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Teachers Dread PD. Here’s How One School Leader Made It Engaging

On most days, Courtney Walker, the assistant principal at Carrollton High School in Carrollton, Ga., doesn’t make it too far down her to-do list. That’s because she’s always adjusting the school’s master schedule to make room for new learning opportunities for students and teachers.

Walker joined the school in 2019 as an assistant principal for attendance and assessment, but quickly developed a “passion” for creating learning pathways for the 100 teachers in her school, which serves about 1,700 students.

“Educators are one of the largest group of stakeholders [in school], and they’re experts in what they do. They should have a voice in what kind of professional learning they receive,” Walker said in an interview with Education Week.

With her leadership team, which consists of her principal, other assistant principals, and the student dean, Walker has created five different personal learning pathways for teachers that guide their professional development for the year, in a structure that mirrors how high school students choose career pathways.

Teachers take a baseline assessment, choose an area of instruction they want to work on, and attend four sessions over a year to learn and practice their new skills. The pathways are run by expert teachers at the school, a model that favors peer learning over one-size-fits-all lectures by outside experts.

Many teachers dislike PD. Too much of it isn’t customized or relatable. In a nationally representative survey of over 1,400 teachers conducted in October 2023, EdWeek found that almost half of the respondents said the PD they are required to take is irrelevant and not connected to their most pressing needs. By contrast, 41 percent of the more than 650 school leaders surveyed as part of the same effort, said the PD they provided was “very relevant.”

There’s a middle ground here, and leaders like Walker are trying to build on it. Her efforts appear to have borne fruit. Teacher resignations and retirements at the school are back to pre-pandemic levels, after doubling in the 2021-22 school year. And while it’s notoriously hard to connect student learning directly to teacher PD, student outcomes on state assessments in subjects like American literature, U.S. history, and biology, have improved.

Walker’s efforts were recognized recently at a gathering of assistant principals from across the country, where she was named the National Assistant Principal of the Year. Here’s what Walker said about the connection between good PD and meeting a school’s goals.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your transition like from educator to administrator?

Working with kids is totally different from working with adults. I used to be an elementary school teacher. Adults approach professional learning very differently from students learning in a classroom. That was something I really had to work through. And in moving from the classroom setting to administration, I realized that I had to present [professional] learning that looks authentic to educators, and something that they are vested in.

With students, they’re easier in terms of implementing change, because they’re pretty open and excited. But a lot of the educators are veteran, and they’re a lot older than I am, and they’ve got a lot of expertise in their field. I wanted to respect that.

My job was to figure out how to help dial in their gifts and talents, and push them toward things they are passionate about. I don’t ever want to assume that I know what they need, because they know the needs of their students.

How did you include educator voices in your PD?

The professional learning pathways for our teachers are similar to the career pathways we’ve created for our students. Teachers self-identify areas for growth, and they attend professional learning that directly addresses their need. We wanted teachers to lead this learning.

So, we gave them a structure of five pathways of learning, which were linked to our teacher-evaluation standards and district initiatives.

[A pathway could read something like: “increasing student ownership over learning through self-assessments,” according to a presentation Walker shared.]

All teachers took a needs-based assessment at the beginning of the process, and within two years, were able to attend a training that was their first or second choice.

A teacher stays with a pathway all year long, but the difference is that you’re meeting in small groups of four or five, instead of a big 40-person training. In a meeting, teachers from different disciplines learn strategies, roll them out, and then report back on how they’re working.

What about PD on specific subjects?

In parallel to the schoolwide learning pathways, we also have common course teams that meet every week. They look at student data within their subject, what instructional strategies were adopted, and drill down to what each individual student needs.

It’s running both ways, right? You have teachers of the same content working together. And then you’re looking much more broadly, across the building and across curriculums, about strategies that are beneficial.

The third area of work are “data digs” we do three times a year to zoom out and check if we’re making progress toward our school’s goals.

Teachers have a lot on their plates. How do you encourage them if their interest in the PD is flagging?

I’m give teachers time throughout the school year to reflect on which of their practices are working. It’s important to prompt or coach them in that reflection process. Making time for this is important, so we have a 90-minute planning block for these pathway meetings four times a year.

We observe their classroom for strategies that they discussed with peers in their pathway session. If they’re supposed to use self-assessments and checklists in the classroom, then we’re looking for that. It’s an opportunity to give feedback and say, hey, I noticed that you had students self-assess on this skill and I think it went well. That connection between teacher reflection and administrator feedback is critical. It’s also an opportunity to push them when they need to see things from a different perspective.

One of the things that our teachers asked for this year was to implement peer observations. They wanted to watch another teacher in action. One of our math teachers watched an AP Environmental Science class to observe how questions were being framed and asked.

What is the role you played specifically in making this happen?

When we started to do PD this way, we needed to have a structure in place to be able to support this. I created the framework, our five pathways [of learning], analysis protocols for our teams, which meant making agendas, meeting minutes, and assigning roles in the teams. And then I’ve worked very closely with all the team leaders to support them. I do monthly touch points to make sure it’s being rolled out. But teachers are the ones driving the training.

Do you miss teaching?

Oh yeah! This year, some of our English teachers let me teach some lessons in their classrooms. There’s nothing quite like it.

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