Engagement, Opinion, School Community, Teaching

Professional Development Starts with a Learner Mindset

“It is difficult for teachers to create, for their students, experiences and social conditions they have not experienced for themselves.” Brown & Cherkowski



“It is difficult for teachers to create, for their students, experiences and social conditions they have not experienced for themselves.” Brown & Cherkowski



I became a teacher because I wanted to be like those teachers who made a difference in my life. I don’t know what my teachers were thinking about their roles as teachers, but I remember feeling recognized for who I was, even if I was never too sure myself. In fact, it was their recognition that helped to shape part of my identity. When I became a teacher, I looked to a few colleagues who seemed to effortlessly connect with students. They made it clear that the lives of their students mattered. Over the years, I’ve worked hard to be a teacher who listens to feedback from students and changes accordingly.

If I care about my students, I should care about what they are learning says Nel Noddings, who holds that caring relations are the foundation for pedagogical activity. Students learn when they are cared for, are recognized and feel a sense of belonging. 

In the pilot year of creating a student-centered learning space based on the wide open question, “What do you want to learn?” I resisted doing what I knew how to do (“teach”) and who to be (a “teacher”), and followed the students’ learning paths, letting them lead. At times it was chaos, but rather than go back and force a structure, I chose to research using the terms “chaos theory” and “learning.” I wanted to figure out what it was that the students and I were experiencing.

Through the praxis of research and action, one thing I discovered was connectivism, a learning theory, which helped to explain the chaos and experiences with learning, particularly with technology. One student captured this saying, “I love clicking on links and finding, going off on different ideas…[to] just let my mind click on all these different links and read different books, and gathering my own consensus from it.”[1] That’s what learning (and cat curiosity) can look like.

Today there is much being written about the shifting roles of teachers, a shift I’ve experienced profoundly. After 26 years teaching, the last five, developing a flexible learning space within a traditional high school, I’ve come to identify more as learner than teacher. My students are also my teachers. To balance these relationships, I’d rather we abandon the power-laden labels of “teacher” and “student.” I loved it this year when a student told me, “You know, I don’t even need you.” I’m accepting my complex identity, simultaneously knowing who I am and discovering who I am becoming.


Like the static and fluid nature of identity, the system of education is complex. To reduce the complexity, we focus on the content, the facts and skills we are certain of. This “essential” content is knowable, teachable and testable. So we educate students, delivering curriculum. But what about those unknown, complex parts? How do we teach others to be inquisitive, to be persistent, to be empathetic, to like who they are even when they struggle to know? How do we build relationships with our students and colleagues? These things must be learned.

An effective teacher seeks to master a large body of knowledge and skills for the classroom while being a colleague, coach, club supervisor and maintaining a healthy personal life outside school. Multiple identities. Multiple contexts. I learned that if I wasn’t making my own professional learning relevant and personal, no one else was going to do it for me.

The continuing development of my practice comes about with a great deal of self-determined learning and personal reflection. Through reading educational research, reflecting on my practice, learning from my students and connecting with other educators in person and online, I am in a constant state of learning. It’s rewarding and exhausting.


Personal and professional development is not without its challenges. If the culture of a school does not embrace experimentation and reflection, then those teachers who take risks may find themselves isolated. Changes to “the way things are done around here” is culture busting and upsetting. Other teachers may feel threatened or even judged by a few teachers’ adoption of different approaches to learning. The school leader plays a pivotal role in supporting the innovative teachers in such a way as to not make others feel as if they are suddenly teaching “the wrong way.”

Encouraging and supporting teacher inquiry and experimentation, despite failures, leads to development. In Culture Rewired, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker believe that “Educators in healthy school cultures understand the power of failure and will actively search for these opportunities even if it means confronting their own disappointments. It is the culture that determines whether failures will constitute steps forward or backward for staff.” [2]


Professional development begins with a clear understanding of the WHY we do what we do that inspires us to act. Really, why school?


So what’s required for teachers to develop the knowledge, skills and competencies (the what, where, how, and when of learning) together with the ability to be adaptive, creative and innovative experts?

  1. Mindset culture. Develop a growth and innovator mindset.
  2. Agency and autonomy culture. Some words of caution: while agency and autonomy are empowering, they also open up the possibility of possibilities, which can be both freeing and anxiety producing.


Development starts from where you are. What do you know and what don’t you know about teaching and learning? There are certainties in teaching along with a seemingly growing host of uncertainties. Which are warranted and which are unwarranted? In Case Studies in Educational Foundations, authors Hasinoff and Mandzuk say that we need to pay greater attention to unwarranted certainties that arise when we accept myths, bandwagons, and moral panics as certainties despite being based on unexamined assumptions and unsupported theories.

Adopt an inquiry stance to practice and own the learning. Knowledge is developed in context. In my inquiry with new models of learning, I was forced to question my own assumptions about teaching, learning and schooling. The biggest struggle was working both within and against the system, reforming myself even if the education system resisted. I discovered new views of learning and knowing fit for a diverse, networked and rapidly changing world, which then further supported my developing practice.

If we want our students to develop into responsible, self-directed, lifelong learners, we must learn to develop our own relevant and personal learning in collaboration and community with others.

PD Resource:

Case Studies in Education Foundations With 30 case studies followed by discussion questions considering historical, philosophical and sociological significance, plus implications for practice, this is an excellent book study for pre-service and in-service teachers.

[1] Dyck, B.(2013). The possibilities of transforming learning: a practitioner research study of a pilot alternative learning program. University of Manitoba. http://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/jspui/handle/1993/21938

[2] ibid.

This blog post is part of CEA’s focus on the state of Teacher PD in Canada, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Teachers as Learners theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, What is Effective Teacher Professional Development? Please contact info@cea-ace.ca if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.

Meet the Expert(s)

barry dyck

Barry Dyck


Barry Dyck has taught for over 28 years from Grade 4 to university level. He is currently in a new position teaching Grade 9 multimedia in Winnipeg, Man., where he’s working to get students in Grades 5-9 involved in creating content for the school’s daily YouTube broadcast while also preparing for a future podcast channel.

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