Great teachers also tend to be avid lifelong learners who adopt a growth mindset toward professional development—there is always another way to expand knowledge, improve classroom practices, and adopt new technologies for teaching.
The theory of deliberate practice holds that learners can develop their expertise through a purposeful and systematic approach to learning where they evaluate their current level of understanding, identify gaps, and pursue activities that push them out of their comfort zone as they move toward specific goals, according to the HMH book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. In accordance with this idea, 96 percent of teachers surveyed in the 4th Annual Educator Confidence Report (ECR)—conducted by HMH in collaboration with YouGov—indicated that they were always looking for ways to improve their teaching practice. Teachers have a range of resources at their disposal, but how do they choose to learn about interesting topics in education or begin to solve an emerging issue in their classroom?
Here are some common strategies surveyed teachers reported using along with ideas for implementing them.
1. Informal Discussions With Colleagues
It may seem like a simple concept, but learning new information by talking to other teachers was rated as the most commonly used teacher learning resource, according to the ECR. Teaching is a craft that takes years to learn and master. Lessons are tweaked based on teachers’ prior experiences and students’ interests and differing abilities and challenges. Teachers often share physical resources and lesson plans but may also discuss new methods of teaching certain topics, new educational technologies, or ways to handle classroom management.
Although there are formal structures for teachers to share information, informal discussions that happen on the fly or are otherwise unplanned offer teachers honest, invaluable insights. The ECR highlighted an increase in the number of teachers who reported using this method of learning new information. Some teachers may have difficulty asking for someone’s help or expertise, but reflecting on one’s own strengths to offer in return can help overcome this. Teachers may also request a more official mentor from school administration.
2. Your Own Self-Guided Research
Teachers may become interested in learning about a new topic or trend, or may need to look for guidance on how to differentiate instruction for their students. Whatever the challenge may be, using data related to students’ progress can help teachers locate areas students are struggling in and find hands-on ways to teach a topic and make it relevant. Research articles published in journals are often dense, blocked by a paywall (hello Google Scholar!), and take a long time to read and fully understand. Because teachers are pressed for time, visiting websites like ours, Edweek.org, The Learning Scientists, or Edutopia.org can provide new ideas, summaries of research, and practical tips for implementation.
3. Formal Professional Development
Formal professional development (PD) offered by a school or district is another method that the teachers surveyed reported using for resources or information. PD may be set up for teachers based on their years of experience teaching in general or a specifically for a certain grade or subject. It may also be required when a school is implementing a new program or curriculum, or wants to make a change to their school culture.
Formal PD can take many forms, ranging from online or in-person courses from HMH’s Professional Services team, to off-site flipped classrooms where teachers take the place of students, to visits to professional conferences such as AERA. If you are a teacher who is seeking PD on a specific topic, you may want to see if other teachers want this same experience before approaching school administration. Alternatively, small groups or individual teachers can attend PD sessions—including conferences like our annual Model Schools Conference—and report back to the larger group on what they have learned. Numerous opportunities to earn grant funding through non-profit organizations, national academic or professional organizations, or government entities may also be available to support PD when school budgets become an issue.
4. Social Media and Online Communities
Social media and online communities such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are good ways to create your own virtual learning networks. These online communities allow educators to expand their network and learn new approaches to classroom instruction. On social media, you as an educator can ask questions about teaching strategies or troubleshoot edtech. These platforms can be invaluable for educators who are “one of a kind” in smaller schools or districts—maybe you are the only Spanish teacher in your district, but social media can connect you with Spanish teachers worldwide. Searching for public groups to join or influencers who are relevant to your interests can facilitate connections, or you can start your own group.
5. Professional Learning Communities
Leading a classroom of students can be isolating for educators, as they often spend the school day making decisions and solving problems without the benefit of other colleagues by their side. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) allow teachers to receive collegial support and PD that is personally relevant to their current teaching situation.
A PLC is a group of educators who work collaboratively to understand what individual students know and need to learn and then find ways to meet agreed-upon learning goals. PLCs meet on a regular basis to review student progress and strategize together on ways to improve. Due to the collaborative nature of PLCs, educators can learn a lot from hearing their colleagues’ experiences and obstacles and from coming up with solutions together. When members of a PLC find common gaps in knowledge, they can seek out opportunities that will benefit the whole group, or divide and conquer the knowledge gaps by researching and learning independently and reporting back. Setting up a productive PLC takes organization and may require a mindset shift from working independently to working more collaboratively, but a great first step is to survey your colleagues’ pain points and interest level in collaboration.
6. Resources Embedded in Instructional Programs
Within teaching materials, some instructional programs provide tips and information on various pedagogical strategies. These are valuable sources of information that are directly relevant to the subject at hand and may shed light on why a program has chosen to take a particular instructional approach—or provide alternative approaches or strategies that may be better suited to your classroom. For instance, video demos of a real teacher in a real classroom delivering the program’s instruction can allow educators to preview the content, anticipate aspects that their students might struggle with, and learn strategies to respond as their students take in the new material.
Resource lists of scholarly articles and books also give educators a more in-depth look at the why and how behind what they are teaching. It can be challenging to utilize all the teacher-facing resources that an instructional program has to offer, but a great way to keep resources of interest from slipping through the cracks is to use project management software like Trello or Asana to save notes and links categorized by topic—though a good old-fashioned written list also works—so that when you have time to review these resources, they are organized and ready to go.
Want to learn more about teachers' areas of optimism and concern and views on professional development? Download the Educator Confidence Report here.