over, is when students rate teachers. The correlation between student feedback on ‘whether my teacher is effective’ and student achievement gains in reading has a correlation coefficient, in some studies, of about 0.75….Kids are better, more valid evaluators of teacher effectiveness than teachers are of themselves and, I would conjecture, of teachers watching other teachers or principals rating teachers. The correlation with math achievement is also high, not quite as high as reading, but it’s still very high. Kids know good teaching.”

By extension, parents can also bring perspective to professional learning. Mary Kathryn Moeller, Director of Professional Development at Jenks Public Schools in Oklahoma, describes the importance they place on collecting feedback from many different voices:

“In May we tend to do a visioning meeting around professional development for the next year. We always invite parents into that as well, which might seem odd, because they might not think that we would include them in discussions around teacher professional development. But, in fact, having the parents as part of that conversation is really, really valuable. Because they know what’s going on in the classroom, and they work with their own child. As we’re thinking about, ‘In the end we’re all working together for the benefit of the students,’ the parents are an essential part of that.”

Of course, it’s easier to assume we know what people want or need — whether we’re giving gifts or planning professional learning. (For the record, I’m very much in favor of taking a risk and giving a terrific gift that the recipient has no idea is coming.) Yet directly asking those who are most impacted by the decision, “What are your thoughts? Where should we focus our time?” could very well be the difference between an exercise that’s “just okay” and professional learning that has measurable results in the classroom.

Do educators at your school system explicitly ask students (and parents) for input into professional learning plans?

Take our super-quick poll — it’s only 2 questions — and let us know (and see poll results instantly!):

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.