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Professional Learning Is More Meaningful When Done as a Team

Jasmine Kullar

Ongoing professional learning is critical in any profession, including education. It is through professional learning that you acquire skills to help you do your job better, gain insight on how to resolve ongoing issues, and build a network of colleagues who you can continue to learn from. 

Recertification essentially requires teachers to participate in professional learning throughout their careers. However, what does that professional learning look like? And, more importantly, does it actually help teachers get better, or is it just something they check off in order to continue to teach? 

I would argue that often the recertification process doesn't do anything to actually change teacher practices back in the classroom. So why is it such a difficult task to provide high-quality professional learning for recertification?  Here are a few answers that I've learned as a principal:

1. Money

The No. 1 reason, of course, is money. In education, money is scarce, so whenever there is a financial crisis, professional learning is usually the first thing to get cut. Imagine having a staff of 50 certified teachers and your professional-development budget for the school year is $2,000. What will $2,000 get you? That is $40 per person. Conference registrations can be anywhere between $200 per person to $800 per person—and that does not include airfare, hotels, meals, etc. Bringing a professional speaker or consultant to provide PD can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $12,000. So with limited funds, our professional learning suffers.

 2. Low-Budget PD

As a result of having minimal funds for professional learning, we provide low-budget PD in education. We may purchase a book for each teacher and hope they will read it. We find internal employees to deliver PD content. We send teachers to district PD where district personnel provide professional learning that they deem appropriate. We send our teachers wherever we can that is free or cheap to obtain their professional learning.

3. No PD Days

Even if we had money and were able to send teachers to all kinds of great conferences, the question then becomes—when? Teachers have students with them every day. Unlike other professions, teachers do not have the flexibility to just be gone for three days to attend a conference. Summer conferences can be convenient for teachers, but many of our teachers are "off contract" during that time, making it difficult to request that they attend PD. Some districts build in one day a month for teachers that is reserved just for professional learning—doesn't that sound nice? 

4. No Accountability

So let's assume we have money and we have the PD days in our calendar—now what would be the problem? Accountability. How do we know that teachers are actually implementing what they learned back in their classrooms? If a teacher goes through professional learning  but does not change anything in his or her classroom, then that learning was useless. Learning in essence means change. When you learn something, that means you are going to change something now that you have new knowledge. However, when teachers go back to their classrooms, what evidence do we have that they're actually doing things differently based on what they learned?

Professional Learning Through PLCs

What if we totally revamped the way we do professional learning so that it took place through professional learning communities (PLCs)—teachers learning from each other everyday while on the job? Georgia has done this—the state now requires all teachers to participate in professional learning communities in order to get recertified.

Of course, the proper structures and processes need to be put in place for this to work. But imagine an environment where:

  • Teachers provide feedback and share ideas with each other;
  • Teachers read current research together and discuss how to apply it to their practice;
  • Teachers conduct action research and then discuss what worked and what didn't work;
  • Teachers watch each other teach the same lesson and then give feedback;
  • Teachers review each other's grading and give each other feedback; and 
  • Teachers analyze each other's student data and discuss strategies on how to improve.

Imagine the power in that professional learning—how much teachers could grow professionally when they have colleagues right there with them who are also on the same journey. But more importantly, when the focus is on student learning in a PLC, then this kind of professional learning is bound to impact student achievement—and isn't that the most important thing?

Jasmine Kullar, EdD, is a Georgia middle school principal with leadership experience at elementary, middle, and high school levels. She specializes in building professional learning communities and school leadership.

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