Teacher Agency: Self-Directed Professional Development

“I can’t wait for and am so excited for the three day ‘sit and git’ professional development in-service at our school” said no teacher possibly ever.

“Let’s face it: Professional development, as we have known it for years now, has yielded little or no positive effects on student learning.” Thus complain the many weary professionals who flinch at the mere mention of the word “workshop.” In the collective imagination, the term “professional development day” conjures only images of coffee breaks, consultants in elegant outfits, and schools barren of kids. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/104021/chapters/Professional-Development-Today.aspx

I recently discussed teacher agency in Teacher Agency: Educators Moving from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset.

Teacher agency is typically viewed as a quality within educators, a matter of personal capacity to act (Priestly et al., 2012) usually in response to stimuli within their pedagogical environment. It describes an educator who has both the ability and opportunity to act upon a set of circumstances that presents itself within that individual’s leadership, curricular or instructional roles. The educator described would then draw from acquired knowledge and experience to intercede appropriately and effectively.  Teacher Agency in America and Finland By Roger Wilson, GVSU Faculty

Teacher agency can be applied to teacher professional development.  What follows is a model of professional development driven by teacher agency.

The Teacher’s Choice Framework

Gabriel Diaz-Maggioli in her ASCD book, Teacher-Centered Professional Development, proposes a teacher’s choice framework which are characterized by:

  • Teachers are talented and devoted individuals who have gained enormous experience by interacting with students, and possess a wealth of knowledge that must be explored and shared.
  • Teachers differ from one another in terms of their theoretical and professional knowledge and the stages they are at in their careers. This diversity offers a wealth of resources and experience.
  • Teachers’ professional development should be embedded in their daily schedule; they should not be expected to devote their own free time to programs that are divorced from the context in which they work.
  • In order for teachers to develop ownership of professional development, they need to be active participants in its construction, tailoring programs to their needs and motivations.
  • Professional development should not be regarded as an administrative duty, but rather as a career-long endeavor aimed at disclosing the factors that contribute to the success of all students and teachers. Mandatory professional development offered only when it is convenient to administrators has little to offer to teachers.


Teacher Empowered Model of Professional Development

  1. Develop a vision and a mission of an ideal classroom and optimal student achievement.
  2. Identify gaps between what is and the ideal.
  3. Establish and/or identify self-driven professional development activities to close the gap.
  4. Develop plans of action for implementation.
  5. Engage in an accountability system.


Develop a vision and a mission of an ideal classroom and optimal student achievement.

As part of their teacher education, students are often asked to develop their teaching philosophy.  This is a good initial exercise but several problems exist with it.  First, this happens during pre-service teaching and often prior to any extensive time spent teaching in an actual classroom.  Second, it does reflect the continuous and evolving nature of education.  Finally, it does not reflect ideas and teaching practices shaped and learned while one is a teacher.

We’re all learning and growing all the time – we can’t not learn. The difference that creates success is deciding and directing your learning direction. If you don’t know what you want your work to look like in 1 or 2 years from now, you’ll be likely to have your career direction determined by other people or circumstances, rather than your personal values and desires, so get clear on the picture of work you’re aiming for. How To Drive Your Professional Development With A Self-Directed Learning Program

Part of an educator’s continuous growth and development process practices should be, on a regular basis, identifying an area of current interest, studying the current best practices of that interest, and creating a vision of a classroom and student achievement based on those best practices.  For example an educator, a group of educators, and an entire school could decide to study one of the following areas of 21st century education to explore best practices in that classroom-instructional practice:

Based on this focused study, the educator develops a vision of an ideal classroom and instructional practices.

Identify gaps between what is and the ideal.

The educator then compares current practices to that of the ideal to identify gaps.  From these gaps, professional development goals are established.  This process provides a foundation of “need”, focus, and relevancy for the educator’s professional development.  Professional development then becomes “just-in-time learning” rather than “just-in-case it is needed”.

The following visual metaphor is a model of this process.


Identify Current Reality: On the left cliff, list of keywords that define your current reality. You’re basically outlining where you are right now in your classroom teaching process.   Sketches and symbols can also be used to describe your current reality.

Identify Desired Reality:  On the right cliff write down a list of keywords that define your desired classroom environment and practices based on your vision of the ideal.  You’re essentially defining the type of classroom that you would like to create by the date you specified.  Represent these keywords (your desired reality) using a series of sketches, symbols or both. Completing these sketches will help you to create more meaningful associations.

