Four Keys to Quality Professional Learning

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by Laura Thomas

Professional Learning, also known as Professional Development and In-Service Training, is ubiquitous in the experience of teachers, while the quality can range from transformative to miseducative. How can the wise school leader make the best possible choices in respect to the use of time and money when it comes to professional learning opportunities for the educators he or she serves, particularly when school transformation is the goal? There are four key concepts to keep in mind.

Gain Clarity

Begin by gaining clarity. Explore the data beyond the test scores, including teacher surveys, parent input, and demographic information. Decide what matters most. Ask yourself, if we only had one day to learn what we needed to learn this year, what would I most want teachers to spend that day learning and doing? Select that thing and make it your priority; it is the single most important thing for teachers to know and/or do. Then ask yourself, what will it look like when it’s done well? What training do teachers need in order to do it? How much time will it actually take to gain the skill necessary for implementation? What conditions need to be in place in order for implementation to be successful? By taking a developmental approach to school change, leaders can gain clarity about the life of the organization—the school—and the most developmentally appropriate choices to make at any single point.

Figure 1: Hierarchy of School Needs
Figure 1: Hierarchy of School Needs

Westminster Community School in Westminster, VT, began its relationship with the Antioch Center for School Renewal (ACSR) nearly 10 years ago. By reflecting upon Smith and Sobel’s nascent Hierarchy of School Needs (see Figure 1 [Antioch University New England, n.d.]), Westminster was able to determine that the social fabric of the school was strong—teachers, students, and parents had a genuine respect and appreciation for one another—but the coherence of the staff needed to be attended to. This clarity then led to the decision to focus time, energy, and resources on the creation and development of Critical Friends Groups as a tool for building a shared understanding of what it means to be a teacher and a learner in that community.

Westminster’s commitment to building professional communities is one that is ubiquitous among transformational learning communities. As teachers work to change practice in their classrooms, they must have a community of colleagues on whom they can lean for advice and support. “Even the highest-quality professional development resources will falter unless teachers can work together on new ideas and reflect on practice and its implications for students’ learning.” (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006, p. 3). According to Dr. Susan Dreyer Leon, director of Antioch University New England’s Experienced Educators program, without this community—be it a Critical Friends Group (as in the case of Westminster) or another structure—“[professional development] is just pouring water into a cup with holes in the bottom.” Be sure the foundation upon which you plan to build is solid before you begin adding the stress of instructional change.

It can be tempting to pursue a number of initiatives at once, driven by ever-changing district, school, state, and federal priorities and evolving student needs. The wise leader will resist the temptation, knowing that teachers, bombarded by ever-changing priorities, can and will become overwhelmed (Reeves, 2010). Stand as a “break” between the gale-force winds blowing down from the policy levels and the teachers who must serve your students. Take the time to examine the initiatives at work in your school. Which can be eliminated in favor of something more effective? Which are redundant or out of date? Have teachers had time to fully implement and integrate previous initiatives? Note that it can take as long as five years to move from a mechanical level of use through routine use, refinement, and integration, as described by Hall and Hord (2011) in Figure 2. Focus on fewer goals and allow teachers time to explore them fully. Make sure teachers know which are priority and which are less important. Collaborate with them in determining which are deserving of the precious time and energy available to you as a community, and be prepared to change course should the need become apparent. Finally, recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all in quality professional learning. Collaborate with teachers around their own learning goals and needs, allowing those personalized goals to be as much of a priority as the goals you bring to the table.

