What does 'worthwhile' professional development look like?

Uncategorized Jul 25, 2022
I'm sure you've been there - being forced to sit through a professional development session at your school that is not relevant or useful to you in any way. Perhaps the topic is something that you have already mastered, or it doesn't apply to your circumstances at that particular moment in time. Perhaps it is part of a 'top-down' initiative where the senior administration have decided, yet again, that you need to be doing things differently, and proceed to tell you exactly how you should be doing it.
Many teachers believe in the importance of professional development, as they believe in life-long learning and are open to continually improving their practice and learning new ideas. However, many complain that there are certain issues with the way they experience professional development within their school setting:
  • They don't get enough say in the kind of professional development that they are able to take part in.
  • They don't have enough time to take part in professional development that isn't mandated by the school.
  • They don't have control over their professional development pathway.
  • The professional development is generalised for the whole staff instead of being personalised for each individual teacher.
  • They don't receive any support in the implementation of what they have learnt.
So what would 'good' or 'worthwhile' professional development actually look like, and how can we achieve it?
Personalised professional development plans
We have recognised the importance of personalising learning for individual students for quite some time now, so why don't we apply this same principle to teacher professional development?
Ideally, all teachers would have a mentor, and time would be given regularly in order to discuss and set goals that are important to the individual teacher, determine an action plan that will help the teacher to achieve their specific goals, as well identify any resources and support that the teacher will require. There are so many freely accessible online resources out there now that makes this so easy (such as the Transformational Teachers program).
Time given for regular collaborative professional development
Research shows that when teachers have time to take part in regular collaborative professional development, in which they work with their colleagues on problems or improvements of their own choosing, applicable to their unique circumstances, student outcomes soar and teacher satisfaction goes up. We can see this in high-performing systems such as Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and British Columbia (see this article for more info) 
Collaboration can involve working in teaching teams to create and deliver a teaching programs, moderation processes, project work, peer observations and feedback, and much more.
However, with teaching loads being quite high here in Australia, as well as various administrative and accountability tasks, there is usually little time left to build in regular collaboration on a daily or even weekly basis. Reducing teaching loads and administration work would aid in allowing teachers to build this important collaborative work into their daily schedules.
Support provided through professional learning communities
PLC's can operate both within and across schools. They can be in-person and they can also be online. They can have a narrow focus or a more general focus. The great thing about a professional learning community is that teachers are able to access viewpoints and support from other departments, other schools and other year groups. This helps the teacher to operate outside of their 'bubble' and learn new ways of doing things that are working well for their colleagues in other contexts, and to receive support, inspiration and motivation for the changes that they are attempting to implement in their own classrooms.
Encourage 'bottom up' change initiatives
It's important that teachers have a say in the school's initiatives and directions so that they feel as though their professional judgment and experience is valued. Too often teachers are subjected to more and more directives from above, leading to feelings of disempowerment and disengagement. This is the main reason why certain change initiatives fail or don't last the distance.
Foster a culture of trust
In order to develop and grow, teachers need to feel like they can experiment with new approaches without being judged harshly. If we want teachers to adopt a growth mindset, they must have the space to take risks and make mistakes. If teachers feel that their position depends on them 'towing the line' or performing within a rigid set of standards or procedures, then they won't have the opportunity to learn or grow. Senior administrators need to trust the professional judgement of their teachers and encourage reflective practice in a safe, non-judgemental environment.
I could definitely go on and on here, but I will leave it at that for now. What would you add to the list? 
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