Professional Growth

Q&A: Supporting Teachers in Professional Learning

5 min. read

Teacher engagement in professional learning is a topic we’ve talked about a fair amount at Frontline Education.

How can school systems increase that engagement? And what does it look like to put teachers in control of their own professional development (PD)?

Providing relevant, just-in-time PD opportunities is part of the answer — and online professional development course libraries for teachers can provide a wealth of on-demand learning. But the district’s role doesn’t stop there. Studies have shown that ongoing district support is vital if such a program will be successful.

In a recent webinar, we examined how districts can provide that support. That webinar led to some great Q&A about what school district support in professional learning should really look like.

One statistic cited in the webinar from the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey notes that in the United States, 95.2% of teachers surveyed engaged in professional development when they were given district support, but without that support, the number dropped to 1.7%. Do those statistics relate only to online training? Or does it refer to other types of professional learning as well?

That’s an important point — this statistic refers to any form of professional development, not just online training.
The perception is that engagement with live workshops is inherently higher, when in fact it’s not. Live workshops tend to have more support built around them. They’re planned and facilitated by the district. They’re often on-site. And if they take place during the school day, substitutes are provided.

Online professional development often doesn’t tend to receive the same support. Unfortunately, there is often a Field of Dreams-esque attitude to offering a library of online courses: “If you build it, they will come.” We purchase an online library. We tell our teachers it’s out there, we give them access to it — and we wait for them to show up at that field of dreams. When they don’t show up, unlike the ghost of Babe Ruth, we’re disappointed. But the fact is, with any form of professional development, some kind of support is needed in order to see legitimate engagement.

What does this kind of support look like? Should it include monetary compensation?

Although this study didn’t address the specific question of monetary compensation, that could certainly be considered organizational support. Teachers generally have an expectation that professional development will be paid time, or that they’ll be compensated for that time in some way — that if they go to an approved workshop, they’ll be reimbursed for the workshop and paid for their time.

Financial incentives can be tricky. Sometimes a school system will provide online trainings with the expectation that teachers will take the courses because they’re provided at no cost to the teacher. But simply offering a “free” workshop or online class may lower its perceived value, and typically such an approach means the courses go unused. However, when teachers or substitutes are required to take certain classes, they generally do.

So is requiring training the only way that districts can support teachers in professional development?

Definitely not. Recognition can be a powerful tool — finding ways to show that our teachers and staff are engaged in professional learning, and that we appreciate that, can be a good incentive.

Career pathing systems are another method that can lead to engagement more like what you see in corporate settings, because there are tangible incentives. For example, demonstrating a certain skill level through engagement or evaluations might lead to being selected as an instructional coach or a department lead, which might provide access to additional resources or grants.

Some school systems also use micro-credentials to incentivize professional learning and open career opportunities for teachers who demonstrate certain competencies.

It seems that, for the most part, teachers take the training that they want to take. How do we make the most of that motivation?

We need to ask, “Is there a divide between what learning opportunities we as administrators think teachers should take, and what teachers want to take? And if so, why?” That’s an important question to answer. Do teachers believe they don’t need improvement in the areas we think they do? Is it that the district initiative that was selected this year doesn’t resonate with them? Could it be that teachers agree with the topic area, but the format of the learning opportunity doesn’t appeal to them?

Examining the professional development that teachers “want to take” can be informative. Combined with a clear picture of your teachers’ strengths, needs and goals, it can shed light on whether we’ve set the right professional learning requirements, whether additional alignment is needed between personal and organizational goals and what additional communication or feedback is needed to get everyone on the same page.

Of course, providing such support is no silver bullet — we shouldn’t expect a 50x increase in teacher engagement as a result of increased recognition, paid time for PD or career growth incentives. Yet the fact remains: the difference in engagement, and by logical extension, impact, of professional development offered with increased district support, is enormous.

Looking for a better way to provide relevant, personalized professional learning and offer teachers voice and choice in their own professional growth? Learn more about Frontline Professional Growth.

Rachel Fisher

Rachel Fisher brings fifteen years of expertise in eLearning and online content development as well as over a decade of experience working exclusively with K12 including online and live curriculum development. In addition, she served in the classroom teaching 6th and 7th grade science.