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Unpacking professional development for teachers: Opportunities to grow

Learn how impactful professional development for teachers can enhance their skills, instructional strategies, and classroom effectiveness for student success.

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell

Professional development for teachers is an opportunity throughout the school year and during breaks to enhance educator understanding of the latest trends and the application of educational best practices. These endeavors are not only beneficial for teachers, but also affect students’ learning experiences because it means that faculty and programs are deeply tied to the most recent educational innovation, research, and technology.

There has also been a recent push to shift the terminology from professional development (PD) to professional learning (PL), in an effort to create a space where teachers don’t simply have workshops “happen to them”, but rather that they have the chance to engage in sustainable, meaningful learning to amplify their practice.

In this blog post, we will explore the difference between professional development and professional learning, then dive into effective ways that teachers can engage in these practices, highlighting the value of continuous development and why it brings value to students and teachers alike.

What is professional development for teachers?

According to the National Education Association (NEA): “Student learning is influenced more profoundly by the quality of the teacher than by any other school factor.” As such, it is imperative that educators are supported throughout their careers, presented with opportunities for individual growth, self-reflection, and development.

Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education defines professional development as “gaining new skills through continuing education and career training after entering the workforce.” And it’s important because it supports career advancement, hones existing skills, and bolsters the learning of new ones. Research indicates that when teachers engage in an average of 49 hours of substantial professional development across a school year, they can boost their students’ achievement by about 21% (Yoon et al., 2007). In other studies, researchers are finding a direct correlation between professional development and overall teacher job satisfaction.

What is the difference between professional learning and professional development for teachers?

For many years, the go-to phrase for mandatory, job-embedded training outside of the classroom has been professional development. However, many educators and administrators are working to redefine how teachers engage with meaningful training and growth. According to the California Department of Education:

“Professional learning allows educators to explore how their teaching and management strategies help students learn and thrive… Through an intensive process of collaborative and job-embedded learning, educators can gain more than content knowledge or technical strategies—they can gain an improved understanding of their own teaching and learning and of the various ways by which students learn. Through this effort, educators also come together as a community of self-developing practitioners.”

As Lisa Scherff puts it, “Professional development, which ‘happens to’ teachers, is often associated with one-time workshops, seminars, or lectures, and is typically a one-size-fits all approach. In contrast, professional learning, when designed well, is typically interactive, sustained, and customized to teachers' needs.”

She goes on to say that, “According to research, high-quality professional learning:

  • is tied to specific content and standards;
  • incorporates active learning;
  • is job-embedded;
  • is collaborative;
  • provides models;
  • includes coaching;
  • is sustained and continuous; and
  • is aligned with school goals, standards and assessments, and other professional learning activities” (Archibald, Coggshall, Croft, & Goe, 2011; Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017; Labone, & Long, 2016, as cited by Scherff).

One of the main differences between PD and PL is the underlying goal of delivering content vs enhancing learning. Eduphoria gives this example: say a district wants to work on restorative discipline. Professional development means that the district brings in an expert to train faculty on a specific use of this practice. Professional learning means that the district hosts a group of educators to design an implementation of restorative discipline and provides guidance for their learning.

And while many see the two terms being used interchangeably, it’ s worth noting the motivation behind the vocabulary shift. As Ann Webster-Wright puts it in her research, “Reframing Professional Development Through Understanding Authentic Professional Learning”: “Changing from development to learning has potentially powerful implications. Words are more than labels, carrying linguistic weight in the form of hidden discourses embedded within each term” (Klein, as cited by Webster-Wright, 2001).

Karen Smith, a 34-year veteran educator and a Senior Teaching and Learning Specialist at Turnitin, articulates the value of professional learning this way: “If the goal of education is to produce lifelong learners, then we as educators must continue to learn and grow alongside our students. Professional learning inspires us to continue on that journey ourselves to better meet the needs of students in a continuously changing world.”

What is the value of professional development?

Many educators cringe when thinking about time spent in mandatory workshops that doesn’t lead to enhanced instruction. Conversely, it can be just as difficult for administrators to plan and execute training and workshops that are respectful of teachers’ time and efforts, while also aligned with a program’s learning goals and budget.

Like in medicine or law, education is a profession that requires continuous learning throughout a career. The NEA dives into the multiple factors required by educators to refine their skills and personal judgment, including:

  • Ongoing research that expands our understanding of effective practices (e.g., emerging research in such areas as trauma-informed pedagogy and social-emotional learning)
  • The changing landscape of issues and needs that educators must address in working with students, families, and communities (e.g., changing demographics increasing the number of English language learners)
  • Changes in policies and statutes that govern the work of educators (e.g., changes in the curriculum requirements for graduation)
  • Educators’ evolving professional responsibilities, particularly when assignments and duties change (e.g., changing grade levels assigned to a teacher, or making a switch to online learning environments in response to a national crisis). 

