8 Recommended Tools for Professional Development

In the post “Spending Professional Development Time and Money Wisely,” teachers and professional development (PD) providers were urged to personalize learning and make it relevant to the teacher’s current learning environment.  One suggestion was to use Action Research to help teachers identify research questions within their own context, investigate the questions, analyze the data, and plan for the future based on the data collected.  In this post, I identify eight tools that can support teachers as they learn to personalize their professional development.

8.  A Journal

Whether using Moleskine® or going online, keeping a journal about the day’s experiences will, over time, help a teacher identify trends, make better predictions about lesson outcomes, shape and clarify decisions, and grow confidence.  Many teachers have taken their thoughts online.  Here is a list of top educator blogs from 2014 to inspire you.

2014 Edublog Awards – Best Teacher Blog Category

7.  Your State DOE Website

In Pennsylvania, the Standards Aligned System website features a PD Center for teachers with many courses on a variety of topics.  The courses are free for teachers who have a PPID (Professional Personnel ID), and they can choose the courses they want to take based on their needs.  Teachers can see a preview of the course to make sure that it suits their needs, too.  I have taken many courses through this website and have learned something valuable from each one.  The instructors are great, too.

Google searches have often brought me to the Public Schools of North Carolina’s PD website, too.   The resources are helpful, and this DOE also offers live sessions for NC school leaders, both online and face-to-face.

Another example is New York’s EngageNY.  EngageNY is a website chock full of resources for educators and parents.  They have resources for Common Core, Teacher/Leader Effectiveness, Data Driven Instruction, Professional Development, and a video library that addresses topics by grade level.

Other State DOE websites also offer PD resources that teachers can use based on their needs.  Check yours out today!

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6.  Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything

She’s not kidding; it really is a guide to everything.  If you can’t find information on a topic, let her know, and I’m sure she’ll find something to add to the site.  Take a look at her page for Assessment and Rubrics, for example.  Find Kathy on twitter here: @kathyschrock.

5. We Are Teachers

Use this site to find lesson plans and resources on a wide variety of topics.   Resources include videos, printables, “out of the box” ideas for lessons,  ideas for integrating art and creativity into the curriculum, ways to teach the whole child,  and more!

4.  The Teaching Channel

The Teaching Channel® video collection features short  (fewer than 10 minutes) videos focused on very specific topics.  They currently have videos for Arts, English Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies, as well as cross-curricular topics like Assessment, Behavior, Differentiation, and English Language Learners.  There are videos for each grade level, K-12.  Many videos also have guiding questions and supporting materials in PDF and Word format.

3.  Twitter

Kathy Schrock has created a page called “Twitter for Teachers” that shares links to practical advice on how to use Twitter for professional development.  Because Twitter users are limited to 140 characters, their tweets are usually succinct, which is more helpful to a teacher looking for quick answers than a long post such as this one.   This article from TeachThought is a primer on Twitter hashtags for educators.  There are so many of them, and I’m sure the number is growing all the time.   Education groups also chat on Twitter.  They agree to days and times to be on Twitter and tweet in real time, allowing for collaboration with any number of colleagues and many experts in the field of education who participate in these chats.   Find a list of Twitter Chats for educators here.


ASCD is a site that caters to educators with books, publications, conferences, professional development courses, and special programs.  I own many of their titles and have been a member of ASCD for many years now.  Membership is a bit pricey, but the benefits of membership (including many texts available for download and free members-only webinars) are very good, and the support they offer teachers is solid and trustworthy.   They always seem to be aware of each educational trend, and prepared with something (webinar, book, video, article, lesson plan, report, etc.) to help teachers understand it.

1. The Colleagues in Your Building

The most valuable professional development resource you have is your building PLC (Professional Learning Community).  The teachers in your building will best understand your situation, and best be able to provide you with timely advice about students, teaching strategies, classroom management, community engagement, etc.  If you do not have a PLC in your building, perhaps you could start one.  This article from Edutopia might help you.  This PDF from SEDL (The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory) may also be helpful.

An Open Mind

All of these tools require that the teacher has a continuous improvement mindset, and that he or she is committed to reflective practice.  Understanding one’s strengths and challenges, and wanting to improve is critically important.   It is also important that the tool teachers choose proves relevant to their current situation, and that using it is enjoyable and worthwhile.  I hope that I have provided a list of such tools for you, and welcome your suggestions for others.

Spending Professional Development Time and Money Wisely

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Perception is everything.  Despite our best intentions, when we present ourselves and our ideas to the world, how others see us or those ideas depends on the context in which the other exists, as well as how we have planned and prepared the presentation.  Our lack of understanding of the other’s condition could be our downfall, or we could get lucky and find ourselves in alignment.

