In education, the term professional development may be used in reference to a wide variety of specialized training, formal education, or advanced professional learning intended to help administrators, teachers, and other educators improve their professional knowledge, competence, skill, and effectiveness. When the term is used in education contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, however, it may be difficult to determine precisely what “professional development” is referring to.
In practice, professional development for educators encompasses an extremely broad range of topics and formats. For example, professional-development experiences may be funded by district, school, or state budgets and programs, or they may be supported by a foundation grant or other private funding source. They may range from a one-day conference to a two-week workshop to a multiyear advanced-degree program. They may be delivered in person or online, during the school day or outside of normal school hours, and through one-on-one interactions or in group situations. And they may be led and facilitated by educators within a school or provided by outside consultants or organizations hired by a school or district. And, of course, the list of possible formats could go on.
The following are a representative selection of common professional-development topics and objectives for educators:
- Furthering education and knowledge in a teacher’s subject area—e.g., learning new scientific theories, expanding knowledge of different historical periods, or learning how to teach subject-area content and concepts more effectively.
- Training or mentoring in specialized teaching techniques that can be used in many different subject areas, such as differentiation (varying teaching techniques based on student learning needs and interests) or literacy strategies (techniques for improving reading and writing skills), for example.
- Earning certification in a particular educational approach or program, usually from a university or other credentialing organization, such as teaching Advanced Placement courses or career and technical programs that culminate in students earning an industry-specific certification.
- Developing technical, quantitative, and analytical skills that can be used to analyze student-performance data, and then use the findings to make modifications to academic programs and teaching techniques.
- Learning new technological skills, such as how to use interactive whiteboards or course-management systems in ways that can improve teaching effectiveness and student performance.
- Improving fundamental teaching techniques, such as how to manage a classroom effectively or frame questions in ways that elicit deeper thinking and more substantive answers from students.
- Working with colleagues, such as in professional learning communities, to develop teaching skills collaboratively or create new interdisciplinary courses that are taught by teams of two or more teachers.
- Developing specialized skills to better teach and support certain populations of students, such as students with learning disabilities or students who are not proficient in English.
- Acquiring leadership skills, such as skills that can be used to develop and coordinate a school-improvement initiative or a community-volunteer program. For related discussions, see leadership team and shared leadership.
- Pairing new and beginning teachers with more experienced “mentor teachers” or “instructional coaches” who model effective teaching strategies, expose less-experienced teachers to new ideas and skills, and provide constructive feedback and professional guidance.
- Conducting action research to gain a better understanding of what’s working or not working in a school’s academic program, and then using the findings to improve educational quality and results.
- Earning additional formal certifications, such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, which requires educators to spend a considerable amount of time recording, analyzing, and reflecting on their teaching practice (many states provide incentives for teachers to obtain National Board Certification).
- Attending graduate school to earn an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree or doctorate in education, educational leadership, or a specialized field of education such as literacy or technology.
In recent years, state and national policies have focused more attention on the issue of “teacher quality”—i.e., the ability of individual teachers or a teaching faculty to improve student learning and meet expected standards for performance. The No Child Left Behind Act, for example, provides a formal definition of what constitutes high-quality professional development and requires schools to report the percentage of their teaching faculty that meet the law’s definition of a “highly qualified teacher.” The law maintains that professional development should take the form of a “comprehensive, sustained, and intensive approach to improving teachers’ and principals’ effectiveness in raising student achievement.” Similar policies that describe professional-development expectations or require teachers to meet certain expectations for professional development may be in place at the state, district, and school levels across the country, although the design and purpose of these policies may vary widely from place to place.
Generally speaking, professional development is considered to be the primary mechanism that schools can use to help teachers continuously learn and improve their skills over time. And in recent decades, the topic has been extensively researched and many strategies and initiatives have been developed to improve the quality and effectiveness of professional development for educators. While theories about professional development abound, a degree of consensus has emerged on some of the major features of effective professional development. For example, one-day workshops or conferences that are not directly connected to a school’s academic program, or to what teachers are teaching, are generally considered to be less effective than training and learning opportunities that are sustained over longer periods of time and directly connected to what schools and teachers are actually doing on a daily basis. Terms and phases such as sustained, intensive, ongoing, comprehensive, aligned, collaborative, continuous, systemic, or capacity-building, as well as relevant to teacher work and connected to student learning, are often used in reference to professional development that is considered to be of higher quality. That said, there are a wide variety of theories about what kinds of professional development are most effective, as well as divergent research findings.
While few educators would argue against the need for and importance of professional development, specific programs and learning opportunities may be criticized or debated for any number of reasons, especially if the professional development is poorly designed, executed, scheduled, or facilitated, or if teachers feel that it is irrelevant to their teaching needs and day-to-day professional responsibilities, among many other possible causes.
In addition, school leaders may encounter a variety of challenges when selecting and providing professional development opportunities. For example, one common obstacle is finding adequate time during the school day for teachers to participate in professional development. Securing sufficient funding is another common complication, particularly during times when school budgets are tight or being cut. The amount of funding allocated for professional development by states, districts, and schools may also vary widely—some schools could have access to more professional-development funding than they can reasonably use in a given year, while other schools and teachers may be expected to fund most or all of their professional development on their own. Other common challenges include insufficient support for professional development from the administrative leadership, a lack of faculty interest or motivation, or overburdened teacher workloads.