Aligning Professional Development Efforts for Meaningful Growth

By Edward Wilson Jr., Ph.D., Lisa Andrejko, Ed.D., and Amy Vracar, PeopleAdmin, Austin, TX

Educational researchers frequently find that having a great teacher is one of the factors most likely to deliver significant student gains, which is why teacher quality is often at the center of discussions about education reform and improvement. Author, consultant, and Professor of Elementary Education at Indian State University Todd Whitaker said, “There are only two ways to improve any school: hire better teachers or improve the ones who are already there.”

Both hiring top educators and administrators and supporting the development of the existing workforce present unique challenges. Yet delivering effective professional development (PD) is an action most school and district leaders can take right away to make progress toward filling every classroom with an exceptional educator, providing effective administrative support, and ultimately maximizing student learning opportunities. Unfortunately, many existing professional development efforts don’t include the relevant tools and resources needed to advance the skills and growth of every educator and administrator — from new hires to veterans. 

A better approach

Often times the problem with PD isn’t the ability to provide quality information, it’s that the PD isn’t always the most relevant to address the apparent needs. The challenge for districts becomes a matter of how to provide the most effective professional development — based on individual needs, aggregate needs of the school and/or district, and growth opportunities. Teachers should grow from their personal “Point A” to their personal “Point B” because regardless of how expert any teacher is in certain areas, there are always ways to continually improve.

Much like the students we serve, teachers are all over the spectrum in their levels of proficiency on an almost infinite number of professional practices. So how is appropriate professional development determined?

The use of data should be integral to the identification and selection of PD experiences, which will be most effective when the PD is clearly aligned to district, building level, and an individual's professional objectives. Lisa Andrejko, former superintendent, teacher supervision and professional development researcher and professor, and current strategic advisor for PeopleAdmin, believes the goals for teacher learning may come from three sources: Training or compliance goals, teacher surveys and assessments, and teacher supervision and evaluation data.

 

Training or compliance goals

A most common practice has been the “top down” approach to PD, which most often determined by necessity. Examples of compliance goals include training for all staff such as first aid, blood-born pathogens, child abuse reporting, etc. Curriculum changes are often mandated by state departments of education. Program initiatives or adoptions require training. Ongoing professional development can introduce the academic workforce to emerging technology tools for the classroom, curriculum resources, instructional strategies, classroom management techniques, administrative resources, and new research.

 

Teacher surveys and assessments

Schools oftentimes solicit teacher input for their professional development through the use of interest surveys. Input from the relevant stakeholders associated with your PD processes should be considered when deciding how best to take advantage of the opportunity to develop individuals who have such a large influence on student achievement. Follow-up conversations between district leaders, building leaders, and instructional staff during the planning process can facilitate higher quality outcomes based on accurately identifying and targeting the experiences.

In lieu of broad interest-based surveys, optional skills assessments provide teachers with valuable self-reflective data for their use in determining their areas of strength and opportunity. Such inventories enable school districts to identify, determine, and target the specific learning needs of every teacher at any point in his or her career to positively impact student growth. Inventories identify the best instructional practices for producing measurable student growth in the classroom. When used as an option in a non-evaluative manner without scores or rankings, PD activities can be targeted to meet individual teacher needs and help advance student achievement.

Teacher supervision and evaluation data


Performance management continues to be the most relevant and authentic source of data for use in determining professional development.  In the past 10 years, teacher supervision and evaluation emphasize the use of both teacher and student data.  Administrators use teacher effectiveness rubrics, Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), standardized assessment data, elective data, and more as part of their supervision/evaluation process.  Schools have become focused on the “collection” and “reporting” of these data as part of compliance.  Leadership “uses” these data for school improvement through professional development.  Tailored professional learning can occur districtwide, at the building or campus level, and even individualized to specific teacher need based on analysis of teacher supervision and evaluation data. Administrators or teams of teachers can drill down to discover patterns, trends, and areas for growth and plan teacher learning accordingly.

Data driven professional development can provide the platform for educators and administrators to continually evolve, grow, and master teaching and administrative skills throughout an entire career. However, the best intentions do not always produce the desired results. Many participants, novice and experienced, can feel disconnected from some of the content as well as the entire process if they do not see the meaning or relevance to the experience.

 

Consider the Culture

Ongoing communication is a critical component of a good culture, and even when the content of the communication is not the best news, recipients generally appreciate being given some information rather than being left to wonder what is going on.  Sometimes teachers experience a number of unfamiliar situations, and if these situations are not managed appropriately, there can be an adverse impact on student learning as well as teacher retention. Furthermore, teachers can feel like the district leaders or the school leadership does not care about addressing some of the issues that make it challenging to deliver instruction or lead others effectively in schools by empowering them with the tools for success. Building leaders can often have the same abandoned feeling if district leaders are not helping to address the building level concerns.  

