As a fitness enthusiast, I often make the distinction between having to work out and getting to work out. Seems like semantics, but it’s really about mindset. Do I work out because I feel I have to, or am I headed to the gym because I enjoy it and see it as part of how I maintain a healthy lifestyle—one that allows me to live my life to the fullest? I’ll be honest, there are mornings when I don’t leap quite so quickly out of bed to go work out. But I know that when I look at my fitness as an investment I’m making in my health and well-being, exercise becomes as integral to my life as eating or breathing, not just a nice-to-have, add-on activity.
As a veteran facilitator of professional learning (PL), I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at helping educators acquire the skills and insights needed to continuously push themselves toward ever greater excellence—to really embrace the workout. I’ve also, sadly, gotten pretty good at predicting when the work I do with a school or district might not have the hoped-for results: When leaders view PL as a sequence of motions to be completed and forgotten about, rather than as a lifestyle change.
Let me state right away that the teachers and leaders I work with are universally enthusiastic, inquisitive, and dedicated—not only to their students but to one another. They are committed to success in their school and district and work hard to make a difference every day.
The disconnect comes when I work with teachers whose principal never sets foot in the PL room, or when I work with all of a district’s principals yet district administrators—including the principals’ supervisors—are nowhere to be seen. I understand, and I always say upfront that I know the business of school doesn’t stop just because I’m in the building. But when leaders are visible, they set a different tone and communicate that the PL is valuable.
When PL is viewed simply as an expense, it becomes a box to check off, and then everyone moves on—like having to work out. When it’s viewed as an investment, it becomes part of a larger vision for continuous improvement—like getting to work out. It becomes about building capacity of the entire team: a privilege, not a chore.
I believe that the whole purpose of bringing educators together for professional learning is to influence practice—to improve and expand on what’s already being done in service to student learning. And what better way to do that than for teachers and leaders (or school- and district-level administrators) to be in the room together, strategizing about how they’ll put their learning into action?
Here are two examples of how I’ve seen an “investment” approach pay off:
At school-level PL sessions in one district, site leaders and teacher leaders were part of planning, leading, and participating in the learning. Everyone in the school knew what the goals and purpose of the PL were, and what their individual roles were—and how they could expect their leaders to support them as they implemented new practices to engage students in learning.
And at an elementary school focused on improving outcomes for students, the principal was fully present while teacher leaders engaged in two days of learning and strategizing about their school improvement efforts. The principal made clear that she wanted the teachers to take the lead, be able to communicate the purpose of their school improvement actions to colleagues, and really own the hard work of changing from the inside out. The result was that the teachers in the room knew the principal had their backs and they felt empowered to take the lead with their colleagues—who then realized that everyone played a part in setting the course for improving their school and that it wasn’t just the principal leading the charge.
My colleagues and I do a lot of work with teachers about intentional planning for learning, which includes teachers learning to match instructional strategies to the intended student learning outcomes. When we work with schools where principals are actively engaged in the PL and plan for how they’ll support teachers after the session, we find teachers are more likely to implement strategies with success—and as part of a larger continuous improvement strategy. These principals see PL as an investment, for teachers and for themselves.
In comparison, schools where teachers learn in isolation from their leaders tend to falter on implementation. Interestingly, these schools often invite us back time and again to repeat sections of the PL because it just doesn’t “stick.” Treating PL as an expense rather than as an investment can truly become expensive!
I encourage you to reflect on where you land on this expense/investment continuum and consider that professional learning—when viewed as an investment—is an opportunity to unite teachers and leaders behind a shared purpose to change outcomes for learners.
Kristin Rouleau, Ed.D., is senior director of learning services and innovation at McREL. With more than 25 years of experience as a classroom teacher, principal, and district administrator, she now works with schools, districts, and state departments of education as they navigate change and implement practices and structures to reduce variability and increase student achievement. She is a co-author of McREL’s Curiosity Works: A Guidebook for Moving Your School from Improvement to Innovation, and Unstuck: How Curiosity, Peer Coaching, and Teaming Can Change Your School.