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You say PD, I say PL. What's in a name?

Have you read the latest research brief from the International Literacy Association? This position paper – “Democratizing professional growth with teachers” – so astutely focuses on professional learning opportunities. The authors – Troy Hicks and Misty Sailors – point out the hypocrisy in teacher education; too often teachers are not treated as active learners in workshops, conferences, and webinars. The brief makes the case for moving away from a model which treats teachers as needing to be ‘developed’ (Professional Development or PD), to a model of Professional Learning (or PL) which affords teachers opportunities to embrace their own agency.

We’ve all been there. In my career first as a teacher and now as a teacher educator, I’ve been on both sides of the equation. I’ve sat through the professional development workshop in the high school auditorium, where my colleagues graded papers or played Candy Crush on their phones (yes, I was equally guilty). I’ve sat through the workshop led by a salesperson, who was really just pitching her product. I’ve presented at the conference, and wondered how to engage those teachers who seemed more concerned by the freebies in the exhibit hall than the sessions.

In my current work as a teacher educator, I often provide professional learning opportunities for teachers in the field. I’ve done everything from a two-hour workshop (my least favorite) to a multi-week coaching experience (my most favorite). It’s hard work: in a short time, you must establish yourself as approachable, knowledgeable, but humble. I often present to teachers who have many more years of classroom experience than I do. As I reflect on fifteen years of this work, it’s only natural for me to reflect on whether my work mirrors the ‘pitfalls of typical professional development’.

In my early years in this work, I undoubtedly provided the one-shot fashion PD that – though well-intentioned – became a series of ‘disconnected strategies’. In fact, almost twenty years later I still am frequently asked to provide these. I admire a handful of colleagues who tell me that they don’t agree to provide the one-shot model of PD. The reason why I still do this work is simple: those are the only sorts of professional learning that schools have created time and resources for. The schools and the districts that have the funding, resources, and time for long-term coaching relationships are scarce.

The research brief also validates what I aim to do in my work as I provide professional learning, as ways that I can improve my work. I use alternative structures for PL and capitalize on the opportunities in digital technologies. I connect my work to teachers’ daily classroom routines. I honor the knowledge that teachers bring. When I am asked a question, I often turn it back to the audience and draw upon their wisdom and experience to group-think an answer. I can be better about providing opportunities to reflect and engage in conversation. I can be better about helping teachers set goals for their learning.

So as the summer winds down for us on the east coast, take a minute to run – don’t walk – to your nearest computer and download the newest ILA brief. If you’re a teacher, ask yourself the tough questions about what you are doing to pursue your own professional learning. If you are a consultant or someone like myself who often provides PL, ask yourself the tough questions about the opportunities that you facilitate or lead. Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @drmollyness and by email at

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