In teaching, we have a few basic tenets that help us avoid misperceptions and misconceptions.  First, we believe in “starting from where the students are,” meaning that we use the students’ experiences to help them construct new knowledge and understanding.  Another important process is “differentiating instruction,” so that students can succeed with the same concept, skill, or content starting at their own level of ability and proceeding at a pace that works for them.  This has evolved into “personalized learning,” which targets that individual’s needs, not just their ability group.  Teachers’ access to technology that interacts and responds to the student has helped make personalized learning possible.  One could argue that it needs improvement, but that can be said of everything.  In fact, a continuous improvement mindset is preferable in many settings, not just educational.

Other concepts that are important to education (and there are many more than what I can write about here) include Understanding by Design, Project-Based Learning, Data-Driven Instruction, Standards-Based Instruction (Education), Evidence-Based Instruction, and 21st-Century Skills integration. These are all laudable ideas, if implemented properly and with care.

That educational researchers and mainstream literature write about these tenets of education often is a matter of record.  Therefore, it surprised me to read in The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth about Our Quest for Teacher Development that teachers perceive the professional development (PD) offered to them to be too generalized (Hasiotis et al., 2015) .  Despite the district or state’s best intentions, many teachers feel that PD is irrelevant to them and their context, rendering it not useful.  Even the job-embedded activities were not helpful, according to the report.  Teachers in the districts studied over two years were disappointed, and the millions of dollars spent on PD were, essentially, wasted.  Meanwhile, those providing PD continued to feel that they were serving their teachers well by creating, adopting, and deploying programs that helped their teachers learn about what great teaching looks like.  Why is the perception so disjointed between those developing and providing PD and those who are receiving it?

According to this report, the problem is not connected to funding.  In fact, their research concluded that districts spend an average of $18,000 a year per teacher, which translates to $8 billion being spent in the United States each year.  The problem is not connected to the amount of time spent, either, according to the report.  Teachers reported spending at least 150 hours, or 19 days, working on professional development activities per year.

The problem, then, is related to spending but not the amount of money or time devoted to the cause.  Instead, it is about how teachers and PD providers are spending their time.  The Mirage includes excellent recommendations for the improvement of professional development.  I highly recommend reading the report.  For this post, I would like to focus on personalizing professional development.

Teachers are students too

The best way to get students engaged initially with the material is to convince them that it is relevant to their lives.  They will take ownership of their learning if we can convincingly answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  To keep them engaged, however, we need to work with them and provide meaningful feedback.  We do this through formative assessment, a process that is supportive and encouraging.  We design activities that are within the students’ zone of proximal development so that they are just challenging enough that students will learn, instead of being overwhelmed, with a bit of help from us. We challenge the students’ critical thinking, problem solving, creative, and collaborative skills in ways that we know our students can handle and then gradually release responsibility for the learning to them as they progress in their understanding of the concept, skill, or knowledge. In other words, we engage our students in cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). Why, then, did the teachers in The Mirage study not experience professional development that way? Teachers are students too.

Use Action Research to engage teachers

Action Research is a process that makes the teacher a researcher and a participant in the study(“Action research for teachers,” n.d.; Creswell, 2005). It is a deliberate and well-planned study of one’s current practice. It is also an experiment with the following steps: identify an area of improvement, collect the data, implement a plan of improvement, analyze the data, report the results, and react to the results by proposing ways to improve one’s practice. Action research can be cyclical in that one study leads to another idea, which leads to another study. Action Research doesn’t have to be a lonely process; groups can work together if their research questions are similar, but in the end, each person strives to answer their personal questions and improve their own practice. They answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” themselves.

Professional development in situ

One advantage to doing Action Research is that it is professional development in situ. Action Research is similar to job-embedded activities, which are popular in professional development, but those activities start with prompts that were devised by someone else. Action Research, however, starts with a prompt (research question) that the teacher creates, to answer personal questions. Like job-embedded activities, it encourages the teacher to use the qualitative and quantitative data to hand, which is data related to one’s students. During the implementation process, the teacher is collecting still more data, which is still related to the students and to instructional effectiveness. The teacher then analyzes that data, striving to determine if their implementation plan worked or if more change is necessary. While all of that is similar to a job-embedded activity, that it starts with the teacher-created prompt makes it much more worthwhile.