More specifically, new teachers and administrators can be assigned challenging schools and classrooms during their first year, and may receive little guidance or support to help manage the difficult situations. That’s why great induction programs are so valuable – they create opportunities for new hires to receive mentoring or coaching from veteran colleagues, while learning best practices, and reflecting on their teaching and administrative experiences. Furthermore, veteran teachers and administrators can benefit from guidance and support too, as they often find themselves in new positions or environments. Developing a model that addresses the on-going needs of veterans can provide a strong foundation for a culture of active learning.

Support for new teachers is often uneven and scarce. Due to the complexity of teaching, even after adequately preparing in teacher preparation programs, new teachers experience new challenges when entering the classroom for the first time, college and university programs cannot always provide the range of experiences new teachers need to overcome each classroom challenge. Induction programs create opportunities for beginning teachers to learn best practices, analyze and reflect on their teaching, and the support needed in their first years in the field. Likewise, even the most experienced teacher confront challenges, including subject content, advances in technology, instructional methods, and student learning needs.  New principals and assistant principals benefit from ongoing PD as well. For instance, adapting to adhere to changing district, state, and federal policies sometimes requires time to absorb and apply new methods in day-to-day processes in order to stay in compliance.

 

Developing leaders

Just as every child has the potential to learn, grow and do great things with their life, every educator and administrator has the potential to be a significant contributor to the academic enterprise that nurtures so many individuals and communities. With teachers and principals leaving the profession every year for a myriad of reasons, it is important for schools and districts to find ways to assess effectiveness and target specific learning needs that will advance their skills and impact on student performance. PD activities that support and enhance an area of proficiency as well as targets opportunities for growth, allows educators and administrators to strengthen their individual skill set. The progression on the self-actualization journey is a mechanism to facilitate educator and administrator satisfaction in their respective roles, and helps eliminate barriers that reduce the leadership pipeline.

[Text Box: When thinking about improving Professional Development offerings and outcomes, ask your team these questions to facilitate reflection and plan next steps: 1. Are all of the relevant stakeholders engaged with the PD selection process? 2. How does your school or district select PD for individuals? For the entire school? For the entire district? 3. Is you PD selection team in-tune with the day-to-day challenges at the building and district levels? 4. Does your PD staff explain why certain experiences are selected? 5. Does supervision inform professional learning? 6. Is supervision encouraging teacher self-monitoring, ownership, and reflection? 7. Will the participants engage in active learning if the topics are not relevant, and how does that missed opportunity impact the student and employee experience? 8. What impact does misaligned PD experiences have on the culture of your school or district?] While compensation is certainly a factor in career progression, it is not the only consideration that drives the process. The notion of psychological safety can serve as a catalyst or barrier to an individuals' decision to stay with a school or district, or remain in the profession. Creating a safe zone for people to try their best ensures that unique ideas and viewpoints are accepted, which sometimes means an approach or initiative may not produce the desired results. When educators or administrators fall short of success, however success may be defined, the experience should be viewed as an opportunity for grow and development during the pursuit of excellence- and tempered with a fair level of accountability. Schools or district that exhibit psychologically safe environments may yield higher quality candidates in the leadership pipeline, who possess the confidence to act in the best interest of the students and employees. Steve Lorenz, former principal, Head of School, and current strategic advisor at PeopleAdmin said, “When educators are given the opportunity for personal, professional improvement and growth in a secure environment- this often sends a message of 'we are all in this together, we care about you, and we will support you." Identifying developmental opportunities to nurture employees inherently acknowledges skills gaps, but it also informs the employee they are supported in their growth and development as individuals and as a workforce. 

When thinking about improving Professional Development offerings and outcomes, ask your team these questions to facilitate reflection and plan next steps:

  1. Are all of the relevant stakeholders engaged with the PD selection process?
  2. How does your school or district select PD for individuals? For the entire school? For the entire district? 
  3. Is you PD selection team in-tune with the day-to-day challenges at the building and district levels?
  4. Does your PD staff explain why certain experiences are selected?
  5. Does supervision inform professional learning?
  6. Is supervision encouraging teacher self-monitoring, ownership, and reflection?
  7. Will the participants engage in active learning if the topics are not relevant, and how does that missed opportunity impact the student and employee experience? 
  8. What impact does misaligned PD experiences have on the culture of your school or district?

 

Researcher and professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky Thomas Guskey says, “In the history of education, no improvement effort has ever succeeded in the absence of thoughtfully-planned and well-implemented professional development.” Carefully and effectively managed teacher performance and professional development processes, enhanced and integrated with technology, can assist schools in achieving their student success goals. In essence, the ability to engage in meaningful professional learning has a significant impact on the daily lives of educators, administrators, and the students they serve, so it is imperative that schools and districts continually evaluate their processes for identifying and selecting PD opportunities as well as assessing the impact of the experiences, as these processes are some of the most important on-going initiatives that nurture professional growth and student achievement.