The scene is all too familiar—teachers return from summer and file neatly into auditorium rows or cafeteria tables, ready to hear “the next big thing” that will be the instructional focus for the upcoming school year. At times these initiatives represent the latest best practices in teaching and learning, but often they are simply old strategies repackaged within a new program or set of tools. Teachers respectfully absorb the content and make surface-level changes to their practice that are evident in the next round of administrative observations. However, seldom do sessions of this nature result in long-term instructional change. As a result, students become disengaged, test scores flatline or drop, and educators grow frustrated with a system that does not meet their professional needs.
For years, this “sit and get” form of learning has been the norm in education—for both teachers and students. While recent brain research has helped shift the approach with students to experiences that are more fluid, collaborative, and learner driven, such adjustments have not been made in any widespread way for teachers. Instead, teachers seek opportunities for themselves by developing professional learning networks, participating in Twitter chats and online courses, and following various blogs and podcasts. These experiences help individuals, but they do little to foster a community of professional inquiry within a school or district and depend significantly on the drive and commitment of individual teachers. School and district leaders have a responsibility to shift professional learning from a model of “sit and get” to one of “stand and deliver.”
Taking a Stand
Teachers must have a voice in the professional development topics offered within a school or district. While sessions should align to school or district priorities and student data, teacher needs and interests have a direct effect on investment—and, in turn, depth of implementation—and must be considered. Leaders can utilize needs assessments, surveys, and suggestion boxes to collect this information. Once professional development offerings are set, leaders should give teachers a choice of sessions to attend.
The ability to “take a stand” should not end upon entering a professional development session or workshop. Facilitators have a responsibility to personalize the format and resources in much the same way school leaders ask teachers to differentiate instruction for their students. Teachers should be able to move freely among work groups, and perhaps even between sessions (much like an EdCamp), if a group or session is not meeting their needs. The ultimate goal of professional learning should be strategy implementation, not content absorption.
Creating Space for Delivery
Professional learning must focus on creating safe and productive spaces for teachers to begin planning and experimenting with the concepts that have been shared. Too often, facilitation centers on giving strategies to teachers rather than coaching them on how to deliver the strategies to students. As a result, teachers leave the session with a toolbox of ideas that are never implemented. Instead, more professional learning time should be spent helping teachers plan, develop materials, and practice delivering the strategies with colleague support.
Facilitators should not put limits on the ways teachers process information. While some prefer pencil-and-paper notes, others may function much more effectively with the assistance of technology tools to type, bookmark, clip, and tweet ideas as they process them. The idea that laptops and iPads should be closed does not necessarily increase focus; rather, it often shuts down these learning processes and causes teachers to disengage. Much like students, teachers have learning styles and preferences that need to be honored.
Personalized professional learning models require greater capacity and, at times, additional funding for successful implementation. But the value they yield is immeasurable. They provide school or district leaders an opportunity to meet teacher needs while simultaneously modeling the types of learning experiences they expect teachers to design for students. In professional learning, form must stop driving function. Teacher needs must inform the approach, content, and product. “Sit and get” is over. Effective professional learning must be consistent, targeted, and job embedded. Otherwise, it is a hope, not a practice.
Allison Rodman is an assistant principal and director of professional development at Mariana Bracetti Academy, a K–12 Title I school in Philadelphia. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader and a member of PASCD. Rodman presented at the ASCD 2015 Annual Conference and will present at the ASCD 2015 Conference on Educational Leadership on personalized professional development. Connect with Rodman on Twitter @thelearningloop.