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Creating a Culture of Learning for Adults: A Necessary Endeavor

Over the past few years, the conversations about professional development (PD) have ratcheted-up almost at the same rate as the high stakes testing frenzy during the NCLB era.

Leaders across the country have taken stances against policies to proliferate the use of testing to transform schools and classroom practices. At the same time, we’ve clearly emphasized the need for comprehensive PD to transform how we help prepare all children for their future.

The day has come where school and district leaders must create professional cultures where teachers can take charge of their own adult learning.

No longer can we put everyone in a room for days of large-scale, cookie-cutter learning opportunities and check professional development off the list.

The predictable pattern of simply surveying teachers about their professional needs, then designing a PD schedule for the year falls woefully short of creating the results needed for PD to improve schools.

Traditional PD plans and approaches have not worked in the past, and there is nothing that suggests these approaches will work in the future. We need to approach PD with urgency–our teachers, leaders, and students deserve our very best.

Over the last eight years, I have worked with a close friend and colleague, professor Dr. Sally J. Zepeda, to confront this challenge. Working out of the University of Georgia, Zepeda is a renowned international expert in designing and implementing professional development strategies for leaders and teachers.

So, how should we approach PD differently?

According to Dr. Zepeda, professional learning must be embedded in the everyday work school leaders and teachers do to improve learning outcomes for students and the adults who work with them. Professional development that is embedded focuses on learning what supports adult growth (Zepeda, 2015). Effective adult development requires relevancy, collaboration, and follow-up support with colleagues and school leaders (Zepeda, 2018).  Professional development is a joint responsibility where school leaders serve as lead learners in a school culture that allows for risk-taking, which fuels innovation.

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If we want our schools to be transformative, school leaders must recognize that effective professional learning is needed and necessary. In my work with Dr. Zepeda, we’ve begun to rethink how leaders develop school cultures that:

  • Are dynamic and innovative through engagement of both teachers and leaders. (New Practices for a New Day: Principal Professional Development to Support Performance Cultures in Schools)
  • Encourage personalized approaches, including conversations between teachers and leaders. (Conversation Walks: Improving Instructional leadership)
  • Purposefully unite leadership thinking and processes to meet the needs of all children and the adults who teach them. (The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate All Children)

The most effective leaders understand PD’s impact on meeting the needs of the district, teachers, and students to create a culture of customer service in their schools. Leaders at all levels should examine their approaches to PD by using these six key principles:

  1. Coherence and clarity in outcomes: Are conversations about PD needs aligned to the mission of your school and district?
  2. Common language: Have you created a common set of instructional expectations with a common language to ensure effective conversations about classroom practices?
  3. Embedded: Is your PD ongoing and continuous rather than scheduled for inservice days?
  4. Collaborative/shared: Do collaborative teams assume the responsibility to organize the professional learning needed to ensure effective planning and implementation of instructional practices?
  5. Teachers and leaders as experts: Do you access the expertise already in your building and district to develop teacher experts who support a positive school climate and culture?
  6. Innovation: Does PD promote innovation and risk taking for teachers and leaders?

School leaders can no longer be on the sidelines. They need to collaborate with teachers on new and innovative practices AND bring knowledge to the professional learning table. More important, leaders and teachers must be empowered to shake their heads ‘no’ if they do not understand the practices and ask for help or clarity–we cannot afford to get it wrong for children in the classroom!

Is your school or district rethinking professional development this year? What steps do you take to empower teachers and staff to engage in their own learning? Tell us in the comments.