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.


Do I Have to Attend? Improving Professional Development for Educators

I attended a conference last weekend and found myself daydreaming and not paying attention in many of the sessions and as I walked out, I wondered if that was the best use of my time. I do not believe that what the presenters were sharing was unimportant, but I sure was not engaged in the topics. These sessions are all too common at educational conferences, but what is even scarier is that these types of sessions have become the norm for teacher professional development. Unfortunately, most teachers can share multiple examples of professional development sessions where an expert was at the front of the room talking about important educational information and yet the teachers walk out wondering why their time was wasted. Why is it that many teachers feel that their time in professional development sessions is wasted or that they do not get anything “real” out of these sometimes-long trainings? I do not believe that it is the information being shared in the PD sessions, but how that information is disseminated to the attending educators. As educational leaders, we must ensure that any time teachers are in a room for PD, there time is used wisely; a teacher’s time is too precious to waste.

When I look back at the best PD sessions that I have either participated in or lead, there are some shared commonalities between them. By sharing my experiences, I am hoping that more PD sessions can be planned to increase student achievement, no matter what the topic of the session entails. The list of “best practices” for teacher PD sessions is not very long, but I believe that each of the following qualities is vital for a positive and worthwhile learning experience. I believe the following are essential for teacher professional development sessions: Engaging, Differentiated, Collaborative, and On-Going. Each of these best practices can be utilized in any training session, for any topic. And if used to plan PD sessions, I believe that each session an educator attends will be successful.


Having a session be engaging for participants seems so simplistic and basic that it shouldn’t need to be mentioned. But think about how many different sessions you have participated (or not participated by attended) where you found yourself unengaged. No learning can occur if the audience is not engaged into the session. Teachers must see the benefit in what is being presented and what the possible outcomes are for their professional lives. I also believe that the teachers are like the students they work with; they want to know “when will I use this?” It seems ironic that most teachers hate to hear a student ask this, but are the first ones to ask it in a PD session. But it is a fair and very important question, one that the presenter should have an answer to quickly and that answer should be directly related to the teachers in the audience.

Engagement can look different depending on what is being presented and the characteristics of the audience. Thus, PD session presenters must plan for engagement by the educators in the audience. This means that the presenter must learn about the audience and determine the best ways to get the audience’s attention and keep it. The main ways that I have attempted to keep the audience engaged is by asking high level discussion questions, humor, and connecting the presentation directly to their school and their classrooms. This means that I have to do some homework on who I am presenting to and I am hoping that I am presenting on a topic that can help push the teachers and the school towards a common vision. There are of course many other ways to engage an audience of educators and to see more you can go here:


Educators have heard over and over again how they must strive to differentiate their lessons for their students. So why then have so few PD sessions taken into account differentiation for the teachers? When presenting a PD session, it is vital to meet the teachers where they are. When I say, “meet the teachers” I am talking about having multiple ways for the teachers to access the information that best meets their needs. This includes planning sessions for digital learners and the more traditional learners. I have found in my experiences that most teacher groups are not ready to go entirely digital, but they are moving (slowly) in that direction. I must ensure that all of the teachers in the PD session have access to the information and that they are able to access it in a way that is familiar to them. For example, if I attempt to have all of the educators communicate on an online platform, but not all of the participants feel comfortable with this, then most of the time could be spent training the teachers on using the technology tool, instead of what the original goal of the training.

But to truly differentiate, I also need to include information that is “just in time” for the teachers. For example, when teachers are working on learning a topic and are wanting to push further or go deeper, the information becomes very important and the teachers are more likely to want to learn. This “just in time” information could be a journal article, a short video clip, or as simple as an answer to a question. But because it is “just in time” information, it is much more valuable to the participants and the session becomes modified depending on the teachers’ needs.


Collaboration is the aspect of PD sessions that is often overlooked. I believe the main reason that many PD sessions for teachers lack collaboration is due to time constraints on the session and the teachers’ day. Thus, the model of lecturing drives many PD sessions or as most teachers call it “sit and get”. The problem with this is that most of these learning sessions are one shot deals and if educators do not have a chance to discuss how to best implement the practices, will the practices truly be used? Doubtful, but by allowing teachers to discuss what is being learned and discuss often, there is a better chance that the teachers will actually attempt to use the lessons learned or strategies taught in PD sessions.

Another reason why collaboration is fundamental to PD sessions is due to how much knowledge and experience each of the teachers brings into the trainings. Teachers do not come into training sessions with a blank slate; they have a background that includes years of teaching and also years of learning about their craft. It is important that teachers are allowed time to take in some new information and then make connections to what they already know. This also allows ideas to flourish, as teachers take the new information and come up with fresh ideas of their own. When I have allowed teachers time to collaborate during PD sessions, it is not out of the ordinary that I pick up new ideas from the teachers, which I then share with other educators. This process of teachers taking new learning connecting it to their own understanding of solid educational practices is paramount to PD sessions, but could not happen if teachers do not have the time to collaborate with their peers.


The final practice is also the one that I feel is missing from most of the PD sessions that teachers participate. As I mentioned above, many of the PD sessions for teachers are a one and done process. This format is set up for failure, as teachers attend a session, no matter how great it is, and then they begin to use whatever was presented. But if the teachers never again come back together to see how things are going, the topic simply fades away. I do not believe this happens because teachers do it on purpose, it is just that teachers become so overwhelmingly busy, that the training becomes lost in the shuffle or becomes just another binder on the shelf. To ensure that this doesn’t occur, the training cannot simply be a one and done, but it must continue to occur again and again throughout the school year and possibly longer.

This does not mean that every teacher must come together every week and partake in a session that was as intense as the first one, but the teachers should have the opportunity to work collaboratively throughout the year to discuss how things are going and to support each other as the session’s information is implemented. This could also include monthly webinars with the presenter or by district personnel who have experience with the topic. It could also incorporate watching short videos throughout the year and having discussions with fellow teachers to determine the next best steps. The campus leaders should also work with the teachers to help with the implementation throughout the year by providing the necessary materials or resources needed by the teachers for a successful and on-going process. Campus leaders should also include the PD topic in their teacher review forms or have the teachers include the topic in their professional goals for the year. This is not meant to turn the leadership team into police officers forcing the implementation, but if the topic is important for student success, then it would make sense that all educators are utilizing it.

I am hoping that these four “best practices” are found to be beneficial to educational leaders and those who present PD sessions for educators. This is by no means the end all, be all of professional development, but I feel that if these practices were implemented in all teacher PD sessions, the outcomes and implications would be of greater significance for teachers and thus students. Isn’t that what teacher PD sessions are for; improving teacher practices and student achievement? I believe it is and I am thinking that most other educational leaders do as well. The National Education Association wrote about the state of PD for teachers in 2013. I believe that this article also gives readers an insight as to how to improve professional development for educators. You can find that article here: I strongly recommend reading that article and utilizing the best practices I have shared to improve your next PD session for your teachers.

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.