DA op-ed: Professional learning from the inside

Take advantage of the expertise all around us
By: | Issue: June, 2019
April 25, 2019

Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes on transformational leadership and professional development.

Professional learning, development and growth is an established practice across all professions and disciplines. In education, the stakes might even be higher. Not only do educators need to keep pace with the latest practices and technologies, but they also need to model what they demand from their students: lifelong learning.

If we ask most educators what professional learning should look and feel like—and how much of it is relevant—we may see quite a bit of disparity and mixed success at best.

No man is a prophet in his own land

Professional learning often takes two forms: attending professional development events (conferences, workshops) or hosting outside consultants (curriculum experts, keynote speakers, technologists).
As someone who often serves as a paid PD facilitator and attends PD events, I’m not suggesting that conferences and outside consultants don’t have value.

We often use the term “instructional leaders” to describe administrators. But why do so few of them ever lead professional learning?

However, we should also examine our own internal capacity and tap into our own experts for professional learning facilitation.

We now have unlimited access to free and low-cost resources to learn almost anything. But learning, especially professional learning, requires consistent and dedicated time. And the learners must be invested in learning.


Read: The importance of leadership coaching


With that in mind, how can professional learning evolve? Here are few areas to ponder when planning professional learning.

  • Offer peer-led PD. We can all be learners, and we can all be experts. Every school team, department, site and district has talented and creative educators who have a great deal to offer one another. We should be fostering ways to teach one another. Educators are comfortable teaching their students, but are often reluctant to teach one another. We should identify our colleagues’ strengths and encourage them to showcase and share those strengths. If we have team members who do not have strengths to share, we could be revealing a major flaw in our profession.
  • Use in-house coaches. Many of our school districts have technology coaches and instructional coaches, and we should take full advantage of their time and expertise. Whether or not coaches work full time, part time or even for a stipend, they can be the bridge. They don’t have to lead or facilitate all the professional learning, but they could help everyone else share and showcase their strengths. Like all good teachers, they can work to maximize the capacity of their peers.
  • Have leaders serve as instructional leaders. We often use the term “instructional leaders” to describe what we want from our administrators. But why do so few of them ever lead professional learning? Instead of focusing on opening remarks, data sharing, or setting the challenge or culture, administrators should directly facilitate PD.
  • Provide online learning opportunities. With digital or online learning, we can create opportunities for educators to work at their own pace, choose areas of special interest, and even get certification and digital badges that can help promote their own professional learning in the larger education community. Professional learning cannot be optional, but we can create more choices for opting in to it.

Time is a challenge, but we always find time for what is important. We have the need. We have the resources. We have the capacity. We should continue to attend external PD events and invite outside guest experts to help us as well. But we can only maximize professional learning if we begin leaning on in-house experts and opportunities.

Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes about transformational leadership and professional development.