Why do teachers’ organizations believe professional development is so important? In short, because effective student learning is dependent on effective teacher learning.
The Canadian Teachers’ Federation defines professional development (PD) as the continuous growth of personal and professional knowledge and expertise, the primary purpose of which is to enhance teaching in support of student learning and development. In teaching, as with any profession, the knowledge base about effective practice is constantly evolving. The continual renewal of knowledge and expertise, through a broad variety of activities and experiences, is thus a central concept of teacher professionalism.
Effective PD combines many qualities. It is reflective, interactive, practical, continuous, teacher-driven and embedded in teachers’ work. It encourages teachers to explore and take risks, to think actively and deeply about their professional practice. It engages teachers in collegial and collaborative dialogue. And it is grounded in current research on teaching and learning.
Effective PD also responds to each teacher’s unique set of learning needs, goals, styles, knowledge and skills. In order to do this, it utilizes a diversity of approaches including participation in courses, conferences and workshops, professional reading, fostering professional inquiry through action research and other approaches, and mentoring new teachers, to name a few.
Research about teachers’ work and learning in Canada entitled Beyond PD Days found that teachers embrace ongoing professional learning and the overwhelming majority actively engage in it through both formal and informal learning activities.1 In addition:
- Teachers want support, flexibility of learning offerings, and the ability to direct their own learning.
- Time pressure is most often articulated by teachers as the major barrier to learning.
- Experts increasingly recognize that job-embedded learning is critical to ensure change in teacher practice.
- For new teachers, mentors and mentoring relationships were identified as an important support in their early years of teaching.
The study also found that increasing teacher workload has led to significant increases in stress which, must be taken into account when planning professional learning opportunities.
Another important finding from the research was the need to recognize and foster classroom teacher leadership. PD is key to building effective professional learning communities and to enhancing leadership capacity.
The Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP), a collaborative partnership of the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, offers an exemplary model of the power of teacher-led PD to foster leadership and innovative teaching practice. The TLLP “operates on the belief that classroom teachers know their learning needs and the needs of their students best. Additionally, the program assumes teachers have the greatest knowledge of how to build and foster multiple learning networks in order to share their expertise both within and beyond their schools.”2
The three primary goals of the program are to support experienced teachers in undertaking innovative, self-chosen professional learning in areas that are meaningful to them; foster teacher leadership; and facilitate the sharing of exemplary practices with others for the broader benefit of Ontario’s students.
Since its inception in 2007, over 600 projects have been funded with 110 projects being implemented in the 2013-2014 school year. Project teams typically consist of two to five teachers. Not surprisingly, project themes are diverse and include differentiated instruction, literacy, integrating technology into curriculum, student assessment, math literacy, supporting students with special needs, gender-based learning, French (core & immersion), media literacy, and the arts. Social media is used by project teams to document and share their learning.3
Research conducted on the TLLP found that it has considerable benefits for teachers’ professional learning.4 TLLP teacher leaders reported improvements in their knowledge and skills, instructional and assessment practices, and leadership skills. Overall, researchers observed that TLLP teacher leaders “demonstrate the professional, educational, and financial value of self-directed, teacher-led innovative and effective practices.”5
This quote from a teacher who participated in the TLLP succinctly sums up the rationale for the program:
“Every day in classrooms, there are miracles happening. Absolute miracles. Teachers are doing fantastic things. And the teacher in the classroom next door has no idea about the miraculous things that the teacher next to him or her is doing. The teacher in the next school doesn’t know it, and the teacher in the next district certainly doesn’t know it. How do we take those miracles and share them?”
In their book Professional Capital, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan describe two competing approaches to teaching – the business capital approach and the professional capital approach. These very different perspectives have implications for PD.
In the former view as Hargreaves and Fullan point out, “the purpose of public education is increasingly to yield a short-term profit with quick returns for its investors …. teaching is technically simple. Teaching doesn’t require rigorous training, hard work in universities, or extensive practice in schools. In this view, teaching can be learned over six weeks in the summer, as long as you are passionate and enthusiastic. Imagine if we said that about our doctors or architects or engineers.”6Programs such as Teach For America embody this narrow mentality.
The concept of professional capital on the other hand consists of three components: human capital (the quality of individual teachers); social capital (the collaborative power of teachers as a group); and decisional capital (the wisdom and expertise of teachers to make sound judgments about learners that are cultivated over time). As Hargreaves and Fullan note, unlike the business approach, this approach “requires technical knowledge, high levels of education, strong practice within schools, and continuous improvement over time that is undertaken collaboratively, and that calls for the development of wise judgment.”7
As in countries such as Finland, the success of Canada’s education system is due in no small part to the quality of its teaching profession and hence, to a recognition of the importance of continually investing in developing a high quality teaching profession for the benefit of all students.
Effective professional development is absolutely critical in this regard.
 Clark, Rosemary, et al. (2007). Beyond PD Days: Teachers’ Work and Learning in Canada. Ontario Teachers’ Federation / Centre for the Study of Education & Work, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
 Amato, Lindy, Anthony, Paul, & Strachan, Jim (April 2014). “Know how? Show how: Experienced teachers share best practices through Ontario program.” Journal of Staff Development, 35(2), pp. 46-49.
 Ibid, pg. 49.
 Campbell, Carol, Lieberman, Ann, & Yashkina, Anna (April 2014). The Teacher Learning and Leadership Program: Research Report 2013-2014. Ontario Teachers’ Federation. http://www.otffeo.on.ca/en/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/08/TLLP-Final-Report-April-2014.pdf
 As cited in Amato et al., p. 48.
 Hargreaves, Andy, & Fullan, Michael (June 2013). “The power of professional capital.” Journal of Staff Development, 34(3), pp. 36-39.
 Ibid. pg 37.