Professional Learning: What Makes it Sticky and Sustainable? By Janice Ewing
Here’s something to try: divide a page in your notebook in half. Write the term “professional development” in one column or section and “professional learning” in the other. Then, draw a quick sketch or jot down some words or phrases that you associate with each term. Look at your responses; are they the same, different, or is there overlap? There’s no right answer, of course. Reflect on your responses in each column and overall. You might ask yourself:
Are your associations more positive or negative?
Are people seated a particular way?
Who is speaking?
Is it a one-time event?
What else do you notice; does anything surprise you or suggest a pattern?
Of course, what’s important is the quality and relevance of the experience, not how it’s categorized, but I find the terms to have different connotations. To me, “development,” similar to “training,” suggests a more passive stance. I envision a pre-determined set of skills or capacities that an educator is meant to acquire, usually in a specific sequence of steps. On the other hand, “professional learning,” to me, suggests a more active, agentive experience, in which the educator brings his or her needs, interests, and background knowledge and incorporates new perspectives and insight. Again, it’s not about the name – you may have participated in ‘professional development” initiatives that were extremely valuable, and events labeled “professional learning” that did not fit that description.
So, moving beyond the terminology, what do educators need to facilitate learning and growth? There’s clearly no one answer, and maybe that’s the point. I think that the best professional learning reflects and respects the needs of the adult learner. As educators, we live in a state of change. The needs of our students, our relationships with colleagues, parents, administrators, and countless other groups shift, sometimes gradually and sometimes minute by minute. That’s the nature of our work. In spite of that, and also because of that, there are constants. We need authentic, realistic experiences that we can integrate into our already overstuffed lives. We want to engage in professional learning that we can build upon and will not disappear as quickly as the donuts are packed up
Think about what professional development or professional learning looks like for you. Here’s another set of questions for reflection:
Do you attend conferences? If so, do you have a choice as to which conferences and which sessions to attend?
After attending a conference, how do you hold on to your new learning or thinking? How do you share it and/or integrate it into your practice?
What professional learning experiences does your school or district offer or require?
How aligned are these programs or events to the needs of your students as well as your needs and professional interests or questions? What happens after the program? Is there follow-up coaching or opportunities for collegial problem-solving? Do you have the materials and supports you need to implement whatever was presented?
If it is a new requirement, has something been removed from your plate, or does this feel like one more obligation? Do you know and believe in why you are doing this?
What types of professional learning do you and/or your colleagues
organize or initiate?
Is it face-to-face, digital, or a combination?
How did you get started?
If it didn’t last, why do you think that was (maybe it was meant to be short-term?)?
If it lasted and/or is still ongoing, what conditions allowed for that to happen?
Do you engage in action research? How does that enrich your experience as a teacher and a learner? How does it help your students?
Professional learning is the fuel that we need to grow and flourish as educators, at all stages of our careers. I invite you to reflect once again, and share your thinking in the comments.
What are the conditions that make it stick, so it’s not just a one-time event that may or may not have been enjoyable?
What are the conditions that make it sustainable, so teachers don’t jump in with enthusiasm or a sense of obligation, but burn out before long?
If your professional learning opportunities have not been sticky and sustainable, what might you do? Are there colleagues you can connect with? Professional organizations to get involved with? Action research projects to embark on?
What are your next steps on your professional learning journey?
Janice Ewing is an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University and a member of the Advisory Board of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. She is a long-term member of ILA, KSLA, NCTE and a new member of CEL. She and her colleague, Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).