Rethinking Teacher Professional Development

(This bit is cross posted over at Simple K12)

If you were to ask any of the thousands of teachers who attended one of the 26 edcamps that have been held in the past two years to describe the most important characteristics of effective professional development for educators, you might be surprised by one of their first answers:

A blank bulletin board and a bunch of empty classrooms.

You see, edcamps—free learning conferences organized by educators and for educators—all begin with participants joining together in a central meeting place deciding on topics worth studying and creating an ad hoc schedule of sessions for the day.

Anyone can volunteer to lead a conversation on a topic that they are interested in at an edcamp.  Passionate about the role that social media can play in teaching and learning?

Add it to an open slot on the scheduling board.

Motivated to learn more about teaching science to middle grades students?

Add it to an open slot on the scheduling board.

Deeply interested in finding ways to integrate arts into classrooms across the curricula?

Add it to an open slot on the scheduling board.

“It surprises me every time,” says Dan Callahan—one of the founders of the edcamp movement and a digital friend of mine. “You walk in and that schedule board is empty and by the end of an hour it is full of more stuff than you can get to.”

From there, participants design their own learning plan for the day. 

They pick sessions that pique their interests or meet their professional needs—and more importantly, they join together with other educators who share the same interests or who are tackling the same professional needs.

By the end of the day, participants walk away energized—and empowered by a collection of new ideas and individuals to learn from.

That’s crazy-talk, isn’t it?

Teachers—who have a bad reputation for groaning every time that they’re asked to be learners in the traditional PD sessions planned and delivered by districts—are willingly joining together to  spend their weekends engaged in powerful conversations about teaching and learning?

This dichotomy between the reaction teachers have towards traditional professional development and the experiences they have at edcamps shouldn’t be surprising at all argues West Clermont Schools district superintendent M.E. Steele-Pierce in this piece for the Washington Post.

She writes:

“Unconferences matter because they harness the power of authentic learning.

Here’s what I know:

• The learning revolution is about moving from expert-driven learning to self-authorized learning.

• The expert voices are already among us.

• Differentiation is as important for adults as it is for students.

• Powerful, adult learning occurs when it is personal, social and voluntary.”

Makes a heck of a lot of sense, doesn’t it?  Essentially, edcamp proponents like Steele-Pierce understand that teachers aren’t resistant to learning. 

Instead, they are resistant to the forced marches through topics unconnected to their personal interests or needs that pass for professional development in most schools and districts.

So how can you make sure that the adult learning in your school and/or district becomes more personal, social and voluntary?

Consider these five suggestions:

Begin releasing control over professional development choices.

Let me make something perfectly clear:  I understand just how scary it must be for school leaders—who are held directly accountable for the performance of teachers—to release control over professional development choices.

Heck—if I was going to be held directly accountable for the performance of dozens of adults with a wide range of abilities, I’d probably micromanage every professional development choice, too.

I also understand that the edcamp approach to PD is messy. 

It IS hard to believe that meaningful learning can start and end with a blank bulletin board—especially when you are charged with driving growth and change across entire schools and/or districts.

Tight-fisted approaches to adult learning inevitably backfire, though, because teachers—like any student—need to be invested and engaged before they can truly learn.

Integrating elements of the edcamp approach into your professional development plans sends powerful messages to your classroom teachers. 

When you find ways to release control over some of the professional development choices in your schools and/or districts, you are saying, “We believe in what you know and can do when you study practice together.”

You’re also saying, “We trust that you know your personal needs and that—when given the time and space—you’ll work to improve.”

And those are exactly the type of messages that professional learners thrive on.

Use clear vision statements to guide the professional development choices of educators.

I’ve spent the better part of the past week in an intellectual cage match with a buddy of mine about the important role that vision statements—clear, precise descriptions of an ideal future state for classrooms, schools and districts—can play in school improvement.

While many educators underestimate the importance of vision statements, they can be invaluable for school leaders interested in releasing control over professional development choices, especially when they are precise and specific—like these that guide the work of the social studies department at Adlai Stevenson High School.

You see, once teachers and learning teams have a clear set of vision statements to guide their work, you can ask—even require—that their professional development choices be connected to individual statements.

That provides teachers with the freedom to pursue studies customized to their own needs and school leaders with a measure of confidence that time spent in edcamp style sessions will still move schools forward in a a somewhat systematic fashion.


Don’t limit authentic, teacher-driven learning experiences to unconferences.

One of my only worries about the edcamp movement is that it will get swallowed by the educational hierarchy.

