Tag Archives: professional development

Deepening the well with Professional Development


Accreditors require it. Schools mostly support it. We all know we should be doing it. Professional development is an essential aspect of the educator’s responsibility, but what is it and how should it be delivered, received, shared, and reviewed in a school or program?

To understand professional development, it’s useful to first think about what we mean by ‘professional.’ Anyone in the workplace can be said to ‘act professionally’ – which means caring about what they do, showing respect for others, knowing their field, and working conscientiously and honestly. But not every job is considered a ‘profession.’ There are plenty of definitions of profession, but I like to think of a professional as someone whose job involves making impactful  decisions based on knowledge and experience gained through specialized education and training. Hence, doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers are generally considered professionals. And educators are professionals too. 

Professionals don’t work with standardized products. A person making fast food meals in a restaurant must follow highly specified procedures and produce a meal for each customer that is identical to the next. If there is uncertainty, it’s referred to a supervisor or a manual. This kind of work, important though it is, doesn’t fit the definition of professional 

Professionals deal with the non-standard: people, situations, procedures, materials. And they have to use their judgment to make the best decision to achieve the optimum outcome. Educators encounter new students every year, term, or even week, each student having unique qualities, motivations, learning experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. Teachers may have to teach new courses or new levels of the same course. They have to choose appropriate materials and techniques to teach the students in front of them. This is not a fast food burger situation, where one set of procedures is followed rigidly. Teachers and other educators, such as student affairs professionals, student advisors, and counselors, must be willing to adapt and use their good judgment in each unique situation they encounter. (You might therefore say that efforts to standardize education tend to deprofessionalize educators.)

Hence, educators cannot rely on a single set of procedures they learned at the start of their career. As the world changes, they need to expand and update their repertoire of techniques, methods, and approaches. Becoming a ‘seasoned professional’ means having gone through this process of expanding and updating over a long period of time. 

There are three broad contexts for professional development: external, in-house, and self. External professional development includes conferences (attending and presenting), and webinars. In-house professional development might involve invited speakers or workshops developed by faculty or staff. And the ‘self’ context is anything an individual chooses to do independently. This could include reading a book or article, engaging in some in-class action research, or keeping a reflective journal. Even challenging oneself to teach an unfamiliar course can be useful professional development. 

Although some of these options are cheap or free, many require some financial commitment. Schools should allocate some funds to support faculty and staff professional development, but funding, like any resource, is sure to be limited, so administrators need to consider the return on investment. Here are four approaches for determining how professional development funds can be distributed and their effectiveness evaluated. 

  1. Individual need. There are cases in which a faculty or staff member needs to learn a skill or process, or has a demonstrated area of weakness. For example, a faculty member moving into an administrative position might benefit from a management or leadership workshop. The effectiveness of this training could be demonstrated by the individual on the job and observed by a supervisor. 
  2. Institutional need. If a program has or anticipates a need for certain knowledge or skills, it can prioritize professional development funding on that basis. An example is the need to develop online teaching skills to meet anticipated demand for online programs. The benefit of this training can be monitored through teaching effectiveness measures such as observations and student feedback. 
  3. Justification/priority. In this approach, faculty and staff propose their professional development plans, and those responsible for distributing funding determine which plans are likely to bring the greatest benefit – to the individual or the program – for the money spent. Those receiving funds can report back to a supervisor or to their colleagues on the results of the professional development activity. 
  4. Individual choice. In this case faculty or staff members are offered an amount of funding and can use it for any professional development, within program guidelines. They might use it to join a professional organization or attend a conference, for example. It can be difficult to determine the effectiveness of professional development funding distributed in this way. Report-back sessions from conference attendees tend to be rather brief and superficial. However, this kind of professional development can be very meaningful to the person doing it. 

On this last point, there is another type of professional development, what I’ll call participatory professional development. Specific takeaways from a conference are sometimes hard to identify, but a teacher or staff member may feel refreshed, energized and motivated by a change of scenery and the opportunity to meet, discuss, and network with colleagues from the field for a few days, and this is valuable in itself.