Another aspect of Action Research that is very important is that teacher researchers are supposed to report their findings. Using in-service days to let teachers present to each other could, potentially, make those hours more productive. First, the teachers are dealing with the same student population. Therefore, teachers will hear their colleagues’ research questions and may choose to adopt that question for their next research project, as it relates to their experience in the classroom. Additionally, they may choose to implement another teacher’s solution simply because it worked for that teacher, who has many of the same students. This may lead to cross-curricular adoption of teaching strategies, allowing the students to experience similar teaching and learning methods within different subject areas. The notion of “what works in education” is, then, adapted to the culture in which the teachers and students are members.

Teachers in The Mirage study would benefit from this type of professional development. Their students would benefit, too. It could, potentially, make an instructional coach’s job much more difficult, and the program could suffer from a lack of rigor if the teachers are not taught how to collect and analyze data properly. Since these teachers think that their PD activities are nearly worthless, however, I think that making the switch could change the lives of these teachers and their students for the better.

Professional development tools

PD tools have flooded the market. There are apps for the phone and tablet, desktop applications, books in all formats, CDs and DVDs, mp4 recordings, YouTube videos, and so much more. I have tried quite a few of these tools and I like almost all of them. When doing Action Research, however, the first and last tool teachers need to use is the data collection and reporting tool, whatever that might be.

Teachers form questions for further study based on their classroom environment (or that of the school, if working in a group). Within that environment, the students figure prominently of course. Data tools can help teachers form impressions of their students. Through different lenses, the teacher can view the students’ progress historically, longitudinally, and currently. Based on these impressions, teachers can evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching and those who taught them before. Data tools with holistic data capture can unite academic progress with other factors influencing a child’s well-being, such as socioeconomic status, extracurricular activities, IEP status, and ELL progress.

Unfortunately, many teachers do not know enough about these tools to use the data wisely – if at all. Teacher preparation programs do not normally teach data analysis. This was true when I was studying to become a K-12 teacher, at least. Because teachers lack this valuable skill, some Action Research projects lack the rigor required to truly make a difference in the classroom. In a study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students, it was clear that half the teachers studied were comfortable with using data to improve instruction, but the other half were overwhelmed by the idea and claimed they did not have the time to learn data analysis skills, or felt that their current methods worked for them (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2015) It is a fascinating study, one I recommend reading, along with The Mirage.

The last thing we want is to waste even more of the teacher’s and the district’s time. Therefore, I propose that teacher PD needs to include instruction on data analysis along with Action Research. PD providers should design the sessions so that teachers are using their data, thereby making the sessions relevant to them. Instructional coaches can work with teachers to help them understand what they are looking at, and verify the teacher’s conclusions. They can use these sessions as formative assessment of teachers, encouraging them to take risks to reap the rewards of continuous improvement. Make the data relevant to the teacher, help them to see the windows of opportunity the data shows, help them to understand where their students are and how well they can get to where they need to go, and teachers will embrace data analysis. I am sure of it because, after all, perception is everything.


Action research for teachers. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2015, from http://www.nefstem.org/teacher_guide/prep/index.htm

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2015). Teachers know best: Making data work for teachers and students. Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://collegeready.gatesfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/TeachersKnowBest-MakingDataWork.compressed.pdf

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator, Winter. Retrieved from http://elc.fhda.edu/transform/resources/collins_brown_holum_1991.pdf

Creswell, J. W. (2005). Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson / Prentice Hall.

Hasiotis, D., Grogan, E., Lawrence, K., Maier, A., Wilpon, A., Jacob, A., & McGovern, K. (2015). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development. Retrieved November 14, 2015, from http://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP-Mirage_2015.pdf

This post was recently published by the SunGard K-12 blog:



One Argument for the Common Core

I am taking a professional development class on pdesas.org, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Standards Aligned System site.  For PA teachers, it’s a great resource and a great way to earn Act 48 hours at no charge.  One must be a self-directed learner to fully appreciate the course and be successful, but teachers have been teaching themselves new things since the beginning of their careers, I suspect.  Now, they have a resource that is organized well and conforms to the latest ideas in the PDE about effective teaching.  I recommend the site and the professional development opportunities.  I also wish I had a classroom where I could try out the ideas more effectively, especially the PA Common Core standards recently adopted.  While finishing my recent assessments, I found the PA Core standards to be very helpful, to guide my lesson plan development, and to help me understand Long-term Transfer Goals, Big Ideas, and Essential Questions.  The standards have been condensed into (in my opinion) easier to follow guidelines.  It also seems like they allow more freedom to teachers to design instruction that will work for their students.  Perhaps I’m wrong; let me know.

Here is an example of a unit plan that I wrote using the PA Core and the Curriculum Framework (sort of) as a guide.  Please let me know what you think.

Next time, I will present arguments against the Common Core.  There are plenty!  Below are some links to articles that feature arguments against these standards.

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