Selecting High-Quality Professional Development That Sings

In a world full of PD choices—the good, the bad, and the expensive—effective principals use strategy to make the right choices.

Topics: Early Career Principals, Professional Development

Orchestra conductors know every note and notation of the score. That’s how they stand on the podium and bring harmony to the squeaks of the violins and bleats of the oboes.

An effective principal creates harmony amid discord—or “orchestrates professional learning,” in the words of researchers Fink and Markholt—by spotting the signs of high-quality professional development. By scrutinizing professional development through a lens of data, school goals, and teacher needs, the future-forward principal leads the faculty in making beautiful music together.

Take a Good Look: 10 Tips

Education is changing, and teachers must change with it. Take these tips from veteran principals for a hard-nosed approach to finding professional development resources that reshape practices and perspectives:

  1. Take a data dive. Connect the data dots, and your school’s needs appear like constellations—clearly written in the stars. Perhaps you’ve seen teachers struggling to reach English Language Learners, and data shows that ELL students are, indeed, falling behind. Data elevates the decision about a professional learning path from gut-based to targeted.
  2. Get on the same page. Maybe you see a lion and a shark in those data constellations, but your teachers see a zebra and an ice cream cone. Bring teachers to the table to determine how their own professional growth, as individuals or within PLCs, can advance student achievement.
  3. Strengthen bonds. Team challenges and interactive opportunities make professional development stick. Provide time for reflection, letting the group develop an accountability strategy that translates learning into classroom action.
  4. Recognize differences. Your teachers didn’t train equally. New teachers recently learned how to enable student inquiry and leverage technology. They need the skills for delivering those concepts and mastering classroom management. Experienced teachers might be frustrated with the pace of change. Professional learning steeped in coaching, connections with colleagues, and support from school leadership helps them navigate this new world.
  5. Think like a parent. When parents talk, their kids often hear “Blah, blah, blah.” Let a trusted coach or aunt say the same thing, and they hear “Study hard and graduate.” Teachers are no different. If there’s a practice or value you’ve been struggling to instill, an outside voice can finally get the message across.
  6. Don’t do it alone. You don’t have all the answers. Bump up the buy-in by empowering teachers to suggest the professional development resources that their networking peers are raving about.
  7. Pencil out the return on investment. Like an informercial miracle product, professional development has the power to solve all of your problems—or so the seller wants you to believe. Your job is asking if this product will deliver a return on investment through student and teacher growth.
  8. Do it yourself. It’s kind of a thing. When her teachers learn about a game-changing but prohibitively expensive PD option, Jessica Holman, principal of Green Magnet Academy in Knoxville, TN, works with them to release the things they can’t control. Then, they home in on the things they can, asking, “What can we do that doesn’t take money and still creates a magical experience for our kids?”
  9. Focus on district alignment. The district peers of Martne McCoy, principal of John Shields Elementary in Sugar Grove, IL, meet to agree on the must-dos and may-dos for their elementary schools—all of them aligned with district standards. When they reconvene, they ask, “What are you seeing in your classrooms that would be an indicator that the learning is happening or coming alive?”

Lean on your networks. Find out what other principals say about the effectiveness of resources that might not otherwise appear on your radar. “It’s so energizing to be with other school leaders who are doing the same job,” says Gracie Branch. “They’re sharing strategies that have worked at their schools—and could work at your school.