When Teachers Learn Like They Teach: Strengthening Professional Learning

In our classrooms, we nurture learners to be curious and reflective, self-driven and collaborative, goal-oriented and feedback-seeking. We believe learners to be participants in, not recipients of an education. We hold true the power of choice and agency. We know we are not the only teachers in our classrooms, nor are we only teachers. We are vested in being the kinds of learners we dream our students to be.

That means…

we need to learn like we teach.

Are we using what we know about best teaching-learning practices to guide decisions and designs for professional development?

American educator and researcher, Malcolm Knowles, suggested 4 principles that are applied to adult learning, or as he coined it, andrology. 

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

Knowles classified people who take initiative in learning as proactive learners. In an article about the educator’s work, Mark K. Smith shares Knowles’ findings: proactive learners enter a learning setting with more purpose and motivation, learn more, and retain learning longer than passive or reactive learners.

Many other researchers have expanded on Knowles’ foundational work. Following her twenty-plus years of experience in teaching adults around the world, including research with renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, Dr. Jane Vella expanded upon Knowles’ principles:

How do teachers become proactive in their professional growth?

At PS 59, learning is a culture which aligns the school experience of adults and children. Inquiry and collaboration are at the heart of this culture, which has been fostered by a team of super-leaders (who, by no surprise, learn alongside teachers and students). Administrators Adele Schroeter and Nekia Wise, in partnership with instructional coaches, Jamie Mendelsohn and Anna Bennett, say:

“We looked for a way to bring together several related goals under a single umbrella, connecting them to ongoing work.”

  • The professional focus of each year is framed by a school-wide goal. This promotes cohesion across grade levels and allows teachers to transfer and expand upon learning throughout the year. The goal is determined by administrators, based on district-wide goals, relevant topics of study in the field, areas of designated school-wide improvement, or collective interests of staff members.

“Our teaching staff is known for their intellectual curiosity and their willingness to engage in collaborative inquiry to grow their learning and professional practice.”

  • Teacher voice is valued. A representative from each grade level participates in the professional development committee, which meets monthly to plan upcoming staff learning. Representatives are liasons between school leaders and teaching staff. 
  • Though topics of study are pre-determined, they are often broad, centered around a problem or question. This allows teachers to carve a path through learning via collaborative inquiry.

“We always do our best to match teachers with their group of choice while balancing our desire to have teachers collaborate with colleagues across grades and disciplines.

  • Teachers have choice and autonomy in learning. Google surveys are utilized to gather ideas and teacher-facilitators. Google surveys also enable staff to rank their top choices, which are offered in many of the professional learning experiences.
  • Taking into consideration the interests and ideas of staff, school leaders make necessary final decisions. With their support, teachers are often the facilitators of professional learning. This is when school leaders engage as learners, alongside staff.

What can proactive professional learning look like in schools?

Connected by the common threads listed above (school-wide goals, voice, collaborative inquiry, choice, autonomy, and teacher facilitation), a variety of structures for professional learning have grown into yearly traditions at PS 59 (click here for a link to all slides):

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Professional Text Studies-2


If offer ample opportunities to invest in and apply meaningful, collaborative learning — as we provide in classrooms — a school year can offer as much growth for teachers as it does for students.

Giveaway Information:

  • For a chance to win this copy of Welcome to Writing Workshop, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, May 5th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, May 6th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – WELCOME TO WRITING WORKSHOP within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.