Professional Development Won’t Instill Autonomy Mastery and Purpose








While progress has been made when it comes to professional development in schools, professional development for teachers is still, in many schools, a passive experience. Too often, PD is scheduled and obligatorily completed rather than implemented as an ongoing, active, and engaging learning opportunity that instills autonomy, mastery, and purpose, which according to Daniel Pink, author of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, are the 3 elements of true human motivation that contribute to high-performance in the workplace and in life.


Here are 5 reasons why professional development as we currently know it won’t instill autonomy, mastery, and purpose in your teachers in 2019.

  1. Professional development is seen by many teachers as boring. We’ve all endured a monotonous lecture before. It seems like a never-ending march down the path to nowhere. Nothing bothers me more than hearing a PD presenter say, “Now I know this isn’t a good way to teach.” If you know that standing in front of a room of people and talking is boring and ineffective, why are you doing it?  
  2. Professional development in most school districts is still solely tracking seat time and hours completed rather than mastery of new skills and competencies. This is about as meaningful as giving a student a grade for attendance and nothing else. If it’s not good enough for kids, why is it good enough for adults?
  3. Professional development is still seen by most educators as something that is done to them rather than with or for them. 
  4. Professional development is still intermittently scheduled throughout the year on the calendar and during summer months. Relegating professional growth to the margins of a teacher’s schedule does not contribute to ongoing and meaningful collaborative learning with peers.
  5. Professional development lacks personalization.  There is too often a disconnect between what a teacher needs and wants vs. what is offered during the school year.  Sitting through a mandatory PD workshop that has very little connection to one’s daily work is a frustrating experience.

Professional development that works  

While these are some of the reasons why professional development is not successful, the Every Student Succeeds Act  has recently helped define the elements of successful professional development.  According to ESSA, PD should be sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.

How can you and your leadership team develop a professional development model at your school this year that incorporates these elements that instills autonomy, mastery, and purpose in your teachers?

It begins with courage; it requires a bold commitment from your instructional leadership team and the teachers in your school to accept that the journey of professional growth is not linear but is a messy path of trial and error.

Whether it’s improving a fitness goal, learning a new hobby, or becoming a better parent or sibling, I firmly believe most people enjoy setting, monitoring, and achieving relevant goals that stretch them.  In order for teachers to have agency over their own professional growth, you need to let them choose a destination and a path for how they’re going to get there. People also need the opportunity to monitor and measure their progress along the way whether individually or with a coach or peer.  

If your goal as a school is to improve overall student learning and achievement, teachers must set their own individual professional learning goals that are connected to the overall strategic goals set by their instructional leaders through their Campus Action or Improvement Plan.   

In order to foster a culture of authentic adult learning that is intensive and sustained, instructional leaders need to nurture an environment that encourages both autonomy and accountability through job-embedded PD.  PD should blend in with a teacher’s and instructional leader’s daily workflow. It should not be an extra task that can be checked off or a list simply for the sake of professional compliance.

For instance, teachers need time during the week to reflect on the professional learning goals they have set as well as to receive feedback from a peer or colleague.  Ongoing self-reflection and feedback enable teachers to focus on the process and product of a lesson they’ve architected and delivered, developing a greater self-awareness and understanding of how their daily practice impacts student learning.  This powerful process can be facilitated asynchronously online. Teachers can record their lessons and watch themselves teach anytime, anywhere. If they’re comfortable, they can share their practice to receive time-stamped feedback from a colleague they trust and respect. This work can be completed during a conference period, grade-level meeting, professional learning community, or from the comfort of home.


Don’t make a lack of time an excuse for inaction

If you don’t make time for professional learning during the work week, you’ve signaled to your staff that you don’t care enough about it to make it a priority. Historically, your professional obligation and duties, in regards to monitoring teacher effectiveness, are comprised of completing classroom walkthroughs and 1 or 2 formal observations required by your district or state. When it comes to improving teacher practice, this model is easily gamed by both teachers and administrators and too infrequent to be effective. Moreover, it does not put the teacher in the driver’s seat of their own professional growth and often times creates more work for your administrative team without a significant return on investment.  This process lends itself to teachers being consumers of your feedback rather than active participants in their own learning. A big part of your job is motivating and encouraging your teachers to improve their performance. You don’t necessarily need to be the expert and you don’t need to hire a “sage on the stage” consultant for your teachers to improve their practice.

Dr. Jim Knight, a leader in the professional development field says,“Effective professional development honors the autonomy of teachers but recognizes the importance of a form of accountability grounded in that autonomy,” As a leader you should inspect what you expect.  Monitor your staff’s progress towards the individual professional learning goals they set and make sure you support them in every way you can to help them reach their goals. If you’re not an instructional expert in a particular teacher’s domain, you could hire a virtual instructional coach for them or pair them with a master teacher at your school with whom they can collaborate. Most importantly, inspecting what you expect on a consistent basis sends a strong message to your staff that you’re serious about their professional learning and growth and that you are not there to check the box of compliance.


Incentives matter

Time is the most valuable commodity. I’ve never heard a teacher tell me they’re satisfied with the amount of time they are given to complete what’s expected of them on a daily, weekly, and annual basis. I’ve also never heard a teacher complain when time-consuming and ineffective PD initiatives were eliminated, which is why incentivizing your teachers to participate in job-embedded PD throughout the school year can be tricky. If you’re giving teachers choice in how they engage in their own professional learning, it’s best to give back time rather than take additional time away.  The best way to do this is to allow teachers who participate in alternative forms of PD to opt out of attending the traditional staff development days that are not personalized to their needs. The feeling of autonomy that results from having this choice may prove to be a huge incentive to many teachers, making them feel that the time spent honing their craft was more than worthwhile.

Thomas Guskey once said, success and progress are the very stuff that makes teaching worthwhile. Teachers are lifelong learners and have an innate desire to improve their craft and student outcomes.  You have the capacity this year to instill autonomy, mastery, and purpose in your teachers in 2019, the three elements of true human motivation that contribute to high-performance in the workplace and in life.

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