Top-Down? Why Teacher Professional Development Needs to be Bottom-Up

In my last post I wrote about some ways to improve professional development for educators and I have been discussing professional development with some colleagues. From these conversations it dawned on me that most of the PD conducted in school districts and schools in general are created in a top-down format. What I mean with top-down is that the idea, goal, or strategy of the PD sessions comes from the district administration building or the administrators at the schools. I truly believe that this format has a lot to do with why we do not see systemic change occurring with teachers and other educators. Due to this top-down format, I believe that teachers view PD as being another thing that they have to learn and use, that was sent to them by the “higher powers” living in “ivory towers” that do not truly understand what is going on in “real” classrooms.

So as educational leaders, what can we do to change this paradigm? Well, I believe that we need to allow teachers to really think about where they need improvement and what would the best way to progress. This allows teachers to be more metacognitive about their teaching practices while at the same time treating educators as professionals. Educators ARE professionals and need to be treated as such; they come with extensive background knowledge and experiences that need to be incorporated into the professional learning communities. This aspect will allow educational leaders show teachers that we are all on the same team and we all are working towards the same goal: educating every student we come in contact with, so that the students can reach their ultimate potentials.

Now I wish I could take credit for coming up with these ways of improving professional development first, but these ideas have been around for a long time. For example, Thomas B. Corcoran came up with a list of guiding principals for teacher professional development way back in 1995. Corcoran’s list of guiding principals was:

  • Stimulate and support site-based initiatives. Professional development is likely to have greater impact on practice if it is closely linked to school initiatives to improve practice.
  • Support teacher initiatives as well as school or district initiatives. These initiatives could promote the professionalization of teaching and may be cost-effective ways to engage more teachers in serious professional development activities.
  • Are grounded in knowledge about teaching. Good professional development should encompass expectations educators hold for students, child-development theory, curriculum content and design, instructional and assessment strategies for instilling higher-order competencies, school culture and shared decision-making.
  • Model constructivist teaching. Teachers need opportunities to explore, question and debate in order to integrate new ideas into their repertoires and their classroom practice.
  • Offer intellectual, social and emotional engagement with ideas, materials and colleagues. If teachers are to teach for deep understanding, they must be intellectually engaged in their disciplines and work regularly with others in their field.
  • Demonstrate respect for teachers as professionals and as adult learners. Professional development should draw on expertise of teachers and take differing degrees of teacher experience into account.
  • Provide for sufficient time and follow-up support for teachers to master new content and strategies and to integrate them into their practice.
  • Are accessible and inclusive. Professional development should be viewed as an integral part of teachers’ work rather than as a privilege granted to “favorites” by administrators.

Notice how most of these principals all relate back to teacher as professional and more of a bottom-up design and much less of a top-down model. These guiding principals also relate back to my last post about professional development to include engagement, differentiated for teachers, collaborative, and being on going.

So if we know that this is the best way to improve teachers and thus improve opportunities for students, why haven’t things changed? It is an interesting question, but as many people know, change in schools happen at a glacial pace. But I also believe that not changing relates back to how change is initiated at schools; it is done in the same way that PD sessions are developed – top-down. The entire model of PD needs to be revisited to initiate the needed change to improve all who enter a school. Where should this change begin? In my opinion it needs to begin at the administrative building (central office) of the district. The people who are making decisions about PD for teachers usually reside in this building and thus need to use the guiding principals stated above and begin treating teachers as professionals. Survey the teachers, talk to the teachers, and do a needs assessment with teachers, so that the teachers can decide what is needed and how best to improve their personal teaching practices.

It is time that educators take control of their learning and time for teachers to be treated as professionals. The time has come to move away from top-down professional development and switch to a more bottom-up design. Yes, the administrative building staff has a wealth of knowledge about curriculum, instruction, assessment, English language learners, technology integration, and many other facets of education, but the mode of delivery needs to be changed. Every time a new training is developed and brought to teachers, I hear teachers talk about this being “one more thing added to their plate” which by the way is way too full. It is time for administrators and teachers to learn from one another, it is time for teachers to embrace being professionals, and it is definitely time for educational leaders to say “bottoms up”!

Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (1995, June). Helping teachers teach well: Transforming professional development. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Corcoran.


This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.


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