Professional Development: For Teachers, by Teachers
By Ann Brigham, with Jessica Doughty, Katie Waters, and Gina Whitsell
Few people would dispute the importance of professional development (PD) for teachers. In fact, according to “What’s Hot in Literacy,” a 2017 report published by the International Literacy Association (ILA), surveyed educators ranked Teacher Professional Learning and Development as the second most important topic in the literacy community and the country.
But the report also identified a gap. Although deemed highly important by educators, Teacher Professional Learning and Development was in the top five topics with “significant unmet needs at both the community and the country levels.” In other words, PD “isn’t getting the attention it deserves” (ILA 6–7).
We know PD is important. Now what?
Ask any number of teachers, and they’ll tell you that PD exists. It’s out there. They’ve experienced it. But as the ILA report suggests, something is missing. Part of what is missing is an ongoing, evolving, and rigorous examination of the character and quality of professional development. That examination would tackle crucial—and hard—questions. At the top of the list: What makes good PD, and how do we make it happen?
It’s a question many professionals have asked and addressed. And figuring out what makes good PD will indeed help us address some of the “unmet needs” that ILA identifies. But the question of what makes good PD is not the first question we should ask.
To define the qualities of good PD—that is, purposeful, engaging, effective—we need to first ask: Why is professional development vital? Why do teachers desire professional development? What purpose does it serve?
Only after determining the purpose of professional development can we decide what PD should look like. And then, after creating and experiencing PD based on best practices, we need to assess its impact. Engaging in this process puts in motion an ongoing, evolving, and rigorous examination of professional development.
This post launches a blog series that explores the purpose, practice, and impact of quality professional development. In three installments, we’ll connect with educators to address the following questions:
- Why is professional development vital?
- What makes good PD?
- How is PD making an impact?
The educators engaging in this conversation are a distinctive group. They represent the inaugural cohort of Wit & Wisdom® Fellows, a cadre of passionate educators who have chosen to apply what they’ve learned from implementing Wit & Wisdom to the facilitation of professional development for their peers. These 15 people—teachers, coaches, and administrators—met at an in-person training in April. They arrived as individuals who shared deep expertise in and enthusiasm for Wit & Wisdom. They left as a team of engaged and forward-thinking colleagues, eager to collaborate and support other educators’ success with Wit & Wisdom. In May, they began traveling the country to deliver Wit & Wisdom professional development to brand-new and experienced users in both large and small districts.
Why do teachers desire professional development?
This post features three Fellows’ observations about the purpose and impact of strong PD. All three currently serve students and teachers across multiple grades. Katie Waters is the ELA curriculum manager at Center City Charter Schools in Washington, DC. Jessica Doughty is an instructional coach at Whitesville Elementary school in Daviess County, Kentucky. And Gina Whitsell is a reading intervention specialist at Riverdale School in Germantown, Tennessee.
Gina Whitsell believes teachers desire PD “because education is constantly changing.” She insists that a teacher’s job “is too important to ever stop looking forward at what is on the horizon in our profession.”
As Whitsell points out, teachers need professional development to understand changes in education and to create change in their practice. Teachers want PD to help them “grow as educators,” she says.
But creating change involves taking risks. Katie Waters reflects on the process of adopting Wit & Wisdom: “Implementing Wit & Wisdom with integrity means taking big risks—learning new content, reading new texts, trying new instructional strategies—and internalizing the way students will need to build knowledge.” When supported, however, change is empowering. “Participating in consistent professional development, especially in the first years of implementation,” explains Waters, “provides all of us with the problem-solving support we need to lean in to students’ learning.”
Problem-solving support sounds like what teachers provide their students in the classroom. The similarity is no coincidence. In professional development, teachers are learners.
“Quality professional development,” explains Jessica Doughty, “serves as a vehicle to transport educators from one level of understanding to the next in order to avoid becoming stagnant.”
Doughty offers an example of problem-solving support: “Teachers may understand why they are expected to teach to a certain standard but lack the adequate tools to understand how to do that or what to use. Or a teacher may know what needs to be done to operate a classroom but does not understand the why or how behind the directive. One without the other proves to be very ineffective. Supporting teachers as they navigate the what, why, and how is extremely vital.”
In PD, teachers grow by encountering new ideas, addressing and embracing change, and tackling challenges. Educators want to do this work as a community. Indeed, doing this work defines their community.
How can PD build community?
Like so many other educators, Waters recognizes the demands of teaching. “Teaching is tough work,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be done alone. Professional development that provides the space to connect and collaborate with other educators really matters. Regardless of the content of the work, teachers have the time and space to productively struggle through the tough work of teaching—together.”
Productive struggle is another experience that PD and classrooms share. And again, the connection to students is intentional. Ultimately, teachers want PD because of its impact on student achievement.
In PD, Doughty believes, “teachers acquire tools to move forward with their learning,” and then “teachers reciprocate this learning in their classrooms.” In Whitsell’s experience, “When a teacher attends PD to better her craft, that excitement for learning is also transferred to the classroom.”
So why do teachers desire PD? In supportive professional development, teachers cultivate and reignite their excitement for learning. Reenergized, they transfer their learning—and the empowerment learning brings—to their students.
Why facilitate professional development peer to peer?
Wit & Wisdom Fellows have chosen to extend their learning by delivering PD to their peers. For these educators, facilitating professional development elevates continuous learning.
“I thrive on collaborating within professional learning communities,” Doughty says. “I see myself as an avid learner, always seeking opportunities to grow and push my thinking forward.”
Waters returns to the learning that collaboration fosters: “I am overwhelmed by the immediate connection I feel between my work and my peers, knowing that my goal of improving teaching and learning is shared by so many individuals. I love hearing new ideas that challenge my thinking, asking questions that provoke further inquiry, and walking away with strategies for better reaching students.”
These educators also became Wit & Wisdom Fellows because facilitating professional development serves the community.
“I want to facilitate professional development,” says Whitsell, “because I want to help teachers attain greatness.” Whitsell points again to the demands of the profession: “Teachers have such a hard job. And it changes constantly.” While teachers want to meet new educational expectations for their students, they often lack the resources. Whitsell explains: “Teachers need a quality curriculum to help students become strong readers, thinkers, and leaders. I want to play a small part in guiding teachers through the implementation of Wit & Wisdom, a product that can and will shape our next generation.”
These educators have a laser focus on the next generation. In Doughty’s words, facilitating professional development “is an investment in growing teachers, who grow kids. The thought of empowering teachers, who empower kids, excites me beyond belief.”
Professional development for teachers, by teachers. That’s the mission behind Wit & Wisdom’s professional development and Fellows program. Stay tuned to learn about PD best practices that empower teachers.
International Literacy Association (ILA). “What’s Hot in Literacy: 2017 Report.” Literacyworldwide.org, 2017, www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/resource-documents/whats-hot-2017-report.pdf. Accessed 19 June 2018.
Associate Director, Humanities Content Development
Ann Brigham is the associate director of humanities content development for the nonprofit Great Minds. She is part of the team that created the English language arts curriculum Wit & Wisdom and is currently focused on creating and leading professional development for educators. Ann served as a professor of English at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she taught American literature, film, gender studies, and writing for 16 years. She is the author of American Road Narratives: Reimagining Mobility in Literature and Film (2015).