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The Importance of Professional Development for Educators

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Every good teacher knows that there is no finish line in learning. There’s always something new to uncover, another chapter in the book, one more way of doing things. To be a teacher is also, paradoxically, to remain a student — especially because the field of education is in constant flux. Sustained professional development is imperative for educators, even more so after the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past two years, new concepts and technology have been introduced as essential parts of the teaching experience, which has proven to be a challenge.

According to a research brief by Darling-Hammond, Hyler and Gardner for the Learning Policy Institute, “Sophisticated forms of teaching are needed to develop student competencies such as deep mastery of challenging content, critical thinking, complex problem solving, effective communication and collaboration, and self-direction. In turn, effective professional development (PD) is needed to help teachers learn and refine the instructional strategies required to teach these skills.”

Effective professional development needs to maintain certain principles. The following are some best practice principles that school leaders should keep in mind as they aid in others’ — and their own — professional growth:

Active Learning

The old format of periodic workshops and passively reading books or slide presentations is no longer sufficient. Instead, educational leaders should seek to offer more active ways for teachers to engage with learning. Letting teachers create presentations, discuss among themselves in a study group or bring practical examples to problem solve are creative solutions to active learning methods.

As the authors of the Power School blog point out, “The theory of andragogy tells us that adults have a need to direct themselves, use prior experience, solve real-world problems, and immediately apply new knowledge to current job responsibilities. Adults have an innate need for opportunities to develop autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work.”

Programs such as the University of Wisconsin Superior’s MSE in Instruction offer the opportunity for professionals to choose from plenty of electives, mixing both traditional and non-traditional learning methods in an engaging curriculum.

Reflection and Feedback

Teachers should have the time and tools to reflect on their own endeavors and give honest feedback about their work. Likewise, educational leaders should strive to be precise and personal when evaluating a teacher’s performance. It’s essential to not only provide timely feedback but also follow up on the educator’s progress closely as they incorporate the new information into their teaching.

Observation is another interesting way to engage with reflective practices, and the authors of Power School suggest that visiting another teacher’s classroom may be a powerful resource. However, they also point out that even more effective than shadowing another teacher is the presence of a coach to “implement, debrief, and provide actionable insights following a new strategy can make all the difference. A coach can also shadow the teacher as they observe another class, model skills, assist with implementation, and provide substantive feedback.”

Ongoing Support

Since the demographic and needs of students are constantly changing, a one-off session in professional development is not enough. Instead, a more comprehensive and focused study paired with continuous support in specific subject areas is an ideal solution.

For principals and other educational leaders who play a role in professional development, this means being strategic about how to create a schedule that matches the needs of the teachers. For teachers, it’s about planning in smaller units, pursuing an advanced degree or specialized training course and, of course, voicing your needs to your employers. Giving and asking for time is essential here, as new insights and skills are rarely ever learned overnight or over a three-hour seminar. Trial, error and step-by-step practice will get you there.

Learn more about the University of Wisconsin Superior’s Master of Science in Education — Instruction online program.

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