Convinced that some level of choice in professional development programming makes sense, well-intentioned school leaders will create once-a-year district level edcamps where teachers spend eight hours sowing their “design-my-own-learning” oats.

If that happens—and I’m way convinced that it could—the edcamp movement would be a failure simply because authentic, teacher-driven learning experiences should be a part of the everyday work of every district.

For school leaders, that means finding ways to encourage ongoing, teacher-directed, collaborative learning at the building level.

And nothing encourages ongoing, teacher-directed collaborative learning at the building level better than professional learning communities.

Need proof?

Then look at how PLCs have changed my practice.


Remember that teachers will need help in learning how to learn with each other.

As confident as I am that teachers should be given more control over their own learning, I’m also realistic enough to know that there are a lot of specific skills that we will need to master in order to direct this growth in a productive and meaningful way.

We need to know more about instructional reflection skills like prioritizing our choices based on an understanding of student needs and making the results of our learning transparent to our peers.

We also need to know more about team-based collaboration skills like conducting effective conversations and coming to consensus around important issues worth studying.

We n
eed to learn how to manipulate data to identify important trends in learning results, how to identify the relationship between instructional practices and student learning outcomes, and how to embrace team-based conflict as a tool for collective growth.

By systematically building our skills in these areas, school leaders increase the likelihood that teacher-driven professional development opportunities will be meaningful and efficient—and will yield tangible results for schools and for students.


Find ways to reward the learning that teachers do away from schools.

I’m going to tell you a frustratingly uncomfortable truth:  I learn FAR more away from school than I do in school.

By regularly interacting with other eduthinkers in my Twitterstream, my Google Reader, and my own blog, I am almost always learning something that is directly connected to the work that I am doing in my own classroom and/or school. 

Just this morning, I spent about 2 hours studying iPad Apps that might be useful for my students, the characteristics of effective professional development, and the way that conversations about assessment in classrooms need to shift.

ALL of that learning is  directly connected to the work that I’m doing with students and teachers in my school, but I won’t earn ANY professional development credit for it. 

That’s just nuts.

The solution is relatively simple:  School leaders must advocate for—or create on their own—policies that allow teachers to earn licensure credit for the learning that they are doing on their own.

What could it look like in action? 

Here’s a tracking document that I created for my next book that could serve as a starting point for conversations on how to reward teachers for being independent learners.


Does any of this make sense?  Basically, what I’m arguing is that teacher choice in professional development programming is essential if schools are ever going to really see significant changes in teaching and learning.

More importantly, I’m arguing that introducing teacher choice into professional development programming doesn’t have to be a risky proposition for school leaders. 

By relying on clear vision statements, helping teachers to learn more about the skills connected to collaborative learning, and designing policies that reward teachers for anytime-anywhere learning, school leaders can begin to release control over professional development programs AND ensure that school improvement efforts are systematic all at the same time.

13 thoughts on “Rethinking Teacher Professional Development

  1. N. Zona

    This is a very interesting topic. I’m in college now getting my teaching certificate. What my continued education will look like after I’m in the classroom is currently a mystery to me.
    I wonder though how much of this principle you bring into your classroom? Do you feel it is important to give your students the same freedom to choose their educational experiences? At what point do you think a students is ready to make their own decisions and receive credit for those educational activities?

  2. Davidwees

    I think we should develop PD opportunities for the teachers who are professionals, and stop worrying about the “lazy” teachers who aren’t all interested in improving their craft and are just there for a paycheck. The vast majority of teachers are professional learners, and those who are not aren’t going to learn under any model we choose.

  3. Dan Callahan

    Argh. I had a much longer comment that TypePad lost when signing in. Argh.
    You got my conclusion up there. The gist being that yes, I understand your frustration, because I’ve felt it myself. Those of us who organize Edcamps and the like are basically saying “yeah, it sucks, so let’s do something about it outside of the traditional power structure because it matters.”

