5 Simple Ways to Improve Teacher Professional Development Now

A common cry from teachers across the world is for relevant professional development.

A 2014 Gates Foundation study shows only 29% of teachers are satisfied with current teacher PD. Another 2015 study shows that only 30% of teachers improve substantially with PD. So, what we have doesn't seem to be working.

So, what can we do to improve teachers' professional development?

This post was originally a contribution to Cathy Rubin's Global Search for Education Top Global Teacher Blogger's Column. This post was originally written on July 20, 2017, but it was updated on December 19, 2023, because this topic is so important, and I wanted to add what I've learned in the last six years in my classroom. 🐢Vicki

1 – Model What is Being Taught

In my own experience, I remember sitting through a class on differentiated instruction. The “teacher” had more than 200 slides. She read them to us.

To further make this point, let's discuss what differentiation is. Think of it this way — Some students learn by seeing. Others learn by hearing. Others learn by doing. But no one learns one way. So, when you have many ways of teaching material, nearly every student learns better.

But during this class on differentiation, the teacher didn't differentiate with us. She lectured. She showed slides. We didn't act it out. We didn't see a movie. We didn't do any kind of hands-on activity. We didn't talk about it with the person next to us.

So, all of the material on differentiation was delivered in a non-differentiated way.

Really, if differentiation works – why don't instructors do it? If project-based learning really works — why don't instructors do it? If a teaching practice really works in the classroom, model it.

If you can't teach me about game-based learning by using games, you're not qualified to teach game-based learning at all.

Professional development should teach using the methods being taught. If you don't, then teachers will question if it really works. You'll come across as a hypocrite or someone who doesn't know their stuff.

Do what works. Teach what works. Model what works. That is what works!

2 – Commit to Personal, Professional Development

Kaizen is a Japanese term for “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is a mindset. Organizations following Kaizen look at a system as a whole and make slow, small steps to improve.

My strategy for Kaizen innovation is that I “innovate like a turtle.”

Although I've taught in K12 for twenty-two years, the last seventeen have been transformational. Sixteen years a go, I made a decision that changed my teaching. Coming back from GAETC 2015, I realized that I had been to the conference before, but my classroom was unchanged. I had a list of fifty things and did none of them.

So, I decided to do three things. I call this my 3-2-1 “Innovate Like a Turtle” Strategy:

3 – List My Big 3. I would list the next three things I wanted to learn. Just three, no more. I would steadily learn about those things until I integrated them into my classroom. Sometimes, one of the three wasn't suitable, and I'd abandon it for something else.

2 – Turtle Time. I take 15 minutes 2 times a week during my morning break to learn something new.

1 – Share one thing. I'd share one thing a month with a coworker. (And in return ask them one thing they learned too.)

I'm dedicated to Kaizen, but that term does not excite me. I acknowledge my commitment to slow, steady improvement by calling it turtle time. Forward progress is progress.

One thing I've learned in the last six years since originally writing this post was to formalize “innovate like a turtle” to help others do it. This one not-so-secret secret is what has helped my classroom improve and students learn better. It might be simple and sound pretty common sense, but it works. Nobody can do everything. You can't try everything at once. I've seen this work with 70-year old teachers and 27-year old teachers alike and it is equally transformational when a teacher makes the commitment.

When the accreditation board came to my school, they commented on how all of my teachers talked about “turtling.” This was a blessing to me and showed they had internalized their learning habits.

3 – Understand and Use Micro Teaching Practices

In John Hattie's updated ranking of effect sizes on student achievement, microteaching is near the top. Microteaching is

“a video recording of a lesson with a debriefing. The lesson is reviewed to improve the teaching and learning experience.”

Most teachers have a device that can record video. If we use our phones to record small portions of our lessons, we can use microteaching to improve. Certainly, there is a method of improving through microteaching.

I learn so much when I record my teaching and watch it later. (I use a Swivl and my iPhone. The device follows and focuses on me around the room.)

4 – Use Student Feedback to Shape Learning with Just in Time Learning Strategies

Formative assessment can help teachers understand how students are learning. Formative assessment is a snapshot of how knowledge is forming in a student's mind. Instead of asking one student what they know, you can ask the whole class.

The point that can make all the difference. But what does a teacher do when students aren't learning? When a teacher realizes students aren't learning, perhaps the greatest professional development could happen. There are several strategies a teacher could use today, but each has limitations and reasons teachers don't. Perhaps if we understand these, we can work together to improve just-in-time learning strategies for teachers.

Since I originally wrote this post, reading James M. Lang's book “Small Teaching” has only reinforced this practice. With a small self-grading, low-stakes-no-stakes test at the beginning of class, my students know what they need to know either before or after they have learned it.

An Instructional Coach

The business world has “life coaches.” Education does have “instructional coaches.” Unfortunately, in some schools, these instructional coaches also have administrative responsibilities.

To understand a common problem with instructional coaching, let's momentarily look at the business world. For example, in the business community, a life coach is typically not someone in your chain of command. The person doesn't have the ability to evaluate you. The “life coach's” job is to help the person. Often a life coach doesn't even work for the company of the person they are coaching.

In the education world, a teacher can call instructional coaches for help. However, if the coach is helping a teacher improve in an area, that needs to be confidential. If, however, the instructional coach makes a beeline to the principal, let's see what could happen. Let's say the coach told the principal,

“Mrs. Jones has me helping her with a classroom management problem.”

Now, suddenly the principal thinks Mrs. Jones has a huge problem.

