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Academic Problems and Skills

When Teachers Learn Better, Students Do Better

How teachers feel is important, but so is how they teach.

Key points

  • When it comes to improving how we teach teachers, there is growing evidence that professional learning may be more productive when it is focused.
  • Professional learning can evolve from dry instruction to real-life, applicable advice and support that fosters educational innovation.
  • Relationships can help improve professional learning by changing it from a burden to a boon.

Scroll through Netflix’s library of films or Amazon Video’s exhaustive trove of movies and you would be hard-pressed not to find one that features an uplifting film about a teacher inspiring a student to greater heights: "To Sir, With Love," "Freedom Writers," "Dead Poets Society," "Stand and Deliver," "Mr. Holland’s Opus," "Akeelah and the Bee," and "Lean on Me." The movies reflect what the research has long told us—teachers are one of the most important drivers for academic success among students.

And yet the majority of these films quietly showcase another theme—inadequate resources and support for the very teachers who transform students’ lives. The films mentioned above do not capture the evolving challenges of post-pandemic teaching, the ambiguous adoption of ed tech, and so much more.

Yet even in 2023 some things still remain the same. The investment in support and resources needed to provide effective professional learning for teachers is still less than adequate for educators working to prepare students of all backgrounds to reach their full potential.

As a parent, I want my children—I want all children—to have access to the best education and resources possible. Their teachers are their best resource. And teaching their teachers through robust, efficient, and equitable professional learning is something that is not a nice-to-have; it is a necessity. So how can this be done?

The Research Partnership for Professional Learning (RPPL), a partnership of nonprofits that deliver teacher professional learning (PL) and researchers who study teacher learning and identify what works best, reports both good and bad news around PL.

According to RPPL’s latest research brief: “The evidence base around teacher professional learning has advanced significantly over the past decade. Robust research efforts and recent literature reviews offer new insights into how—and how not—to design PL programs in ways that maximize their potential for improving teacher practice and student experiences. Yet many PL design features are not yet standard across the field.”

For too long, some commonly held myths around professional learning stymied the excitement for it. Among these were the ideas that PL was a waste of resources or, if implemented, PL was more effective for early career teachers and less effective for veteran teachers.

Another misconception was that PL programs must be job-embedded and time-intensive to be effective. Some believed that improving teachers’ content knowledge was key to improving their instructional practice or that research-based PL programs were unlikely to work at scale or in new contexts. Lastly, the idea that districts could simply implement research-based PL programs with no modifications led to PL that wasn’t differentiated based on the student populations teachers were educating.

Some myths are made to be busted, however. These ideas are outdated and there are steps that can be taken to chart a better path forward.

Since founding The Learning Agency, an organization dedicated to the science of learning, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a diverse network of organizations committed to improving K-12 education. RPPL is one of those groups. And in the work we do both with and for them, I’ve been able to see firsthand the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in improving the teacher PL that will benefit so many students.

One of these opportunities lies in the connections educators make—and the feelings of support that can help them commit to PL. After all, how we feel matters. It matters to students who may feel overlooked and under pressure. It matters to parents and administrators who are juggling plates everywhere, every day. And it especially matters to teachers, who may feel undervalued and overwhelmed by the number of students in their charge, the evolving challenges in K-12, and the limited resources with which they are equipped.

New research shows, however, that building better relationships is one of the ways these feelings can be addressed. Relationships can help improve professional learning by changing it from a burden to a boon.

RPPL’s brief, written by researchers at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University and Harvard University, delves into how to strengthen teacher learning. It found that certain methods that promote collaborative relationships spur improved teacher practice.

As the authors note: “PL formats can be particularly effective at producing changes in instructional effectiveness. Among them:

  1. Built-in time for teacher-to-teacher collaboration around instructional improvement;
  2. One-to-one coaching, where coaches work to observe and offer feedback on teachers’ practice;
  3. Follow-up meetings to address teachers’ questions and fine-tune implementation.”

In essence, when teachers connect with each other, collaborate together, and hold each other accountable—their teaching improves. And their students benefit from this improvement. Professional learning can evolve from dry instruction to real-life, applicable advice and support that inspires and fosters educational innovation.

How teachers feel is important, but so is how they teach.

And when it comes to improving how we teach teachers, there is growing evidence that PL may be more productive when it is focused. Effective and equitable education cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach if it is to benefit the millions of diverse students out there—each one with their own unique skills, supports, potential, and challenges. So it makes little sense to expect the professional learning tools and techniques that guide how teachers instruct and engage students to follow a generic model.

Research underscores this point, and it suggests that focusing on building subject-specific instructional practices rather than building content knowledge alone can help craft better professional learning. Also beneficial is “supporting teachers’ instruction with concrete instructional materials like curricula or formative assessment items rather than focusing only on general principles,” the authors note. So is “explicitly attending to teachers’ relationships with students.”

There is power to create positive change when like-minded groups come together. With this in mind, RPPL has built—and continues to unite—a diverse network of professional organizations, researchers, innovators, and supporters who are dedicated to improving knowledge around better PL practices for teachers.

The result: A more equitable system of schooling for all students—one that deliberately tests multiple design options for PL programs and works to understand their effects on teacher and student learning.

This work to help teachers learn better and thereby teach better is not easy and cannot be wrapped up as quickly and neatly as it is in an educator-themed film. It is important and arduous.

But as a parent, I am encouraged that it is now happening and that new tools and findings are already emerging. Poet Maya Angelou once said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” The work to “know better” has begun, and the benefits to teacher professional learning and student achievement are limitless.

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