Figure 2: Levels of Use Tool
Figure 2: Levels of Use Tool

Make Consultants Part of the Community

The clarity described above allowed the principal to make and defend decisions to simplify the number of consultants and coaches working in the building at that time. Unfortunately, for any number of reasons, it is not always possible to eliminate the bevy of consultants mandated by state or district initiatives and programs. The wise leader recognizes the value of community as a key element for professional learning (Learning Forward, 2011) and endeavors to create communities that are inclusive of all learners, including consultants and external coaches. Because their work intersects, they must be made aware of one other and allowed, even encouraged, to collaborate lest their goals and methods conflict or overlap. If the consultant with whom you are contracting is a professional, he or she will welcome the opportunity to gain more insight into the bigger picture of the school or district. (On a related note, speak candidly when discussing the learning needs and experiences of your teachers. Whitewashing sticky issues won’t make them go away and they’re more likely to explode if the coach isn’t able to anticipate the ways they may impact learning.) Learning Forward’s Standards into Practice: School-Based Roles (2012) and Standards into Practice: External Roles (2014) provide more specific guidance for individuals in these roles as well as for leaders working with them.

When the Pentucket Regional School District in West Newbury, MA, engaged coaches from the Antioch Center for School Renewal and the Center for Collaborative Education simultaneously, a series of meetings was held in which information was shared about the ways their programs could support one another. A similar series of conversations took place when the Westminster Community School engaged both an external coach from ACSR and an internal coach to support teachers in Common Core–aligned curriculum planning. In both cases, the collaborative process created a more powerful learning experience for teachers.

Alternatively, leaders at Elm View High School (not the actual name) chose a different course of action. After contracting with ACSR to provide training and coaching over a three-year period, the school leader contracted with a number of other organizations and agencies to provide support for new state-mandated and district-level initiatives. Consultants became aware of one another by accident and were scapegoated when teachers became overwhelmed and resistant to their efforts. As a result, precious time, money, and energy were wasted and the overall community was damaged.

Balanced Professional Learning Diet

There’s no one-size-fits-all in professional learning. Make use of the full spectrum of tools available to you: conferences, workshops, free events (e.g., Edcamp), and external sources, such as colleges, universities, professional development centers, and the internal expertise of your teachers. Just don’t do it willy-nilly; be mindful of the specific purpose of each opportunity. For example, Edcamp builds creativity and allows for powerful cross-pollination among teachers, schools, and districts. Discipline-specific conferences build content knowledge and expertise. On-site coaching by external experts deepens implementation of the skills gained through summer institutes and workshops. Partnerships with institutions of higher education can open a conduit between research and practice that benefits everyone involved. Be aware of the power of the marketing machine behind some of the high-profile, professional learning-services providers and be critical in evaluating their claims. Be mindful of the “magpie effect,” in which impressive results published in educational journals and on websites draw the attention away from ongoing change processes and priorities. Lean into your professional development committee to find out what your teachers know, what training they participated in before joining your community, and what research they’ve been doing on their own time. Ask them for recommendations—retired practitioners, local college or university faculty, or part-time teachers from other districts. Not only can these individuals offer professional learning that aligns with your individual school context, but they can do it in a sustained, customized way that would be prohibitively expensive using big-name experts.

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When the Springfield, VT, school district wanted to revamp the district’s professional learning program, they joined forces with the Antioch University New England (AUNE) Center for School Renewal to create a new model—a two-year program of study. Seven graduate-level courses were offered, facilitated by the university’s faculty in the first year and a combination of AUNE and Springfield faculty in the second. While the initial cost outlay was significant, the overall goals (changing the culture around professional learning and building skills in a few carefully selected areas) were realized within three years at a rapidly decreasing cost.

Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning (2011) provides an excellent framework for exploring, clarifying, and selecting a balanced menu of professional learning opportunities.

Coherence of Practice: Walking the Talk

Be the learner you want your teachers to become. Don’t just require their attendance at events, take part yourself. Be transparent about your own learning goals and growth areas. Take risks. Reflect openly about the difficulty of changing practice. Tracy Murch, former principal of Boscawen Elementary School, participated in every moment of the Level I Critical Skills Institute held in her school in the summer of 2011. As a learner among learners, she asked questions, took part in the conversation, participated in energizers, and even played the lead role in a less than dignified presentation of the group’s learning. She felt it was important not only for her teachers to see her taking the same risks she expected of them, but also for her to fully understand the learning experiences they were having. Through that time together, she built community, gained the respect of her teachers, and learned the finer points of the model she was asking them to implement. Unfortunately, most administrators tend to walk through teacher learning experiences, sitting in for the first or last 30 minutes of each day. If the principal is really unable to participate, a plan needs to be made and communicated about how she or he will gain an understanding of the skills being taught.

