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K-12 leaders can drive true teacher development in their schools by fostering an environment that truly supports teachers as they grow.

Seven keys to effective teacher development

K-12 leaders can drive true digital transformation in their schools by fostering an environment that truly supports teachers

(Editor’s note: This article is the third in a three-part series about how school systems can build on the progress and leverage the investments they’ve made in technology during the pandemic to achieve true digital transformation. Part 1 looks at how K-12 leaders can develop an effective blueprint for redesigning education in a way that’s more equitable, meaningful, and learner-centered, and Part 2 explores how leaders can obtain stakeholder buy-in and support for their vision.)

Building on the changes that school systems have made during the pandemic to achieve true digital transformation requires an adaptive approach to K-12 leadership, as well as a focus on successful change management. These are adjustments that have to take place at the administrative level. But real transformation won’t occur unless it reaches the classroom as well, with teachers embracing change and trying out new approaches to instruction.

For this to happen, teachers not only have to buy in to what their school systems are looking to accomplish; they also need effective professional learning.

From decades of research, we know what effective teacher development looks like. For instance, in 2017 the Learning Policy Institute published a review of nearly three dozen studies on teacher professional development that identified common success factors. Among other characteristics, effective PD incorporates active, hands-on learning; provides opportunities for teachers to collaborate; and is ongoing rather than just a series of unconnected workshops.

We have been partnering with school systems for many years to deliver highly engaging and effective professional learning. Drawing from research-based best practices and our own extensive experience in working with educators, here are seven key strategies for leading professional learning that turns a school system’s vision into action. 

Establish a learning culture.

In many school systems, teachers don’t look forward to professional learning because they see it as a waste of their time. What does it say about how school systems are approaching PD when the people who have such a natural love for learning that they want to instill this passion in the next generation aren’t being inspired to learn how to improve their own craft?

For professional learning to engage and inspire, K-12 leaders must first establish a culture of continuous learning in their district. Leaders also need to set the right tone at the outset of any professional learning opportunity by tapping into educators’ natural curiosity, building connections, and creating a community of learners.

When Microsoft released Minecraft Education Edition, we were asked by Microsoft Canada to roll it out in Ontario. We invited IT leaders, educators, and students to learn the basics of the game together and “thought shower” how it could be integrated into the curriculum. It was an opportunity for everyone to become active and collaborative learners, with agency over their own learning and development—and everyone, including early adopters and those who were shy about their technical skills, embraced the opportunity.

Make it directly relevant to what they’re teaching.

For professional learning to seem relevant, teachers need to understand how the skills and techniques they’re learning can be applied within their specific grade level or content area. They need to see a direct connection between what they’re learning and their own teaching environment.

Consider providing grade-level or content-specific instruction, or else deliver general instruction to the entire group and then have teachers break out into grade-level or content-specific teams to learn how to apply the lessons to their own instruction together. This can help teachers learn new skills within the context of their own classrooms.

Model the seamless integration of technology into professional practice. 

Modeling effective instruction gives teachers a clear vision of what successful integration might look like. Teachers should have opportunities to observe new strategies and pedagogies in action before trying these methods for themselves.

Celebrate learning moments.

As we learn more about the importance of social and emotional learning, we realize the significance of pausing, recognizing the small moments of success we encounter each day, and feeling gratitude for those. When K-12 leaders share these moments and acknowledge teachers’ successes in front of their peers, it helps build connections and inspire further learning. During a global pandemic in particular, leaders need to be intentional about finding joy, happiness, and reasons to celebrate.

Expand teachers’ learning opportunities and networks.

Just as we argue that student learning shouldn’t end when the school bell rings, teacher development shouldn’t end when a professional learning session is over. K-12 leaders must look for ways to provide continuous learning opportunities for faculty, inviting them to push their practice forward and learn from colleagues.

In his book Lifelong Kindergarten, MIT professor Mitch Resnick describes how there should be a “low floor, wide wall, high ceiling” approach to learning. The “low floor” means that students should be able to engage in learning opportunities from a low entry point; the “wide walls” are intended to accommodate students of all interests and abilities with a variety of methods and approaches; and the “high ceiling” encourages students to engage in increasingly complex opportunities without putting a cap on their learning. This same philosophy should apply to teacher development as well.

Provide ready-to-use resources. 

Teachers have always had a lot of responsibilities. That’s especially true during the pandemic, when teachers have faced even more challenges than usual—from tending to students’ emotional needs to stemming academic learning loss. Anything that K-12 leaders can do to make their jobs easier is a welcome development. With respect to professional development, this means giving them concrete lesson ideas and other resources they can take away from a training session and apply in their classroom right away.

Reflect and learn forward.

High-quality professional learning should give teachers the time and space to think about what they’ve learned, try it out with their students, and receive feedback they can use to further their development.

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflection ensures that professional learning isn’t a single, standalone experience, but part of a learning continuum. For this reflection to occur, K-12 leaders should make it an intentional practice and build time for reflection into teachers’ busy schedules.

Digital transformation isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s an ongoing human process, and creating a culture of learning and continuous improvement is a key element in moving this process forward. We are all in “beta,” and educators and administrators alike must embrace a mindset of creativity, open-mindedness, and lifelong learning.

There’s a reason many large organizations have Chief Learning Officers, and it’s because they recognize that employee learning must continue long past their formal education. By fostering an environment in which teachers feel safe to take risks, encouraging and rewarding innovation, empowering teachers to take ownership of their learning journey, and nurturing their well-being, K-12 leaders can drive true digital transformation in their schools.

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