Transitioning from being a classroom teacher to working with classroom teachers in a professional development capacity was eye-opening for me. I’ve learned that most teachers are dedicated and passionate about growing professionally in order to better support student learning. I’ve also come to realize that we love “make and take.”
What do I mean by “make and take?” It’s a plug-in-and-use-right-away-in-your-classroom tool, approach, or strategy. This desire is understandable. After all, we’ve invested time and often our own money to read a book or attend a professional development workshop. It’s natural to have a strong desire for something tangible to take back to the classroom and implement with a certain measure of success. Frustration peaks when these things are not present and the gain is an intangible increase in professional knowledge or understanding, but not necessarily a vehicle for immediate transfer. I’d like to suggest, however, that strong educational practice is prohibitive of “make and take.”
So much of strong educational practice is intangible – the philosophy and mindset of the educator, his or her beliefs about students, understanding of what constitutes quality curriculum, and the role he or she should play in supporting student learning. If these things are not well-defined, firmly established, and explored in varied contexts, then the application is liable to be unfruitful. Research shows that teachers who don’t have a deep understanding of the philosophy and theory behind a teaching approach may have difficulty translating that into practical classroom situations or dealing with the unknown (Theriot & Tice, 2009).
As teachers and educational leaders, we often come to various professional development opportunities with unrealistic expectations. Specifically, the expectation that input of professional development must equal output of “make and take” or easy tools that lead to immediate successful results. And it’s true, application is crucial. That same research that emphasizes a need for strong philosophical or theoretical understandings likewise stresses the need for skills with which to apply strategies reflective of the philosophy. If those skills are not present, teachers are liable to return to familiar practices when confronted with classroom situations that are beyond their expertise (Theriot & Tice, 2009). In other words, having a theoretical understanding only gets us so far; we need to have the practical tools to navigate the particular contexts of our classrooms for a new teaching approach to be implemented successfully.
So how can we strike the right balance? How can we build a strong foundation yet still feel confident applying effective practices in or classrooms? First, we need to understand the characteristics and function of good professional development. Then we need to take intentional steps towards professional growth.
While there is not a strong body of research on specific practices that lead to growth in professional development, there is a professional consensus as to which characteristics reflect high-quality professional development (Desimone, Porter, Garet, Yoon, & Birman, 2002); these include: active learning, opportunities for collaboration with colleagues, longevity in duration (Desimone, et al., 2002), ongoing coaching and practice-based professional development (Briscoll, 2008). All of these things emphasize the complex, long-term aspect of professional growth. Sadly, there will not likely ever be a quick and dirty “silver bullet” workshop that leaves us with a stack of “make and take” tools that transform our classrooms overnight.
Happily, this means we can stop beating ourselves up when we don’t obtain instant results after the first attempts to apply what we’ve learned. True learning and growth takes time and ongoing effort. A single book, workshop, or even a whole conference will not address all our needs for high-quality, lasting professional growth. Eventually collaboration and coaching will prove necessary. If we aim to proactively and intentionally plan our professional growth, then we’ll select a variety of professional materials and learning experiences that will enable us to move toward more complex goals that lead to improved practices.
Once we acknowledge that professional growth is an ongoing iterative process, we can begin taking steps to grow intentionally. Intentional professional growth is not unlike quality learning plans that reflect research-based best practices:
- First, we need to define our expectations, in much the same way that we define our expectations for learning experiences for our students in learning goals. What understandings, skills, and knowledge do we hope to gain from a professional learning endeavor?
- Next, we select the materials and learning experiences that can best move us towards those aims. Books, conferences, workshops, graduate or specialist courses, lesson studies, consulting coaches with specialties, etc., are a few of the tools at our disposal.
- In the same way we preemptively and formatively assess our students to note their starting and ongoing needs and progress relative to those aims, so we ought to take stock of our progress and needs in relation to professional goals.
- Finally, as we ought to adjust the materials, instructional strategies, grouping arrangements, etc., to reflect our understandings of our students evolving needs and progress, so we ought to approach professional growth goals. Learning is complex and fluid and we need to be flexible and responsive to our evolving professional needs.
While books, workshops, and conferences can be powerful tools that promote teacher growth, they should only be used as a part of a larger and more intentional plan for professional growth and, ultimately, successful classroom results.
Briscoll, M.J., (2008). Embracing coaching as professional development. Principal Leadership, 9(2), 40-43.
Desimone, L., Porter, A.C., Garet, M.S., Yoon, K.S., & Birman, B.F., (2002). Effects of professional development on teachers’ instruction: Results from a three-year longitudinal study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(2), 81-112.
Theriot, S., & Tice, K.C., (2009). Teachers’ knowledge development and change: Untangling beliefs and practices. Literacy Research and Instruction, 48, 65-75.