Another form of participatory professional development is involvement with professional organizations. In English language teaching, for example, there are volunteer opportunities with organizations such as TESOL, EnglishUSA, and accrediting organizations, including board and committee service. I can testify that engaging deeply with colleagues from around the country and the world, on meaningful projects, is some of the best professional development I’ve done, and plenty of others would agree. 

I’ve often thought of professional expertise as like a well. At the start of your career, the well is  shallow. You know enough to get by, but you don’t have much to dip into. If you take an active interest in your professional development, the well deepens and your range of options for decision-making in new and unexpected situations widens.

So professional development is a responsibility of individuals, programs, and institutions in education. Keep supporting it, keep doing it. You know you should. 

Putting Students First

At a recent professional development session at Stafford House Boston, Miyo Takahashi Le and I presented some principles and practices of good service to intensive English program (IEP) students. The simple mantra “Students come first” particularly resonated with many in the audience. It means that in any policy or practice consideration, staff should always prioritize what is best for the students. Putting students first may seem obvious, but although individual staff and faculty approach their work with their students’ best interests in mind, in practice there can be institutional or structural impediments that inhibit good service. Here are three examples.

At one IEP, the Admissions team was responsible for first-day check-in of students for its semester-length program. The team had made the process – which included scanning passports and I-20s, checking students’ insurance, and ensuring that tuition was paid – highly efficient. There was no involvement from the Academic team in first-day check-in, because it was viewed as an Admissions process. Yet many students had academic-related questions when they came in on the first day, and there was no process to get those questions answered. Worse, for new students who had traveled thousands of miles to come and study at the program, there was little in the way of a warm welcome, no chance for students to meet their teachers, and only limited opportunities to start bonding with other students.

This was changed by having Admissions and Academics collaborate to develop a first-day check-in experience that included a warm welcome and conversation with faculty, and advisors on hand to answer students’ questions. It resulted also in the Academic staff and faculty being able to take care of some academic procedures (such as elective class selection) on check-in day, which was more efficient and of better service to students.

Breaking down silos and seeing first-day check-in as an institutional effort rather than the activity of just one department led to better service to students.

Prioritizing Staff or Faculty Interests
In an IEP that ran three semesters per year, the summer semester was set up differently from the fall and spring semesters. The daily schedule was shorter, with all days ending at 1:00 instead of 3:30, because students were restricted to one elective rather than two. The summer was divided into two six-week sessions, giving faculty the opportunity to teach less or concentrate their teaching into one half of the semester. This also meant that electives that were designed to be taught over 60 hours were crunched into 30 hours. None of this was great for students.

The original rationale given for the different summer schedule was that the IEP was running its main semesters in the fall and spring, and summer was seen as just an extra that was not taken as seriously. But students wished to study year-round, and there was no reason why the program should be any different in the summer. In fact, it looked suspiciously as though the summer had been designed for the convenience of the faculty rather than the good of the students.

After much discussion and a faculty vote, the summer semester was brought into line with the fall and spring semesters, creating a smoother study experience for students studying over several semesters.

Institutional Inertia
At a residential program, students were required to sign out when they left campus and sign back in when they returned. This was an onerous process that began twenty or thirty years before, and was intended to increase the safety of the students by enabling staff to check who was on campus at any time. Upon review, it was found that many students failed to sign out and sign in correctly, making the system ineffective. Given that the Student Service team’s mission had recently been updated to include empowering students and helping them to be more independent, the sign-out/sign-in system seemed outdated and intrusive. And on reflection, staff realized that the system had been introduced before the age of smart phones, which students now all carry at all times, making them easier to reach than ever before. The reason the sign-out/sign-in system continued was simply because that’s how it had always been done. While some staff had reservations initially, the burdensome sign-out/sign-in books were finally removed, and in a subsequent survey, students overwhelmingly supported the change.

Serving Better
No matter how much you may want to provide top-notch service to your students, impediments – such as silos, prioritizing the interests of faculty or staff over those of students, and institutional inertia – can get in the way of great service to students. Do you recognize any of these impediments in your program? How can you serve better?



Thank you to Ece Gürler of Stafford house Boston for devising and publicizing the session ‘How Can We Serve Better?’