Now that School Is Over, Let’s Start Learning!

Melanie Eisen, Shira Heller and Shira Loewenstein

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” John Dewey

Among the crucial tasks facing the school leader is an examination of teacher learning. While our schools exist to ensure student learning, it is the consistent growth and renewal of teachers that enables a powerful student experience. Research shows that teachers often teach the way they were taught. Over time, society changes, our understanding of educational psychology and learning changes, and our vision of best practices changes. Professional learning is the only way teachers can develop along with the world around them. It is the only way they can continue to provide excellent environments for student learning.

And yet professional development remains a challenge for many schools. Teachers report that PD experiences are boring and repetitive, disconnected from their classroom work, lack follow through, and take away valuable time from lesson planning and grading. Leaders report that despite investment in PD, they see little change in teacher practice. How can this ineffective PD cycle be broken?

We’ve put together this list of eight questions to consider when planning professional development that can help break the cycle and guide schools to more effective, more enjoyable PD.

What are the current patterns of teaching in the school?

Using a checklist like the one provided below, have members of your leadership team visit 10-12 classrooms. Look for patterns in areas of strength and areas for improvement. Which practices need the most attention? Tailor your PD planning to leverage strengths and address weaknesses. Once you’ve identified an area for growth, dig deeper. How far off target are teacher practices? What’s the right starting point for PD?

What are your teachers already learning?

Ask a small and diverse group of teachers what they are already learning. What do they want to learn more about? What support do they want to improve their practice? Learn what your teachers are already curious and excited about. Bringing the teachers into this conversation will invite immediate buy-in and enthusiasm, and increase the chances that real change will happen.

What are your goals for teacher learning?

As an administrator, your faculty are your students. Their learning is your priority. What goals do you have for your teachers’ learning? How much time do you have to devote to their learning? What resources and support do you need to ensure progress toward your goals? How will you assess whether the goals are being met? Just as you would plan a unit in your classroom with learning outcomes in mind, so too must you meticulously plan the teacher learning in your school.

Who are your teachers as learners?

Adult learners are every bit as diverse as children. Some are more advanced, while others are just beginning. Some are eager to learn, change and grow, while others view new initiatives more warily. Teachers may prefer to read an article, listen to an expert, work independently, collaborate with peers, experiment or observe. Consider to what extent differentiation has been part of your PD planning in the past. How might you differentiate PD opportunities in the coming year to better meet your teachers’ diverse needs, interests and learning preferences?

What’s realistic?

We want our teachers to change and grow, and we are eager to ensure that our students are having the best possible learning experience. Once teacher learning goals have been set, leaders, parents and teachers can sometimes be impatient for change. The distance between current practice and desired practice is often much longer than anticipated. Steven Leinwand of the Connecticut Department of Education says, “It is unreasonable to ask a professional to change much more than 10 percent a year, but it is unprofessional to change by much less than 10 percent a year.” How are we reality-checking our learning goals? What other demands are being placed on teachers that might compete with focused time on PD? How are expectations and priorities being made clear?

What innovations do you want to encourage?

George Couros, a prominent educational writer, says, “Want innovation in the classroom? Get people to focus on being open to new learning and create different experiences for them. They are more likely to do the same for their students.” How are you providing opportunities for faculty to experience the innovations you’d like to see? If you truly teach your teachers how to innovate and model for them how educational innovations work, they will in turn share their learning with their students.

What are you reading and learning?

It is nearly impossible to encourage a practice in which we ourselves are not actively engaged. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their children to do so.” When you see a teacher in the hallway, start the conversation with what are you reading that has inspired you. It might be related to education, child development, management, Torah or a different topic entirely, but this starts a conversation that helps establish interest, a desire to learn about your faculty, and a growing list of must-reads for yourself. Sharing your own learning earns you a second conversation that can be related to a teacher’s professional growth.

How can we get started?

Nearly every school has a teacher in-service week before students return to school. Most schools allocate significant time for Professional Development. This is a great time to restart teacher learning, but should not be the beginning or the end. Too often, these back-to-school workshops introduce a new idea, skill or strategy without a plan to follow up and follow through. Jim Hull, policy director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, once said that there is a gap between what teachers know and what they are able to do. While ample professional development is often provided to introduce ideas, there is seldom sufficient support as teachers experiment with implementation. Hull cites research showing that teacher mastery of a new skill takes, on average, 20 separate instances of practice before the teacher feels confident and able to get the new practice right.

Before you plan your in-service, think about how you will introduce the idea to your teachers. How can they begin their learning before August? Think ahead to the rest of the year, not just the week. How will the new ideas, skills and strategies be revisited? Who might support teachers through experimentation and implementation, so that they can persist through 20 separate instances of practice to become proficient?

This summer, let’s make it our homework to plan for better teacher learning. Here are some suggestions for you to share with your staff before they leave school, to prepare for a year of meaningful learning.

Find a new book that you can read and recommend to a colleague. Offer to host a book club for a group of those interested.

Find a podcast that sparks your interest (Two Teachers on a Train, Prizmah’s teacher podcast, is a good place to start!), and recommend it to some others who might find it interesting.

Create a Twitter account (if you do not have one) and participate in a Twitter chat about a new area of learning for yourself.

Listen to a TEDtalk and share the inspiration.

Look for a workshop or a course at a local university or area not-for-profit. Enroll with a friend.

Start a blog of your journey of learning and commit to sharing this learning throughout the next year. ( provides great guidance on blog writing; Prizmah staff write their own blog posts at

When teachers learn at their own pace, in their own medium, they acquire ways to enrich and strengthen their practice, thus enhancing the learning of their students.

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