  4. Dan Callahan

    Realistically, we’re doing grassroots, ground-level work to wash away the foundation underneath traditional PD. People who come to Edcamps leave knowing that PD doesn’t have to suck, and those people start agitating in their own districts for better ways of doing things. We’re not going to change things overnight, but if we provide comfort to some and convert some others, I think we’re taking a step in the right direction.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Dan wrote:
    We decided AGAINST pursuing it not just because of the bureaucracy, but
    because of an active choice on our part that we were looking for
    educators who only WANTED to give up a Saturday to learn from others,
    and not be filled with a bunch of people who were desperate for credits.
    Unfortunately, too many of those people wont be the kind of active
    partcipants and edcamp requires in order to thrive, so thats a decision
    Im completely comfortable with.
    This is brilliant thinking that I hadnt considered, Dan—-and should also be completely embarrassing to the education profession!
    I mean think about what youre saying. A loose translation would be, In order to learn with other motivated teachers, we had to keep all the uninterested teachers out.
    I think my anger comes from the fact that there is no trust at the state or district level for ANY teachers because of those colleagues that leave us embarrassed.
    That one-sized approach to teachers wouldnt be okay in my classroom, yet the powers that be have no trouble applying it to me. My choice is to tolerate it while working outside the system to learn effectively or to rail against it in an attempt to point out how ridiculous current approaches and policies are.
    Where I land on that spectrum changes almost every day!
    A part of me wants to learn in spite of the obstacles thrown up by narrow-minded professional development policies. A part of me is hacked off that I have to.
    Any of this make sense?

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Matt,
    Thanks for stopping by! You know how much I enjoy hearing from you. Your push back against my thinking almost always helps me to polish my own beliefs.
    Here are a few thoughts:
    1. My primary point in this post is that teachers need to be given more ownership over their own learning. Thats still something that doesnt happen very often in schools.
    2. A secondary point that Im arguing for is that the self-directed learning that we do—on Twitter, in our feed readers, in the comment sections of blogs, at Ed Camps—-needs to be recognized as legitimate learning and rewarded with license renewal credit. As it currently stands—at least here in our state—renewal credits are required before we can be recertified and yet theyre tightly controlled at the same time. Thats ridiculous to me because it serves as a disincentive to self-directed learning, the very behavior that we should be rewarding teachers for because it is the behavior that we need to see more of in our classrooms.
    3. I think there can be natural links between PLCs and the self-directed learning encouraged by Ed Camps. How powerful would it be if we said to learning teams, What is it that you need to learn first in order to improve your collective intelligence? Why do these skills matter to you? How will they improve learning for your students? How will you document the impact of your work? The topic of collaboration becomes, how can we get better as a group and the direction for efforts is left up to teams as long as they can demonstrate how their choices align with the goal of improving learning for students in our classrooms at our school in our community.
    In the end, I believe that when we turn ownership over learning decisions to learners—whether they are teachers in our schools or the students in our classrooms—-were taking powerful steps in the right direction. Schools functioning as PLCs that rigidly control the learning that teams are doing are missing the point. We have to have faith that teachers who accept ownership over their own learning will get to the same end point that we too often want to prescribe for them.
    Does any of this make sense?
    PS: While Im thrilled that Solution Tree picks up the tab for me to go to PD conferences—Ive been to both NSDC and ASCD this year as a learner only—-in some ways, that fact drives me nuts. States and districts should be responsible—and held accountable—for providing opportunities for teachers to grow, and when they dont (or cant) its evidence of a systemic failure that has to be addressed before Ill ever willingly embrace increased accountability expectations for teachers.
    Elmore calls it reciprocal accountability. For every new increment of performance that you demand of me, you have an equal responsibility to provide the time, tools and training for me to master new skills. States, districts, schools and communities are constantly falling short of meeting these responsibilities.

  7. Matt Townsley

    I’m not sure what you’re saying makes sense to me quite yet. It sounds like you’re advocating for things from both sides of the spectrum — teacher-driven PD without credit (i.e. unconferences) and PD driven by a unified theme (i.e. PLCs). In all of the Solution Tree / DuFour / Ferriter books I’ve read about PLCs, I haven’t heard anyone advocating for a PLC movement at a district or building level to be done through external, credit-driven, courses. Instead, it is stating a clear vision of what collaborative learning looks like AND a clear idea of what teams should be collaborating about. The topic of collaboration, in the DuFour PLC model, is not left up to the individual teams…as you appear to be advocating for in this post.
    Perhaps I’m reading too far into your rant here and my guess is that there’s an awful lot of context behind your post.
    P.S. Despite the fact that your district has no $ for PD, let’s lay it all out on the table — your sponsors, i.e. Solution Tree have figured out a way to get you out of the classroom a few times a year! There’s something worth celebrating. 🙂

