Effective Professional Development in Schools: What Works?

by Barbara Blackburn

By Barbara R. Blackburn

While working on my doctorate, I studied schools that had won a national award for their staff development.  From that, I learned there are seven key elements of effective staff development.

Key Elements of Effective Staff Development

  1. Clear purpose linked to research, student data, goals and needs
  2. Accountability through classroom use of ideas and impact on students
  3. Development of a common, shared language
  4. Shared decision-making which includes an emphasis on teacher input
  5. Incorporation of relevant, practical, hands-on activities
  6. Integration of opportunities for follow-up and application
  7. Strong leadership and a positive, collegial atmosphere

It’s important as you plan your professional development that it links to your specific goals.  Too often, I’ve seen schools jump on the latest bandwagon, which doesn’t link to their school’s focus.  The best way to plan staff development is to assess your goals and needs first, then find professional development that supports them.  It’s also critical that you assess your student data as part of the planning process to ensure your needs are met.  Finally, any professional development should be research-based.  I spoke with a principal recently who was excited about a new initiative for the school.  When I asked her what research it was based on, she said, “I know several other schools that are using it, so it must be good.” Effective professional development is based on solid research.  

Accountability through classroom use of ideas and impact on students

If you want your professional development to last, you’ll need to build in accountability.  Part of that is through impact on students, whether standardized testing or other forms of assessment, but you’ll also want to hold teachers accountable for the use of material presented.  When I present at schools, I ask teachers to implement at least one idea in the following two weeks.  I also request that the principal follow-up with each teacher to ensure they tried an idea.  Despite their best efforts, teachers may not follow-up without accountability.  There are simply too many things to do.

Development of a common, shared language

One purpose of professional development is to develop a common, shared language among all stakeholders.  The focus of most of my writing and training is rigor.  In the majority of schools I work with, there are varying perspectives of rigor.  Rarely is there a consensus as to the definition of rigor.  One of our goals is for everyone to share a common understanding by the end of the workshop.  This makes their next steps easier.

Shared decision-making which includes an emphasis on teacher input

During the planning process, include teachers in the decision-making.  I remember when I was teaching.  The majority of our professional development was decided at the district office.  We were simply told what to do.  I’m a supporter of district-wide efforts, but whether the decision is made at the district or school level, teacher input is critical to ensure long-term support.  

Incorporation of relevant, practical, hands-on activities

The best staff development is active, rather than passive.  No one wants to listen to a lecture, being told what he or she is doing wrong and what he or she should change.  Teachers want professional development that is positive and relevant to their needs, and they want to engage in learning in active ways.  It’s interesting to me that we promote active learning for students, but oftentimes we do the opposite for teachers.  This is one of the reasons teacher input during planning is important.  Teachers are very quick to ask questions to ensure active learning and relevance.  

Integration of opportunities for follow-up and application

Although I have mentioned professional development in terms of workshops earlier in this article, there are a variety of types of professional development.  Some of the most powerful learning occurs through book studies, walk-throughs with follow-up discussions and faculty sharing sessions.  Although effective as stand-alone professional development, they are particularly useful as follow-ups to training.  Without follow-up and application opportunities, initiatives tend to fade away.  As you assess your professional development, include these opportunities in your initial plan to ensure they will occur.

Strong leadership and a positive, collegial atmosphere

Finally, the most effective professional development is supported by strong leadership and a collegial climate.  First, leadership is critical.  For all of the other characteristics to occur, there must be a strong leader.  And leadership does not come just from the school principal.  As I noted when discussing relevant, practical activities, teacher leadership is also important.  Whether you have a formal professional development committee or informal discussions with teachers, be sure to build teacher leadership.  Teacher leaders can be your strongest allies when implementing change.  Also, your professional development is more likely to be successful if there is an overall positive school climate.  When teachers enjoy working together, they are more supportive of your efforts for change.  


Effective professional development is critical if you want to improve your school.  However, you must plan your efforts, design accountability and follow-up into your plan, build a common language, ensure active learning and use strong leadership and a positive school climate to ensure success.

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