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8 incredibly easy steps to a professional development makeover

School district expert says good professional development takes common sense, taking advantage of your best resource

creativityresizedThere’s a lot of talk these days, especially with the implementation of Common Core, about how to reform student learning. However, there’s a group of learners education is leaving behind, say experts: Teachers. Professional development (PD) needs a makeover, they say, and it’s a lot easier than you may think.

One of the first slides Tom Murray, director of technology & cyber education for Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County, Penn., shows to his audience during his recent webinar, “How to personalize learning plans for your teachers,” can resonate with any professional.

Listening to a lecture, a grown man in a business suit is slowly falling asleep in his chair. The title of the slide is “If I Die:” with the cutline, “I hope it’s during a staff meeting because the transition to death would be so subtle.”

“I don’t mean to offend anyone,” said Murray, “but that’s the feeling of most teachers when they have to attend ‘traditional professional development.’”

(Next page: Steps 1-3)

According to Murray, ‘traditional’ PD is very often top-down, and what he describes as “drive-by PD,” or professional development that includes a speaker no one will ever see again, who lectures for an hour and then the topic is never revisited.

“Traditional PD is usually one-size fits all, planned by a small number of people, has little-to-no teacher input, and is a ‘sit ‘n get,’ or what I describe as little teacher feedback or participation. The professional development is also mandated, meaning teachers have to attend a set amount of hours during scheduled days and times of the week.”

Murray says this traditional PD model is wasting millions of dollars, because even though teachers are there, when the development becomes nothing but a “culture of hours,” the “culture of learning” is lost.

“Professional development is continuous, it’s engaging, and…guess what?! It’s led by teachers,” explained Murray. “There’s a big disconnect between what teachers want and what superintendents and district leaders think they want. That needs to change.”

Easy steps for huge reform

1. Clearly define and articulate the vision.

For Murray’s district, this first step began by asking teachers to fill out an anonymous poll hosted by a third-party company on the subject of their professional development.

“We asked them questions such as ‘How do you think we’re doing with our PD?’ and ‘What are some improvements you’d like to see?’” said Murray. “And man…were we surprised.”

According to Murray, only 20 percent of teachers in the district said administration was doing an effective job with PD. And though this seemed like a “slap in the face, we decided to take what could have been a negative and turn it into a positive,” he said. “We decided to implement those changes and now, 95 percent of our teachers say our PD is effective.”

The first step to effective PD is by clearly defining what goals you as a district, and as an administrator, would like to see from the teacher, but also from your PD program in general, he explained.

“It’s good to ask yourself: ‘What is PD going to look like systemically three years from now? Five years?’ and “What is the path to these goals, and do the teachers know this path? Can teachers articulate the vision?’”

2. Lead by example and model professional learning.

“’Here’s what you need to do’ is not effective,” noted Murray. “Instead, try ‘Here’s what I’m learning; Here’s how I’m changing.’ Share your own learning and share your mistakes, too! It not only humanizes you and encourages your staff, but by being transparent, you foster a culture of professional learning.”

3. Recognize teachers as learners.

Many times, districts focus on differentiating student learning, but for some reason, that doesn’t translate to teacher learning, said Murray.

“Why do many districts think every teacher is at the same level of skills and learning? You can’t have one-size fits all; you need to differentiate learning just like you do for students,” he explained.

(Next page: Steps 4-8)

4. Balance differentiation with district-wide initiatives.

Murray cautions against too much differentiation, since many district staff have to be well-versed in important initiatives, such as the Common Core.

“If there’s all differentiation then there’s no vision. But if it’s all one-size fits all, then it’s ineffective. It’s a balancing act,” he said.

5. Utilize teacher feedback.

“This always gets me,” said Murray, “that we trust our teachers to literally shape the lives and minds of children every day, but we don’t value them enough to ask what they’re thinking.”

Asking teachers for feedback and then acting on their needs and ideas shows them you respect them as professionals, he emphasized. Not only that, it could save districts money.

“Many districts spend a fortune getting outside consulting on how to improve PD without ever asking the best resource they have: teachers. And this resource? It’s right there in your own classrooms.”

6. Cultivate teacher leadership and empower staff to design their own learning.

For Murray’s district, teachers suggest the topics they’d like to cover and then they help design the PD. Teachers also decide when to schedule the PD and when they can attend.

The district has no required PD hours, instead cultivating learning by asking teachers to design their own professional development roadmap.

“We ask teachers at the beginning of the year to design a roadmap of goals of where they’d like to be in terms of their professional learning,” Murray explained. “The school principal meets with each teacher, sits side-by-side, and supports the teacher-not by criticizing, but by making suggestions-and helping them clearly define their goals. Every roadmap should be different, too, since every teacher is at a different point in their career. ”

He continued, “It’s about trust. If you trust your teachers, it shows. Effective professional learning comes down to the ‘ownership of learning.’”

7. Move from hours-based to outcome-based accountability.

“When it’s the number of hours they care about most, the learning will be secondary,” Murray noted. “It’s not about seat time in our district; rather, it’s the outcome. Instead of ‘Have you reached your hours?’ it’s ‘Have you reached your goals from your roadmap?’”

8. Get staff connected!

Murray said his district is currently in the process of connecting teachers through online social networks, such as Twitter groups, Facebook pages, Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), and more.

“To help motivate teachers to get online, make online networking count as PD,” he said. “An hour Twitter chat on Google apps? Why not?”

“What it all comes down to is this:” concluded Murray, “conversations must move from ‘I attended…and here’s my completed number of hours…’ to ‘Here’s what I’m learning, and here’s how it transformed my classroom and instruction.”

For more information on professional development reform, as well as a list of Twitter groups for teachers and educators, join (joining is free) and their group: “Leadership 3.0”

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