Professional learning for teachers can be challenging. Research indicates that effective professional learning can have a positive impact on student achievement, but there are many challenges that must be addressed for this to happen. In order for professional learning to be effective, it has to be relevant to teachers.
Through the first three articles in this series, we looked at how critical timing and practice are to allow teachers to take their new learning and apply it in the classroom. In addition to this, even if teachers have the time to implement and the support to produce practice opportunities in the classroom, they still need to see relevance. If teachers don’t see how the new learning can help their students to do better, all the time and support in the world doesn’t really matter.
It’s particularly challenging to keep new learning relevant to teachers. Every teacher has a different style, a different philosophy of education, and a different grade level or content to teach. Even within an elementary school, the needs of a kindergarten teacher are somewhat different than the needs of a third or fourth grade teacher.
Even though it’s challenging, it isn’t impossible to create relevant learning opportunities for our teachers. Here are some ideas for how we can make sure that learning is relevant to teachers:
- Listening to teachers: Gathering feedback from teachers about what they want is important. It may sound overly simplistic, but we have to listen to teachers and what their needs are. The one-size-fits-all approach to learning is essential at times, but we can often differentiate to meet teachers’ needs. We have to know what they need in order to make this happen.
- The power of choice: Along the same lines, teachers should have as much choice as is practical when we offer professional learning. Kindergarten teachers should have kindergarten-relevant topics just as secondary level teachers should have topics that are relevant to them. As we would with students, we should differentiate in format (online versus face to face), in topics (grade level and content area), and in skill level (novice versus expert).
- Offering guidance: Sometimes teachers may not know exactly what they need, which is where leadership comes in. Whoever is helping to guide professional learning in the district—whether it be principals, superintendents, or curriculum coaches—should be well versed in the latest research and trends in education. This can help to create relevant opportunities for teachers who might be searching for a new tool or concept for their teaching.
- Base decisions off data and best practices: I mentioned research, but data is another important piece for making decisions about teacher learning. If there is a trend in curriculum—low math achievement data, for example—professional learning can be targeted to that area. If teachers know and understand how to read and analyze agreed upon district data, they will crave strategies that can focus on those areas. The understanding of the data creates the relevance for the instructor.
- Have a group that's willing to innovate: I’ve found that it helps a great deal to have an innovation group in the district. These are the teachers who are willing to step out and try new things in the classroom. Their reflection on these is critical, because…
- Teachers listen to other teachers to create relevance: If teachers are hearing about a new tool or strategy from other teachers, it helps to create the motivation for them to learn it themselves. Ideas are much more relevant when they come from a peer instead of coming from an expert. Experts are important, but they are not as motivating as others in the trenches who can attest to the quality of a new idea.
In the end, it really comes down to a simple concept: Teacher learning has many of the same components as high-quality student learning. The methods that we use for our students are the same as the methods we should be using for our teachers. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. By working hard to make new learning relevant to teachers, giving them time and support to implement, and helpful feedback, teachers can get better—and students will benefit as a result.
Did you miss any of the previous posts in our Professional Learning That Works series? Be sure to catch up by reading part one, part two, and part three to ensure you have all of the knowledge shared throughout the series.
Want to learn more about professional learning solutions that offer opportunities for practice? Check out these training solutions.