A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer

All considerations for professional development (PD) should flow from the premise that staff development should model what you want to see in the classroom. We strive to offer our students engaging, relevant, and rigorous instruction that supports students who will, over time, take responsibility for their learning. PD should apply those same goals to training teachers, staff and administration.

I’ve seen PD from a variety of perspectives – as a 25-year teacher receiving staff development, as a teacher offering PD courses at our district teacher center, as a K-12 director and Assistant Superintendent planning PD, and as outside consultant / trainer. Viewed through those lenses, I’ve developed few questions for consideration by professional development planners.

Design and planning:

1. Did your teachers have a meaningful role in deciding what PD is being offered? (You’re in trouble if the training is merely based on a tip from someone who saw “this really cool presentation.”)

2. If it’s a school-wide inservice day, have you provided appropriate training for all faculty and staff? (“OMG! We forgot about the librarians! Do you think we can get away with putting them in with PE?)

3. Is there a clear alignment between how the session is promoted to teachers and what the trainer is prepared to deliver? (Before my session begins, I usually ask a few attendees what they expect. When no one has a clue, I’ve got work to do.)

4. Have you prioritized your PD objectives to bring focus to your initiatives? (It’s easy to turn people off with the perception of “just another reform du jour.”)

5. If you are implementing PLC’s or action teams, do the participants see their value? (Or do you have groups of “PD prisoners” who only see it as busy work?)

6. Do you offer appropriate training for all staff? (Don’t forget, the entire organization can support instruction.)


7. Have you considered internal expertise, before turning to outside trainers? (PD is about building capacity.)

8. Will the trainer be utilizing the strategies being advocated? (If not, at least modeling them.)

9. Do you differentiate PD by instructional method? (Or is that something you only expect teachers to do with their students?)

10. Will teachers leave with ideas they can immediately put to use? (Not everyone is fascinated by the implications of new brain research on student achievement.)

11. Will appropriate administrators be in attendance? (It sends a powerful message when they are.)

Follow up

12. What is your plan for follow up to the training? (No drive-bys allowed!)

13. If you are offering technology training, will teachers have immediate access to the necessary equipment? (Use it, or lose it!)

14. Do you have a mechanism to gather and act on participant feedback (Learning is about experience and reflection.)

15. Have you clearly identified an instructional outcome you hope to see as a result of the training? (Or are you doing it, just because it’s in fashion?)

A high-functioning professional development program considers these questions and many more. The best programs are guided by a tacit “reciprocal accountability.” If administration is holding teachers accountable for student performance, then administration is accountable to engage teachers in the design and implementation of meaningful PD. Likewise, if teachers have an active role in shaping their professional learning environment, then administrators should expect to see the strategies utilized in the classroom, followed by an honest appraisal of what’s working.

I disagree with the notion that teaching is kind of innate “gift” that only some are born with. Teachers are nurtured with experience, training, and reflection.

If you’ve read this far,  you might also like a few other posts:

Teacher-Led Professional Development: Eleven Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs

Lesson Study: Teacher-Led PD That Works  

The Reflective Teacher: The Taxonomy of Reflection 

20 Replies to “A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer”

  1. Thorough set of considerations, Peter. So often we find goals and put blinders on in order to accomplish those goals, and inadvertently miss strategic considerations.

  2. Peter, your suggestions here are critical. We have all been in too many experiences where most, if not all, of these ideas were not present. I have been asked to “deliver” such training as well. You can always sense as attendees leave that it was not sufficient.

  3. Peter, great post I’d love your readers to cast their vote and add their thoughts to the conversation about educators taking time off of school for professional development. Thanks for directing everyone at ISTEconnects to this resource! If you or your readers need to reach me feel free to at me on twitter via @isteconnects.

  4. This is a great list, Peter. It mirrors what I found working in schools, as well as what I try to get district staff to consider when they request PD from us. I will pass this along!

  5. Thanks for your comment and link. My readers will benefit by following the link to your piece.

    I agree strongly with your contention that PD is best done in house. At a midpoint in my teaching career I had the advantage of being able to share with my peers at our local teacher center. It strengthened my teaching and likewise I learned much from taking classes offered by my peers.

  6. Peter – Thank you for sharing your experience. I just left the classroom and am now an Instructional Staff Developer. One of the things with which our district is grappling is the measurement or evaluation of our programs. Not only is it for our own performance, but it’s in a sincere effort to provide meaningful trainings or training supports. This conundrum mirrors your thoughts about “partial assembly required”. Have you any suggestions (people, district or best practices) as to how to effectively evaluate an initiative without burdening our teachers?

  7. Holly, Here’s useful summary courtesy of the Marshall Memo of an article “Four Questions That Should Drive Professional Development” by Hayes Mizell. (BTW – I strongly recommend you consider subscribing to the Marshall Memo.)
    “Most educators struggle with how to focus their attention and effort,” says Learning Forward senior fellow Hayes Mizell in this article in The Learning System. One of the most difficult challenges is organizing deep professional development experiences that are appropriate and useful. Mizell says that four questions should guide this effort:
    • What do the performance data of our students reveal about the learning needs of our teachers and principals? “Understanding the gaps in students’ learning should inform the content of educators’ professional development,” says Mizell. This works best when teachers use data from their own students to shape PD.
    • How are we organizing professional development so it causes our educators to take greater responsibility for their students’ learning? Teachers and principals shouldn’t be passive recipients of PD. If professional learning stems from a close analysis of students’ learning problems, educators will get invested and commit themselves to continuously improving results.
    • How are we organizing professional development so it causes our educators to learn from each others’ successes, and collaborate to learn from experts elsewhere? “In all school systems,” says Mizell, “some teachers are more effective than others… Professional development that draws on the expertise of these educators will in most cases be more relevant, credible, and cost-effective than contracting with an external consultant.”
    • What is the evidence that our professional development is increasing educators’
    effectiveness in ways that also raise levels of student performance? “Collecting and publicizing evidence about the results of professional development is essential to improve and sustain it,” says Mizell.
    “Four Questions Focus Learning on Expectations and Accountability” by Hayes Mizell in The Learning System, Spring 2011 (Vol. 6, #3, p. 2), http:/www.learningforward.org

  8. This guide raises many good points. First,not only should educators have more opportunities for professional development, they should also be using e-learning and technology so they can learn the same way the students will need to learn in order to adapt to the 21st Century. Second, I like how you emphasize the responsibility involved in students’ learning. Most teachers are not able to learn like students; it’s not a requirement and school districts have yet to embrace the idea. I highly recommend e-learning as the channel for professional development for teachers. Self-directed learning is often a cost-effective, time–saving model that just makes sense.

    1. I think it all comes down to fostering the notion of school as community of learners. Then, explore and leverage all the ways that can be accomplished.

  9. Food for thought for my PhD research study focusing on the impact of the college principal leadership (superintendent of the district) on the ongoing professional development of teachers (both directly and indirectly, the latter being mediated by headteacher leadership which enables the provision of the appropriate school conditions that facilitate such teacher learning).

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