July 17, 2019 8:00 am

Six Keys to Effective Professional Development

Engage your teachers and staff in effective professional development with these simple and research-backed tips.

As the library begins to fill up with your colleagues, you wonder, “Will we get out early today? What is this professional development about anyway? I’ve got too much to do in my classroom to focus on this.”

This may sound all too familiar to educators taking part in professional development. Naturally, one wonders how to make professional development effective for teachers, and the simple answer is by making sure to both engage teachers and allow time for reflection. But how we get there is a bit more detailed.

In a 2009 study, over 90% of teachers reported having participated in professional development that was not useful. Professional development, of course, is intended to benefit all the educators who participate in it, so what are the keys to effective professional development sessions for teachers?

Students in a classroom all raising their hands to answer a question

1. Administrative Support

Before any PD sessions occur, it is imperative that the district’s primary point of contact be available for a meeting or phone call with the PD specialist. This call may be the only opportunity for the parties to touch base about topics related to the agenda, the level of experience of the teachers participating, and logistics.

During the session, it is important for the overseeing administrator to be present and active. Often, questions or topics arise that are unique to a school district’s policy. While PD specialists can offer suggestions, ultimately the school’s or district’s administration must be present to make decisions or establish guidelines for their staff. A delay in decision-making can impact a teacher’s ability to deploy what they have learned right away.

Beyond the initial session, sustained administrative support is essential to a teacher’s success since implementation of some new practice, policy, or technology is a big challenge. Therefore, support from administration, other teachers, and PD specialists during PLC or instructional time can provide this important layer. 

2. Teacher Buy-in

Teachers deserve PD that is relevant for them and their students. One way to achieve this is to have them play the role of and see the content through the lens of a student. As they learn new content and skills during the day, reflection can help guide them in understanding how their students can apply the new skill.

Another way to create buy-in is to elicit input about their learning objectives for the session. Having a greater stake in the desired outcomes can be very rewarding for a teacher who struggles to see the result.

3. Say–Show–Do

Central to any classroom is the concept of modeling. We first tell students what they will do, then carefully model the skill, and finally expect them to replicate the skill independently. This same concept should apply to PD sessions. Participants are more willing to apply a specific tool or skill once they have been presented with clear instructions and modeling on how to do that.

4. Collaboration Among Peers

Teaching is a collaborative profession, so isolating teachers during a PD session is counterintuitive to that. Finding opportunities for collaborative activities can keep participants engaged and tap into different ideas and perspectives around an idea or philosophy. Broadening teachers’ perspectives can, in turn, lead to increased engagement with their students.

5. Differentiation

Educators are expected to do this for their students in the classroom, so why wouldn’t we do the same thing for teacher professional development? There are a few ways to make this happen:

  • Having participants complete a survey ahead of time that gauges their level of expertise/experience is the first step to effective differentiation. Interpreting these results should guide the day’s agenda, and will hopefully enable the session leader to activate teacher interest by including topics that they would like to learn more about.
  • Teachers who have advanced skills or experience can guide a breakout session using their expertise to build their colleagues’ knowledge base. Additionally, teachers may be more willing to listen and engage with someone they already know.

6. Bringing Content to Life

Humor and fun are not just for the playground and classroom! Sharing humorous, real-world examples can be an effective way to engage participants and promote a safe and comfortable environment where meaningful professional development can take place. Bringing in humor and real life can also help keep teachers engaged and create memorable experiences.

When you’re planning out your PD sessions, keep these things in mind. PD should be beneficial for all educators, and students, too, so consider which way and when is best for your teachers to participate in PD. Incorporating these keys to effective professional development sessions is important to teachers’ personal growth and should be approached with careful consideration.