One of John Wooden's sayings was, “The team that makes the most mistakes usually wins.” As part of teaching, we must be learning. As part of learning, we must be experimenting. As part of experimenting, we must see what doesn't work. If you see what doesn't work, then you learn from your mistakes. If making no mistakes is part of a school culture, then the school culture is not about growth; it is about staying in your classroom, keeping your nose down, not drawing attention to yourself, and staying out of trouble.

In reality, however, every single teacher on staff has problems and areas to improve. Mrs. Jones is just the only one asking the instructional coach for help. Mrs. Jones may be one of the best teachers on staff, but she's penalized for getting help to improve her teaching.

Until schools make it okay to admit struggles and get confidential help, teachers will keep their personal PD needs private. Teachers won't ask for help even when student formative data shows they need it if their request for help is misunderstood or, even worse – used against them.

Just In Time Resources

Many teachers use YouTube and other video services to search for help. For example, a video tutorial may do the trick if they have a problem with Google Classroom.

However, with a few exceptions, edtech seems to dominate the teaching videos available on YouTube. It is hard to find answers to classroom problems like classroom management by searching YouTube.

Books, Videos, Courses, and Conferences

Teachers can find books, videos, and courses to help them on an issue. However, typically curriculum directors or district officers determine how money is spent. Teachers have a difficult time getting money for individual opportunities. If they ask for it, they have to justify their need and may end up in the same situation they often have with some instructional coaches – they have to admit the problem they are trying to solve.

One problem with materials such as this is that classroom teaching is rapidly evolving. So while a content creator may have a Ph.D., sometimes they may not be as relevant as a classroom teacher. Many teachers love Teachers Pay Teachers, while others frown on the resources because they prefer traditional textbook companies. Still others create content generatively with AI, which is fine, as long as they have the content area knowledge and time to verify the accuracy of the content.

Microcredits and Badges.

An emerging professional development “economy” of competency-based micro-credentials has teachers taking a new type of course. These small courses, for example, could have a teacher focusing on “checking for understanding.” They would take online instructional materials but then involve peers and colleagues in a person submitting a demonstration of skill.

The fascinating aspect of micro-credentials is the melding of online and offline learning.

This area is evolving rapidly. So quickly, the proliferation of badges has many calling for more rigor in earning of badges. So, in this case, not all micro-credentials or badges are created equal.

Formative Assessment

But as we return to this conversation and using what works — when teachers have professional development, they should constantly practice their knowledge and be assessed formatively as they learn. (See the first point of this article!)

5 – Unconferences

If you've read this far, perhaps you can see why teacher unconferences are so popular. The most popular form of the unconference is the Edcamp, but many conferences are scheduling an “unconference” day with this same format.

In our professional developments at school, we've moved to this format with teachers filling out surveys before pd day, teachers preparing and planning to teach other teachers, and excitement in learning as we do it. This model works and is adopted from the Edcamp framework.

At Edcamps worldwide, teachers show up on a Saturday morning at an unconference location. It is free. Teachers self-organize into topics. People who want to learn something show up in the designated room. If a session doesn't meet their needs, they can leave and go to another one. Teachers can model create and innovate together. Sometimes they bring gadgets or share lesson ideas. Many teachers love this environment.

However, some locations don't give teachers professional development credit for these valuable sessions. Some teachers hesitate to give up personal time without continuing education “credit.” Others like things to be more organized. At our school, we do receive PD credit for this “edcamp” format, but many do not.

But on the whole, many innovators I know like unconferences and prefer them over any other method of professional development.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Personalized learning is the conversation in student learning today. It should be for teachers as well.

We know professional development, as it has always existed, isn't working. We also know that we must improve teacher knowledge and learning.

Many people don't know that teachers don't have much time. I have had years with too many “duties.” Those are the years I didn't innovate. You can't innovate like a turtle when you're working like a dog.

So, first, we need to ensure teachers have time to learn. Let's streamline paperwork. Let's remove non-teaching duties. Let's help teachers focus on teaching and learning about teaching.

Second, teachers must personally commit to learning. If we teachers are freed up to learn and use it to hang out in the teacher's lounge and bash students, we aren't innovating like a turtle – we're becoming toxic waste. As a teacher, my professional duty is to level up and learn continuously.

And third, I think we need to let teachers have a major role in vetting and determining how they'll learn and what they'll do with their PD. We should give teachers the financial resources and the time to go to professional learning opportunities. While teacher shortages are a problem in many places, we can't shortchange teaching professionals and keep them from learning how to become better teachers. Effective professional development should be a priority.

If personalized learning works, it should start with teachers. Whatever works in teaching should work with teacher education.

Let's learn. Let's become better teachers. And let's be part of the evolution of teachers' professional development. It's about time.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Lisa Healy November 17, 2022 - 5:00 pm

As an educator of 23 years, most of the professional development I attend lacks relevance to what I do in the classroom daily. As you stated, most of the time is spent reading slides or talking to us. There is no built-in time for modeling, practice, make ‘n takes, or discussion. It is very passive. There is no follow-up support. We are left to implement what was talked about without having anywhere to go to ask further questions or problem-solve. Due to this, I give up easily on things that might impact my classroom. I agree with giving teachers time for professional development. If you look around during one of these trainings, many of the attendees are on their computers, grading papers or answering emails, things there is already limited time to complete. Giving us time to learn how to become better at our craft is essential to the future of education.

Vicki Davis March 22, 2023 - 2:03 pm



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The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere