ISTE 2017 has come and gone, and in its wake we’re left with a series of valuable lessons learned. This year, improving teacher professional development was a hot topic. At the San Antonio conference, a majority of educators polled said they were tired of professional development that wasn't actually “developing.”

As a training specialist, I work with a team that has developed a new approach to educator PD which uses online resources to take instructor learning beyond the “one-and-done” method. Like the educators at ISTE, we wanted a practical approach that could help guide PD improvement. In the hopes of helping others learn from our developing innovation, here are some of the most effective best practices for ongoing PD support.

1. Assess What You Have

In order to provide meaningful PD, it’s essential to first assess the program currently in place. Professional development should be built around the current skill set, schedule, and format preferences of the educators who will engage with it. One thing I’ve learned is that the “one-size-fits-all” approach is rarely effective, especially when it comes to something as important as equipping an academic staff with the tools and understanding they require to instruct others.

When my team and I began our journey to assess, reinvent, and improve, we started by examining the PD courses we were currently providing and asking the questions, “Is this working?” and “How can we make it better?” Traditionally, our training centered around two-day onsite PD that attempted to provide teachers with all the skills and strategies they would need to implement effective reading instruction. This approach was a bit like drinking from a fire hose. These classes were good, but the teacher feedback we received always included requests for more training and more support as they delivered instruction to their students. Our two-day training sessions simply weren’t cutting it anymore.

2. Offer Ongoing Support

At the center of our customer feedback was a request for more information and support that would be available during the year as it was needed. We came to realize that an ongoing PD approach was more effective than providing all of the information at one time. This idea is supported by research showing that one-day lessons provide no substantial change for the learners involved. Workshop and training models need ongoing support to really work.

Cindy Young, the Vice Principal at the Gordon Denny Community School in Air Ronge Canada, used this PD method with her staff when incorporating literacy instruction into all grades and subjects. “Not only have we measured improved reading proficiency,” Young said, “but we’ve seen a substantial influence on our teachers’ confidence as well. As they learn these new techniques, they can go back to their students confident that their lessons will be more beneficial for their continued literacy improvement.”

Our PD course offers separate segments that provide an introduction, six instructional training modules, and a module on using the software. After developing these segments, we added a pre-check of prior knowledge to help personalize user experience. Brain research informs us that pre-assessments are a learning strategy that helps to prepare the student to absorb important information. We’ve also embedded assessments at the end of each module to solidify concepts and to measure improvement along the way. Another important reason for assessments is that they help educators see the progress they’re making and can be used to unlock additional content when they’re ready.

3. Make it Easy to Access

Assessments complete, we were armed with the improvements we needed to make our PD courses as effective as possible. Our teachers still enjoyed the in-person classes, but we also needed to provide a resource that would allow educators to learn on their own schedule, when and where they needed the information, and to have an opportunity to reflect on and connect to what they were learning. We know that blended learning works well with students and we were excited to expand this approach to teachers. 

With an online PD course, ongoing instruction and practice can be provided following the initial in-class training with a series of short videos that include demonstrations and examples for every step of the process. As a way of building off the “more is more” concept of support that inspired our initiative, we made the courses available to our learners even after they had completed them. That way, they can then jump back into any module whenever they choose. As Young put it, “All we have to do is ask our staff to take a little time out of their day to watch the webinars and see how the method can be applied within their unique classroom setting.”

4. Provide Variety

A PD program that offers variety stands a better chance of keeping its users engaged. Teachers will come to PD at different stages and with different levels of understanding. It’s important to be able to provide a variety of sessions for them to choose from based on their unique skill set and teaching experience, as well as the grade level and literacy needs of their students. An educator teaching kindergarteners will need a different approach than one who’s teaching fifth-graders. A new teacher may have learning needs that are different from an experienced educator.

Providing authentic classroom footage and modeling demonstrations for elementary, secondary, and adult learners will help educators gain a more solid understanding of the material at each level and increase fidelity during implementation. When my team and I were developing our PD, we were committed to enhancing our learners’ autonomy by offering them a variety of additional videos to choose from after they had selected their level and area of interest. The more variety you can provide, the more customized your PD becomes.   

5. Engage Adults, Too!

Adult learners share some of the same characteristics of student learners—we, too, can be frustrated when too much information is provided at one time or when content isn’t interesting.  Effective PD must be engaging. Collaborative and interactive learning is certainly more engaging than “sit and get,” and making lessons pertinent to the students our educators will be teaching increases their attention.

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Maintaining this engagement over time requires repetition, practice, and reflection. We increase retention by hearing something more than once and from multiple sources. Effective PD encourages teachers to come back with questions, share what they have learned, apply successes, and try new things. “The more teachers know about reading and how the language works,” Young concluded, “the more explicit they can be about assessing where their students are and what next steps they need to take to keep them moving on a forward path.” Dynamic PD requires an ongoing commitment of time and effort, but providing the type of instruction that grows and develops with educators’ needs is an invaluable investment.

Carrie Drake taught at the English Language Center at BYU for seven years, and also spent many years teaching at the elementary level. She is currently a Curriculum and Training Specialist at Reading Horizons. She can be reached at