Rethinking Professional Development: 5 “Musts” For School Leaders

Establishing a strong system for teacher learning and professional growth is now a “basic” responsibility for all school leaders at all levels. Given the radical changes and new innovations that continue to come our way, the need for strong instructional leaders who are creative, model best practice, and are committed to the success of all students is more critical than ever. While there is no shortage of research on the correlation between professional development and student success, the claim that there are clear benefits is an obvious one and is no different for professionals in any field. Just as doctors are obligated to stay current on the latest research and practices in the medical field, the same holds true for educators who are charged with preparing students for a digital age that continues to redefine what it means to be connected, how we access information, and essentially how we learn. Simply stated, the “old way” of teaching and learning is just not good enough. Our students are different, the world is different, and the skills needed for “survival” (@DrTonyWagner) are different.

In an effort to adapt to the demands of an ever-changing 21st century, school leaders everywhere are rethinking professional development so that teachers are best prepared to meet the needs of all students. In the best schools, this has resulted in a differentiated approach that aims to maximize all resources both inside and outside of the school building. These schools are filled with teachers who are dedicated to continual self-improvement and school leaders who are dedicated to providing both the structure and the resources to make that happen.

Given that, here are five “musts” for school leaders as they plan (and rethink) professional development for faculty and staff…

1) Look Within: Perhaps the biggest “miss” for school leaders is the thought that it is necessary to look “outside” for professional development and teacher training. While there are certainly a good number of workshops and conferences that can be found both locally and nationally, the reality is that every school possesses an endless wealth of expertise and resources right within the walls of the school building. Therefore, it is critical to identify faculty, staff, and administrators who possess specific areas of expertise and create opportunities for targeted and meaningful in-house training. This not only helps to build capacity within the staff, but also helps teachers to…

2) Build a PLN Within the School: While all of the talk these days is around using social media as a vehicle for building a PLN (Personal Learning Network), what can’t be lost is the necessity of getting an entire school to view itself as one large PLN. In fact, there is nothing more powerful than a faculty that collaborates, shares best practice, and essentially learns from one another across the disciplines and grade levels. These types of in-house PLNs are found in the very best schools and it is the job of school leaders to create a structure that allows them to grow. This means providing time, direction (or a vision), and a willingness to “let go” so that teachers may learn from one another. Once a healthy PLN is developed within the school, teachers will have a clear instructional focus (from a building perspective) and will get much more out of the professional development that comes when they look to…

3) Build a PLN Outside of the School: Social media has completely transformed the way that we think about networking, interacting, and learning. In a short period of time, teachers (and professionals in other fields) have moved beyond the brick and mortar of their respective buildings to collaborate with professionals from around the world. On sites such as Twitter, the resources seem to be endless as links to journal articles, research, and blogs are posted and shared by school leaders, teachers, and professional organizations in a “real time” fashion that allows readers to stay current and on the cutting edge. Gone are the days of waiting for a monthly journal to arrive in the mail or hoping to cross paths with a colleague at a local or annual conference. Now colleagues with similar interests can be found and accessed easily through tweetchats, hashtags, and retweets. The important takeaway for school leaders of course is to model best practice and to direct teachers’ attention to professionals in the field who they may follow. This approach will help to take professional learning to the “next level” while further allowing school leaders to…

4) Differentiate by Interest and Readiness: Just as a “one size fits all approach” for teaching students is a sure fire way to “miss many,” the same principle applies when planning and providing professional development for teachers. Common sense tells us that a first year teacher likely has radically different needs than a 30-year veteran. Given that, it is critical for school leaders to think like assessors and identify opportunities for professional development that are targeted to the specific needs of teachers and staff. This not only includes the use of the observation process as a vehicle for true teacher growth (see post on 10/18/13), but also providing choice by incorporating menu-based workshops. At DFHS, we recently identified facilitators from our staff and had teachers select from workshops in the following areas: Using Twitter to Build a PLN; Planning With the End in Mind (@dfdcidberry); Getting Started With Google Drive (@MikeMeagh & @AdamoBiology); The IB Diploma Programme at DFHS (@MegHalberg). This format allows school leaders to differentiate by teacher interest, it addresses the specific needs of the staff based on individual strengths and weaknesses (readiness), and it helps to keep things “fresh” for the teachers. Furthermore, it provides school leaders with an opportunity to better evaluate the specific professional development needs that remain unaddressed so that they may…

5) Choose Outside PD Wisely: Regardless of the degree to which technology transforms education and all that goes with it, there will always be benefits to having teachers leave the building to attend  face-to-face conferences, roundtables, training sessions, and workshops. Of course, there is always a risk-factor associated as outside training sessions are typically “hit or miss” and are always pricey. In keeping with the idea of viewing the school as one large PLN, it is important for school leaders to identify teachers to attend specific outside workshops so that they may later turnkey the information via in-house workshops. This approach not only helps to reduce overall cost, but also targets outside training based on the specific needs of the teachers while helping to further promote collaboration, community, and professional learning within the school.

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