  8. Dancallahan

    Hey Bill,
    Yes, that is frustrating. But I’m honestly surprised to see you so mad about not getting credit that you would effectively deny building a powerful day of learning for yourself and others.
    Most Edcamps do not give PD credits. I’ve only been to one that did, and that was because the organizers were a part of the college where it was held. In Philly when we started this, we looked into the PD credit thing. It was a bureaucratic nightmare, but it may have been able to happen.
    We decided AGAINST pursuing it not just because of the bureaucracy, but because of an active choice on our part that we were looking for educators who only WANTED to give up a Saturday to learn from others, and not be filled with a bunch of people who were desperate for credits. Unfortunately, too many of those people won’t be the kind of active partcipants and edcamp requires in order to thrive, so that’s a decision I’m completely comfortable with.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Dan,
    Thanks a ton for stopping by!
    Are you ready for something that might shock you: Im so pissed about PD in our state that I dont think Im ever going to set up an unconference.
    The primary reason is that after the number of ridiculous experiences Ive had with the people who make choices about what kind of learning counts towards recertification, Im pretty convinced that nothing we did in an unconference would be recognized by the powers that be.
    Heck—just this week I spent almost 8 hours working through PD 360 videos and reflection questions connected to my curriculum. Most of them were basic, but considering that Im still somewhat new at teaching science (Im traditionally a LA/SS guy), I figured they would help.
    I also figured the time invested would count towards recertification. After all, our district paid a heaping cheeseload to provide every school with access to PD 360. Its a PD tool that they invested in, that they are supporting, and that they are advertising. There is literally NO other money for PD in our district. I cant go to conferences because theres no money for registrations. Heck—even if I wanted to pay for my own registration, there is no money to pay for substitute teachers.
    So I watched me some PD 360 videos, answered all of the reflection questions, printed out my transcripts—-which include the amount of time I spent watching videos as well as my responses to every question—and submitted them for credit.
    I was denied. The explanation: The only PD 360 time that is recognized is the time that teachers spend working through courses created by district level leaders.
    The message sent: We dont trust you to choose learning experiences that matter to you.
    Can you see why setting up an unconference makes no sense for me?
    Sure, Ill learn a ton. Sure, Ill enjoy networking with peers. Sure, Ill feel empowered.
    But my district and state wont recognize any of that as learning.

  10. Bill Ferriter

    David wrote:
    I mean, seriously, its not that radical an idea. It merely requires an
    expectation of professionalism on the part of the learner, and a trust
    that people will choose useful sessions to attend.
    First, thanks for stopping by, David. Good to see you in this space.
    Second, Im with you: Its crazy that the idea of teachers driving their own learning is so foreign to our schools.
    I think the reasons are complex, but include the sad fact that teachers HAVENT always been professional when it comes to driving their own learning. I mean, I know peers who couldnt care less if they ever improve as a professional. Theyre just ringing up seat time towards recertification or retirement.
    Theyre far from any image of a professional that I can create—-but theyre in our faculty rooms and our classrooms for lots of reasons. We dont have an easy way to help them out of the profession or to hold them accountable for something more. And even if we did, there isnt a huge pool of super-motivated people to take their place.
    Those peers—and my guess is that theyre less than 10% of the faculty in most buildings—-create ridiculously negative impressions about the professionalism of ALL teachers in the minds of district leaders. Trust levels, then, are ridiculously low, and PD ends up being a micromanaged experience.
    Sadly, this negative impression about the professionalism of teachers is only growing. Youve got Michelle Rhee with her broom on Time Magazine. Youve got experts in education leadership calling teachers who resist fundamentalists. Youve got right-wing hacks pushing anti-teacher rhetoric into every conversation.
    Before long, (1). few people will see teachers as professionals and (2). the professionally-minded teacher will get so fed up with the patronizing treatment they receive in schools that theyll walk away.
    Its actually pretty depressing stuff—-but Im afraid its where were headed whether we like it or not.

  11. Dancallahan

    Bill, you bring up some great points.
    Getting swallowed up the hierarchy (both educational and corporate) is absolutely one of my chief concerns. I’m pleased to note that my school district this year used 2 of our 4 days in Edcamp-style PD. As you note, the teachers do need some help with it…while many were very pleased with their days, some teachers wanted much more structure. It’s easy for me who spends a lot of my personal time in independent PD to switch to an unconference model, but for others it’s a very new and unfamiliar concept.
    I think you hit the nail on the head though that teacher choice is really the key to improved PD. If I had my way, districts would do a lot less paying people to come to their districts and more paying to send their people out to learn elsewhere, bringing that knowledge back and building expertise within their community.
    So when are you going to get together an Edcamp in NC? You know you want to.

  12. crazedmummy

    Great post, it’s going to my group right now, as they discuss what to do on the PD day on Tuesday.

  13. Davidwees

    I have a crazy question:
    Why has it taken so long for teacher driven professional development to take root?
    I mean, seriously, it’s not that radical an idea. It merely requires an expectation of professionalism on the part of the learner, and a trust that people will choose useful sessions to attend.

Comments are closed.