How do you leverage professional development to drive student achievement? (Part 2)

This week, like each week over the past two years since I became the full time Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany, I facilitated professional development for teachers, school leaders, and central office senior leaders in multiple cities. Often time, I begin my keynotes,  workshops, and breakouts with this caveat, “Professional development ought to be professional and you ought to get developed as a result of participating.” Sound simple? But it’s an unspoken, authentic concerns for educators each time they convene for “professional development.” Teachers, school leaders, and central office leaders are all too often required to participate in professional development that is not worth the cost of the gasoline that it cost to get there and they are expected to grin and bear it. We should have a national standard for the quality of professional learning for adults. Think of it this way. Time is one of the few resources known to man that is not renewable. Once we squander it, it’s gone, never to be replenished. Time is far too precious a resource to misuse. We must be ever-cognizant of how we use time as a teacher and leader resource for promoting student achievement.

I earnestly believe that site-based and central office professional development opportunities must be representative of what I refer to as the 6 Elements of Exemplary Professional Learning. Professional learning must: (1) edify participants; (2) be relevant to the work and responsibilities of participants; (3) challenge long-held beliefs and practices (pedagogy) against student outcome data; (4) build content knowledge; (5) result in new learning; and (6) foster calibration. I will discuss the first three in this post and the second three in next week’s post.

Here is the epiphany for the first three of the elements of exemplary professional learning. (Part 1)

Professional development should edify participants. I have seen it with my own eyes and have been subjected to it. Teachers, school leaders, and even senior level school administrators are summoned to a room for professional learning, all too often only to be lambasted and lectured. Simultaneously, those same educators are encouraged to subsequently go above and beyond the call of duty, sacrificing for an organization that fails to see professionalism as a bi-directional engagement.  Those same educators are expected to innovate in a culture that rewards relationships over impact. Those same educators are expected to remain faithful to an organization that allows them to be regularly summoned, only to be spoken to in a manner below reasonable expectations for professionalism and standards. Really? Be careful whom you allow to address your staff. At all costs, protect them from being denigrated by those who are supposed to edify them and renew their confidence in the organization.

Professional development should be relevant to the work and responsibilities of each participant. Yes, you want members of your team to be cross-trained. Yes, you want the left hand of your organization to be familiar with the work of the right hand. Doing so results in valuable organizational efficiencies and reductions in duplication of effort. But there is a fine line between cross-training and squandering time. Faculty and staff should not be required to participate in professional development that does not directly speak to or align with their responsibilities.

It’s actually an act of unprofessionalism to require someone to participate in professional development that does is not relevant to their responsibilities.

Impactful professional learning should be differentiated for adult learners in the same way that we expect teachers to differentiate instruction for their students. School leaders, let’s not be guilty of requiring teachers to do something that we do not consistently model for them. Central office leaders, if you expect school leaders to differentiate professional learning for their faculty and staff members, you should model the same practice with your professional development for school leaders. Everyone on your team does need the same professional development. When we treat everyone like a member of the same treatment group, they resent it; and they should. You resent it. Instead, make every effort to ensure that mandatory professional development meets the criteria for mandatory status.

Professional development should challenge long-held beliefs and practices (pedagogy) against student outcome data. John Dewey made this statement more than a century ago, “Knowledge is not only born out of consensus.” In translation, we can learn from those with whom we fundamentally disagree. The gold standard of professional development must include opportunities for participants to challenge that which is known and widely accepted. Without these constructive and authentic opportunities, participants are likely to push back on the “new learning” and consequently miss out on the message because they resent the messenger for not permitting them to both voice and iron out their dissent. Moreover, professional development that fails to have a foundation built upon trustworthy student outcome data is akin to shooting an arrow at a target in the dark. You might hit the bullseye, but it will be 100% luck and 0% strategy.

Here is the epiphany for the next three elements of exemplary professional learning. (Part 2)

Professional development should build content knowledge. To the detriment of student outcomes and organizational effectiveness, there is an imbalance in the foci of professional learning leaning towards pedagogy. As public educators, we must be reminded of the value of access to professional learning opportunities characterized by a dichotomous focus on (teacher and leader) knowledge of the content and as well as pedagogy. All too often teacher and leader learning opportunities are characterized by an excessive focus on pedagogy and an equal focus on administrivia. Instead, I urge public educators to consciously invert the professional development paradigm by insisting on providing both teachers and school leaders with access to professional learning opportunities designed to strengthen knowledge of core content concepts. From my work across the nation, I consistently notice that a great deal of assumptions are made up and down the organizational hierarchy. These assumptions made about teacher and leader knowledge of the content are inherently dangerous. When folks are honest about their knowledge of core content concepts, opportunities for student achievement abound. To the contrary, where folks work in fear of reprisal (if they admit they don’t know), these opportunities to improve student achievement are greatly diminished.

So what’s the epiphany here?

We have to provide teachers and school leaders with professional learning characterized by dual intensity-equal parts content knowledge and pedagogy. We have to make sure our teachers and leaders are working in an environment where they feel safe to say they don’t know.

Professional development should result in new learning. For educators, there are few things worse than being required to participate in professional learning bereft of an opportunity to acquire new knowledge. Yet, every day, every week, every month, every school year, teachers and school leaders sit for hours upon hours in passive compliance in an attempt to show respect for the unrespectable. Those responsible for adult learning (school level and central office) must be cognizant of and responsive to the individual needs of faculty and staff. Professional development offerings must be driven by the needs of the intended participants and likewise, it must be driven by anecdotal, formative, and summative student outcome data generated by the organization’s balanced assessment system.

So what’s the epiphany here?

How would you feel if your superiors required you to consistently sit through professional learning that you don’t need? Would you feel respected? Would you feel engaged? Would you feel energized? Permit me to answer these questions for you.  No, no, and no period.

Professional development should foster calibration. By nature, teaching and leading are both isolating professional pursuits. Unfortunately, as a result, opportunities for teachers and leaders to learn from one another are few and far between. The profession creates natural barriers and we have to find ways to bring these barriers down. Public educators, we cannot permit walls between classrooms, bell schedules, and other contractual obligations to erode the spirit, structure, and function of an authentic professional learning community. Learning communities that become contrived and inauthentic defeat the very purpose for forming them. They don’t feel like authentic collaboration opportunities but more like a boxes being checked. In order for true collaboration to be true collaboration, the spirit of the engagement must match the purpose of the engagement.

So what’s the epiphany here?

Real collaboration is not forced or contrived, it is organic.

To read more about my ideas on the gold standard for professional development for America’s schools read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement-Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website:


Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.


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