From ‘Professional Development’ to ‘Authentic Teacher Learning’

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March 16, 2018

“Professional development.” In education, you have to be very careful using these words. They can provoke quite a reaction, ranging from a slight grimace all the way to full on stomachaches. This is mostly the result of past experiences. Most teachers have suffered through hours of “professional development” that left them with no new thinking, no changes in the classroom and a stack of papers to grade at home.
I get it. I have been through it. too. But I have also had many authentic teacher learning experiences collaborating with colleagues that have transformed my teaching. Rich discussions about student motivation with excited new teachers. Leadership training with educators from very diverse backgrounds. Nerding out about sampling distributions with a group of talented AP Statistics teachers.
So what differentiates the “professional development” from the “authentic teacher learning”?
Authentic teacher learning involves choice.
The experience and quality of teachers in our schools has a huge range of ability and interests. New teachers are dialing in their classroom management strategies, while experienced teachers are exploring the elements of quality leadership. Teachers need to be able to choose the learning that is best suited to their interests and zone of proximal growth. When teachers choose their path, engagement spikes. I don’t want to learn about curriculum alignment, but I am interested in developing more student discourse in my classroom. This is the reason why educational conferences make millions of dollars each year.
Authentic teacher learning is led by teachers.
In our classrooms, we know that our own credibility matters when it comes to motivating students to learn. Likewise, when teachers go to a professional development, they are constantly assessing the credibility of the presenter. Hands down, a presenter who also stands in front of students as part of their daily routine will have more credibility than an “expert” far removed from the classroom. Better yet, the presenter is a teacher in your district and can provide follow-up support as teachers go through the development process.
Authentic teacher learning is contextual and specific.
So often, I leave a professional development experience with a good general feeling that I agree with the ideas presented, but not sure what it looks like in my classroom. What changes do I ultimately make in these instances? Usually none. Authentic teacher learning needs to be around my context and specific to how I will use it. Instead of learning about the general framework of the Gradual Release of Responsibility, I want to know what productive groupwork looks like in a Geometry class when doing a discovery-based activity (during third hour on a Thursday in late March).
Here are some great ideas from the Cult of Pedagogy on how we can achieve this reality.

Luke Wilcox is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2017-18, and Meemic is proud to partner with the Michigan Department of Education for the program. He’s the mathematics department chairperson at East Kentwood High School in Kentwood Public Schools, where he’s spent his entire 16-year career.  
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