Thinking about Professional Development Differently


An innovative approach to holistic professional development for all school district employees to improve student outcomes

I’ve spent over 15 years talking to school districts around the country about how they support their employees’ professional growth. It’s a complicated process, with different departments and schools within the district attempting to accomplish different objectives; from improving teaching practice to maintaining compliance with district policy.

Intentions are good, but in so many cases, there is no effective way for these different organizations to regularly keep each other informed. This disconnect often results in silos of data that are never shared or cross-referenced, fragmented communication, and an incomplete picture of how professional development is implemented throughout the district. What’s worse, the teacher or employee is left to spend precious time figuring out what professional development (PD) they need from conflicting sources. And ultimately, there is no real method of measuring its overall impact on student achievement.

In my travels, I’ve seen first-hand how some leading school districts are starting to think about PD differently, and I’d like to offer my insight into what I think is really working.

Personalize Professional Development

In order to truly support a professional growth cycle, professional development has to be personalized to the needs of each employee. Many of these needs are common to whole demographic groups, such as newly hired teachers, but other needs are much more specific to the teacher. While all PD should help district employees further their individual career goals, the PD should also support the district’s big picture goals.

As an example, we worked with a couple districts who aligned PD to their observation framework, allowing the observer to recommend PD after completing the observation. This was a great start towards personalizing the PD to each observed individual, but it omitted a big piece of the overall professional growth picture. Teachers in these districts often felt recommended PD was based on a single incident, and didn’t account for their professional growth plan goals. However, when recommended PD was based on many sources, with context for why it was recommended – from their mentor, their goal focus, observation – and teachers were able to choose from various PD resources and not from a single vendor, they felt they had the opportunity to participate in their own growth process. This helpful guidance resulted in better support, and increased ownership, and more importantly, greater buy in of this different PD approach.

 Accessible Professional Development

An effective professional development solution is about more than just registration processes, tracking hours, and compliance monitoring, although all of that is important. It’s about professional growth. Sometimes teachers know what they need, and other times their principals, leader teachers, and mentors can help them figure it out. But there will be times when these advisors aren’t available; and educators need a resource they can turn to, that is accessible any time, with professional development offerings tailored to their individual needs and learning styles.

Teachers have a lot on their plate! Professional development is not their first priority – their first priority is their students. Finding time for themselves and their own professional development is a huge challenge. Educators should not have to waste their precious time searching through hundreds of online courses or spend hours out of their day attending a workshop where only 15% of the content is relevant. Educators need relevant, high quality PD resources, available at their fingertips, in order to strengthen their practice in ways that most impact student learning.

Professional Development for All Employees 

When we think about professional development, we tend to think in terms of teachers, because they’re the ones who spend the most time in front of students. But why stop at teachers? Principals, counselors, bus drivers, any employee working at a school in some way impacts students.  These employees need, and deserve, to be supported in their career aspirations. All employees should be encouraged to take ownership of managing their professional learning, while enhancing their instructional capacity or role within the district.

When we first started working with a large district on the east coast, each department was offering professional development in different systems, catalogs, and websites. There was no district directive to mandate a comprehensive PD approach or single technology solution since each department liked their own process and had their own catalog. During this time employees carried all their PD paper transcripts in purple folders as a way to personally manage hours for certification across the departments and show compliance.

Realizing this issue, the innovative district leadership created an opt-in solution that enabled all the departments to build their own content catalog, and control their ongoing content management, in a single district system. Since all departments opted-in, employees found this single solution to be much easier to search and to interact with resources from every department. Employees were able to more efficiently keep track of their certification. And, purple folders became a thing of the past.

The Bigger Picture

How do we bring it all together? In most school districts, different departments offer different types of professional development, and they manage the administration of these efforts, tracking how well their offerings support overall employee professional growth. Supporting employee career objectives goes hand-in-hand with supporting the achievement of school and district performance objectives as well.

Accomplishing these objectives requires bringing together various departments: Human Resources, Curriculum and Instruction, Instructional Technology, and Educator Effectiveness. Sharing this effort across departments will allow all departments to monitor the status of all professional development offered throughout the school or district, and ultimately, assess its effectiveness.

I’ve witnessed this in the real-world. By consolidating district-wide professional learning services I’ve personally seen school districts offering thousands of educators, both certified and classified staff, a full suite of meaningful PD, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

In addition to monitoring PD, districts should be able to measure the efficacy of learning opportunities: Was the PD activity valuable? Is what was learned in the PD activity being applied in the classroom and on the job?

Once all PD is in a single place, I’ve seen district departments offering follow-up surveys to determine if PD is changing on-the-job practices, and feedback surveys to measure staff perceptions of the PD.

I encourage you to think about a different professional development approach, one in which PD is viewed holistically, offered to everyone, personalized to individualized growth plans, and focused on overarching school and district goals. Students need well-trained, effective, motivated personnel. Is it time to re-energize your PD approach so that your educators can thrive?

Additional Reading

If you want to learn more there are some great resources out there, including some amazing work in leading school districts:

Center for Public Education Teaching the Teachers

myPD: the art and science of personalized professional development

Human Capital Platform Professional Development Management System in Austin ISD

Jeanette Haren is Founder and Chief Product Officer of Truenorthlogic. Jeanette has spent over 15 years working directly with leading school districts across the country to define and develop professional growth systems to meet K12 specific needs. Under Jeanette’s leadership, Truenorthlogic created a one-of-a-kind comprehensive approach to supporting the cycle of continuous educator improvement and its connection to student achievement. Jeanette’s innovative vision of a unified professional growth system, designed to be flexible as state and district initiatives evolve, resulted in a technology platform that supports millions of educators’ professional growth.

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