Identify Obstacles: Within the gap between the two cliffs, write down all the obstacles that are standing between your current reality and your desired reality. Write down keywords. Alternatively, you can represent these words in a visual way, as described above.

Identify Key Resources;  On the tree branches outline five key resources and training opportunities that you have at your disposal that you could use to help you overcome the obstacles that are standing between you and your desired reality. (Identifying resources will be further expanded upon in the next section.)

Bridge the Gap:  Now that you are clear about where you are, where you want to be, the obstacles standing in your way, and the resources you have at your disposal, it’s now time to build a bridge that will take you over the cliff towards your desired reality. This bridge is going to be built using a series of steps that you will take over a certain period of time that will get you to where you want to go.

Establish and/or identify self-driven and directed professional development activities to close the gap.

Design a self-directed learning plan for yourself by deciding what sources you’ll learn from, what programs or classes you might wish to sign up for, who you’d like to be mentored by, and what other sources of social support and accountability you’ll build into your learning program, in order to achieve your learning goals. How To Drive Your Professional Development With A Self-Directed Learning Program

During this phase, educators engage in self-directed professional learning opportunities to learn how to close the gap from the current state to the ideal one.  The opportunities for educators to engage in self-directed professional development is basically limitless in this era of teaching and learning.  As the British Columbia Teacher Federation notes, there are Many Ways to Grow Professionally

  1. Attend a conference/workshop locally.
  2. Attend a conference/workshop regionally/provincially/nationally/internationally.
  3. Attend a workshop/conference or summer institute/course.
  4. Becoming a facilitator, and give a workshop locally, regionally, or provincially.
  5. Begin/continue university studies.
  6. Form/join a teacher research group.
  7. Participate in group planning.
  8. Job-shadow in a related work situation.
  9. Join a professional organization/network.
  10. Observe another teacher, and talk together about the lesson/program.
  11. Read professional literature.
  12. Reflect, discuss, and research for the purpose of planning individual or group ongoing professional development.
  13. Develop the discipline of reflective journal keeping.
  14. Share with colleagues what you found at a conference/workshop.
  15. Subscribe to/read professional journals.
  16. Watch professional videos.

Four specific types are discussed in more detail: Teacher In-Services, EdCamps, Connected Education, and Professional Learning Communities.

Teacher In-Services or Professional Development Choice Days

As stated in the beginning passages a one size fits all type of professional development still offered by many school districts in the form of in-services is a thing of the past and creates high levels of dread among teachers.  In-services do have the value in that educators are given the time and space to participate in professional development and are able to engage in face-to-face discourse with colleagues.

To adapt in-service workshops from a one size fits all to one that is personalized for the participating educators requires that the in-service designers take into account the needs of educators, find workshop leaders with both expertise in those areas and in teaching adults using andragogical principles, and offer a number of workshop choices within each time slot including a choice to “unconference.”

An example of this is the Techtoberfest in Idaho.  It is a two-day conference for the teachers of that district and teachers from surrounding districts are invited to attend.  The conference designers explore the needs of the teachers of that district, locate experts to bring in to run workshops, and provide the teachers with about a dozen workshop options per time slot.  See https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_ZlE-JbwhcRN1JTbXlKcnJHZ3M/edit?usp=drive_web for the Techtoberfest 2012 agenda.


An edcamp is a user-generated conference – commonly referred to as an “unconference“. Edcamps are designed to provide participant-driven professional development for K-12 educators. Edcamps are free participant-driven conferences.  Sessions are not planned until the day of the event, when participants can volunteer to facilitate a conversation on a topic of their choice.  Edcamps operate “without keynote speakers or vendor booths, encourage participants to find or lead a conversation that meet their needs and interests. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EdCamp

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It makes sense. If you have teachers together face-to-face, why not let them talk about what works? Why not let them ask questions of one another? Why not use the best medium available, the human voice, to learn from one another? It has me thinking that our weekly professional development ought to work in an edcamp model. By this, I mean offer multiple choices, keep the groups small and then lead a discussion. It could be a book study or a week-by-week discussion on a topic. It could be a new set of topics each week, depending upon the desires of the teacher. An edcamp model would empower teachers to share their expertise democratically.   Ultimately, the value of edcamp is in the sharing of ideas and in the validation of one’s professional identity. Too often, that’s not happening at the weekly professional development that teachers attend. Yet, in a more democratic model, teachers begin to see that what they believe and what they know actually matters. Why Professional Development Should Be More Like Edcamp

Connected Education

The Internet and social networks provide an infinite number of ways to engage in self-directed professional development including, but not limited, to attending online webinars and virtual conferences, participating in Twitter and Tweet Chats, and reading, writing, and responding to blogs.


