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Designing Formal Professional Development Activities: The Role of the School Leader

Teachers’ professional development is one of the key responsibilities of school leaders and a critical factor for school improvement. Formal professional development opportunities can result in positive teaching and learning outcomes. Research suggests that the most impactful professional development for teachers is one related to student achievement. The link is indirect; professional development improves teachers’ practice which in turn positively affects student achievement.

The literature provides a vast repertoire of research studies on professional development. From this literature, leaders and educators have gained valuable insight into designing effective professional development programs. In particular, research demonstrates that for professional development to be effective, it must consider coherence, active learning, content focus, collective participation, and duration as core features of sustained learning and growth. These five elements have emerged as effective characteristics that deepen teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge.

 Five Elements of Effective Professional Development

  • Coherence: Teachers, as adult learners, are more likely to commit to learning when the goals of the professional development activities are realistic, are consistent with classroom practices, and align with the school goals and the broader district policies.
  • Active Learning: Active learning is probably the most neglected element in professional development planning and implementation. Unlike the top-down bureaucratic approach, active learning starts with what teachers already know. It adopts a bottom-up approach that considers the context and teachers’ experiences as the starting point instead of positioning teachers as passive recipients of knowledge.  Active learning magnifies the learning teachers derive from professional development activities and helps bring it from the training event to the classroom. It increases ownership of and commitment to the success of the professional development activities as teachers determine their needs, focus, and goals and decide how will they use what has been learned.
  • Content Focus: Professional development events that focus on subject-matter content are a critical element for changing teaching practices. This is specifically relevant in high school settings where teachers are subject matter specialists. Content focus promotes inquiry and deepens teachers’ conversations related to their area of expertise.  Coupled with active learning, a content-focus approach to professional development supports teachers in building their knowledge of academic content, as opposed to being uninvolved recipients of ideas. This element allows teachers to master the content, hone their pedagogical content knowledge, reflect on their teaching, and address changes in instructional planning to improve student learning.
  • Collective Participation: Collective participation serves as a mechanism that helps make teachers internally accountable to implement instructional improvements. As networks of collaborative relationships form, teachers are more likely to make agreed-upon pedagogical changes and develop innovative new practices that reinforce coherence beyond their own professional learning. If collaboration among teachers is cohesive, collective learning will motivate teachers to share their learning more broadly with other departments and the school as a whole.  Learning is a social process but implementing it is situational and context-specific. Therefore, it is important to recognize that, even though teachers form a group within their departments, each teacher’s classroom is a unique context.
  • Duration: The majority of professional development events are often ‘one-shot’, ‘quick-fix’, disconnected sessions and primarily determined by the school leadership. Research shows that this approach is rarely translated into improved classroom practices.

Teachers should be provided with professional development opportunities that are ongoing and sustained. A coherent long-term plan offers teachers the time to practice the change, with follow-up opportunities to bring back experiences, feedback, and challenges to the group for discussion. It ensures professional engagement over an extended period of time.

Role of the School Leader

While educational research recognizes that teachers are responsible for their own professional learning, the school leader plays a central role in creating an environment that fosters professional growth. The following is a list of questions for school leaders to consider:

  • Did I provide sufficient time for teachers to collaborate?  Regular and fixed meeting times should be allocated for teachers to discuss any challenges they encounter in their professional learning journey.
  • Did I provide support and care for teachers?  The school leader must foster a growth-promoting school culture for teachers to practice what they have learned. A positive, safe environment facilitates difficult conversations that may arise as teachers actively construct new understandings and address the challenges associated with learning to work together effectively.
  • Did I encourage collaboration?  Collective participation might clash with the traditional, private nature of teaching. Collaborative learning runs counter to the dominant culture of ‘teaching behind closed doors’. The school leader should strive to build strong working relationships among teachers, enhancing trust to achieve shared goals.
  • Did I suggest different modes of application?  Implementing professional development in a variety of formats acknowledges teachers’ prior knowledge and experience and meets the wide range of teachers’ learning needs.
  • Did I provide opportunities for reflection?  The school leader should ensure that reflecting and assessing the process of learning is an essential phase of the professional development plan. Reflection is crucial for ensuring meaningful learning experiences.

Professional development is a complex process, not a single event. It must address the needs of teachers with different backgrounds and experiences. Despite its complexity, addressing the elements above holds the potential for learning experiences that result in the creation of a professional capital with the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the needs and interests of students.

Effective professional development views teachers as adult learners who construct their own understanding of ideas in a collaborative environment. It is also a social and individual endeavor that paves the way for the transformation of teachers’ thinking to promote rather than negate isolation.

By ensuring that the five elements of formal professional development are considered, a school leader can build a safe space for teachers to create a community of professionals who can adopt innovative practices and mobilize their efforts to engage in reforming teaching and learning.

Written by Elissar Gerges, Education World Contributing Writer

Elissar has more than 10 years of experience as an AP and IBDP Biology teacher and Biology head of department. She holds a Master of Science in Education from Walden University, a Master of Education in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development from the University of Toronto, and a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership, K-12 from Western University, Canada.

Elissar’s research focus is on learning communities, team leadership, instructional leadership, and integrating citizenship in science education. She is a strong advocate of science media literacy to enable all students, as active citizens, to critically evaluate science in the media to make informed decisions.

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