Be the learner you want your teachers to become. Don’t just require their attendance at events, take part yourself. Be transparent about your own learning goals and growth areas. Take risks. Reflect openly about the difficulty of changing practice.

This coherence applies to those leading the learning experiences as well. The learning process requires not just an explanation of new concepts and ideas, but opportunities to explore and apply new ideas in context and reflect upon the resultant challenges and successes. While many would try to differentiate between pedagogy and andragogy, the reality is that learning is learning. When done effectively, it requires the learner to be actively engaged with the content. Good professional learning will model what it is attempting to teach; good pedagogy should be the order of the day (Fogarty & Pete, 2010). Professional learning that depends upon lecture and/or lacks follow-up discussion and opportunities for guided implementation and practice is akin to malpractice.

At Cochrane Collegiate Academy in Charlotte, NC, “modeling goes on at every level, and everyone holds himself or herself accountable for walking the walk. For example, [Principal Josh] Bishop knows that technology is essential but can also be intimidating to some of the teachers. So he tries to make it more accessible by using technology in ways that are easy to learn and replicate” (Nobori, 2011, para. 6) Similarly, Mr. Bishop works to make professional learning relevant, differentiated, and efficient.


Mizel (2010) tells us, “Good teaching is not an accident. … A teacher can never know enough about how a student learns, what impedes the student’s learning, and how the teacher’s instruction can increase the student’s learning. Professional development is the only means for teachers to gain such knowledge. Whether students are high, low, or average achievers, they will learn more if their teachers regularly engage in high-quality professional development” (p. 18). Quality professional learning requires clarity, community (inclusive of consultants), a balance of tools and structures, and coherence of practice (a.k.a. “walking the talk”) on the part of school leaders, coaches, and learning facilitators.

In the words of Alan Dichter, “professional development activities for educators that are designed and conducted without benefit of inside perspectives are not worth the time and money they cost. This does not mean that we should cut ourselves off from outside sources of learning … however, we cannot effectively use outside expertise except in combination with our own intimate knowledge of practice.” (McDonald, Mohr, Dichter, & McDonald, 2003, p. 2).

The wise school leader will recognize that learning is a synergistic process requiring an understanding of not only how we learn, but also the specific learning goals and experiences of the practitioners being served that they can provide to others. He or she will look inward for expertise, exploring the strengths and opportunities already in place in the community without discounting any learning opportunity out of hand.

Laura Thomas is Director of the Antioch Center for School Renewal at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH.


Antioch University New England. (n.d.) Antioch Center for School Renewal: School change: Our theory of action. Retrieved from

Fogarty, R., & Pete, B. (2010). Professional learning 101: A syllabus of seven protocols. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(4), 32–34. doi:10.1177/003172171009100407

Hall, G. E., & Hord. S. M. (2011). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Learning Forward. (2011). Standards for professional learning. Oxford, OH: Author.

Learning Forward. (2012). Standards into practice: School-based roles. Oxford, OH: Author.

Learning Forward. (2014). Standards into practice: External roles. Oxford, OH: Author.

McDonald, J. P., Mohr, N., Dichter, A., & McDonald, E. C. (2003). The power of protocols: An educator’s guide to better practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E. (2006). Building school-based teacher learning communities: Professional strategies to improve student achievement. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Mizell, H. (2010). Why professional development matters. Retrieved from

Nobori, M. (2011, October 18). How principals can grow teacher excellence | Edutopia. Retrieved from

Reeves, D. B. (2010). Transforming professional development into student results. Alexandria,VA: ASCD.