So perhaps the real question is this: What is the value of high-quality, purpose-driven professional development and learning? Says Patti West-Smith, a 20-year veteran educator and Senior Director of Customer Engagement at Turnitin: "When it's done well, with educators themselves helping to shape the focus areas and needs, professional learning's value cannot be overstated. There is something truly magical about watching gifted practitioners collaborate and problem solve in ways that lift the entire profession and make a meaningful impact on student learning."

What are examples of professional development for teachers?

Many assume that PD and PL can only take place in their school, organized by administration. And while many growth opportunities can and do take place within a school alongside a faculty, the following list dives into a variety of examples that educators may consider when seeking to up-level their practice.

Here are few examples of professional development:

  • Attend workshops and conferences. These events provide valuable insights, innovative teaching strategies, and opportunities to network and collaborate with like-minded educators. Keep an eye out for reputable workshops and conferences in a specific subject area or teaching specialization to maximize the professional learning experience. There are myriad international conferences, including the World Conference on Teaching and Education (Los Angeles, USA), ISTE (Philadelphia, USA), or BETT (London, UK) that offer educators the chance to connect with a domestic and global network of passionate practitioners.
  • Read contemporary fiction and nonfiction literature. This valuable habit can help educators stay up-to-date with the latest research, trends, and best practices in education. There is a vast array of books, articles, and research papers available, covering various subjects and pedagogical approaches. Joining online book clubs or professional learning communities can enhance the reading experience by fostering discussions and exchanges of ideas. The Institute for Arts Integration and Steam offers the top 20 books for teachers to read in 2023.
  • Explore online courses and webinars. With the flexibility and convenience they offer, online PD has become increasingly popular among educators. Breaks between semesters allow teachers to delve into these opportunities without the constraints of a regular teaching schedule. Many online platforms and resources provide a wide range of courses and webinars designed specifically for professional development in education, including the Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and the Department of Education in Australia.
What are different types of professional learning?

And here are a few options for professional learning:

  • Take the time to reflect, review, and revise your practice. Many reflective practices such as journaling, self-assessment, and peer observations, can be a thoughtful and illuminating way to transform one’s teaching. Mindfulness journaling has gained traction amongst teachers who are seeking a holistic, consistent approach to self-reflection. Long-term, it can help to identify areas for improvement and spur ideas on how to improve learning outcomes, protect mental bandwidth, and make adjustments for the upcoming academic year.
  • Pursue an advanced degree or certification. Many universities and institutions offer flexible programs tailored to educators, allowing them to balance work, personal life, and academic commitments effectively. The Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont (USA), for example, has a Masters of Arts degree program which can be earned in six-week sessions over four or five summers. Obtaining an advanced degree or certification not only enhances professional competence but also opens doors to new career opportunities. The National Board Certification, for example, is a voluntary, advanced teaching credential in North America that goes beyond state licensure, helping educators to strengthen their teaching and increase their influence.
  • Dive into the latest technology. AI writing tools are at the top of everyone’s mind right now and there is real value in educators knowing what their students know. In addition to exploring ChatGPT and understanding its value and its limitations, educators should also take the time to see how the latest educational technology may help to optimize their workflows, increase student learning outcomes and engagement, or simply take instruction to new heights. Turnitin’s Draft Coach, for example, gives students feedback on their citations and grammar in real time, saving teachers’ time because students have had the chance to thoughtfully revise their work along the way.
  • Follow your own passions. Teachers are more than just instructors; they are individuals with interests in and beyond the classroom. Some may find that creating educational resources, developing new teaching methodologies, or exploring innovative technology integration can augment their practice. Conversely, many teachers find that if they prioritize their non-work related passions (yoga, writing, sports, meditation) outside of school, then they can bring their best selves (and even activities featuring their passion!) to the classroom.
In sum: The value of professional development for teachers

Faculty and administrators should connect early and often on how best to meaningfully engage in both professional development and professional learning. It’s important to remember that just like students, educators are likely more inclined to engage with and participate in these practices if they are included and considered in the process. “Let us listen to [teachers’] experience and work to support, not hinder, their learning,” says Ann Webster-Wright. “Rather than deny, seek to control or standardize the complexity and diversity of professional learning experiences, let us accept, celebrate and develop insights from these experiences to support professionals as they continue to learn.”