I teach a course entitled, Social Networked Learning, in which in-service educators learn how to use social networks for their own professional development.  See Educator as a Social Networked Learner for more about this.

Professional Learning Communities

In professional learning communities model, teachers in either grade-level or content-area teams meet several times a week to collaborate on teaching strategies and solve problems. In the most sophisticated examples, teachers set common instructional goals, teach lessons in their individual classrooms, administer informal assessments to determine levels of student mastery, and then regroup as a team to analyze the data together. Then, they pinpoint areas of success, identify areas for improvement, and set goals for future teaching (Honawar, 2008). http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/professional-development/

For more on Professional Learning Communities, see

Develop plans of action for implementation, then implement.

If a primary goal of professional development is to affect what teachers believe, understand, and do on a daily basis, then offering “presentations” or “training” without intensive and sustained small-group dialogue, in-classroom coaching, and just-in-time problem solving is educational malpractice.  Put another way, “head learning” abstracted from practice without abundant opportunities for supportive on-the-job feedback and trouble shooting wastes the organization’s resources and squanders teachers’ good will. Why professional development without substantial follow-up is malpractice.

This is the “do it” phase.  Based on the educator’s self-directed professional development, he or she decides what changes, modifications, and adaptations will be implemented into one’s teaching environment.  Some guiding questions to assist with this process are:

This phase will only be effective if the educator is given the time, support, and resources to implement ideas gained through their professional development experiences.

Engage in an accountability system.

The world of work asks the educator to show evidence of learning; to quantify it; provide evidence of professional development in some way.  An accountability system needs to be set up that “requires”, acknowledges, and rewards educators for engaging in their own self-directed professional development.

You could qualify it by hours spent (yuck), content curated (a little better), total resources shared (a tad bit better still), PD presented in person (not bad), alignment between content found and school and district needs (decent), impact on learning performance (nice), or some basic formula of several of these and more.  Then turn that process over to them—crowdsource the recording-keeping with the only expectation being that it’s visible to everyone and simple to update. Personalizing Teacher Training Through Social Media-Based Improvement

Some ways to make the professional learning visible include teaching portfolios and digital badges.

Teaching Portfolios

Teaching portfolios, often known as dossiers, are compilation of teaching materials and related documents that teachers employ during teaching and learning processes. Portfolios serve as tools for reflection, a way to thoughtfully document teaching practices and progress toward goals. Portfolio entries can inform professional growth plans. As actual artifacts of teaching, portfolios help teachers to systematically ponder over their practice, reflect on the problems they face, and learn from their experience. They provide direct evidence of what teachers have accomplished.  Self-Directed Professional Development: Success Mantra or a Myth?

Digital Badges

Eric Sheninger, the principal of New Milford High School, is experimenting with Integration of Digital Badges to Acknowledge Professional Learning

I am proud to announce Worlds of Learning @ New Milford High School, a digital badge professional learning platform. The idea behind this platform is to provide professional learning with a pinch of gamification.  Digital badges can be used to guide, motivate, document and validate formal and informal learning.  Worlds of Learning @ New Milford High School provides a framework to allow our teachers to earn digital badges through learning about a range of technology tools and applications.  I hope that New Milford High School teachers will be able to benefit greatly from this sustained initiative because of the professional learning flexibility an online platform provides as well as it being a means to document and showcase the skills they have gained and  putting their learnings into practice in the classroom.


In summary, regardless of the type of professional development selected by the educational institutions and the teachers, themselves, it needs to have the following characteristics for effective implementation and sustainability in the classroom:

  • Educators need to feel they have and actually do have a voice, empowerment, and support to self-direct their professional development.
  • Educators should be given the time, resources, and ideas to establish their own professional learning goals which, in turn, would drive their professional development direction.
  • Isolated, one shot professional development experiences such as in-services workshops, going to conferences, etc,, most often do not lead to any changes in the classroom practices.  These experiences need to be part of a larger teacher initiated process of preparatory goal setting and follow-up support and implementation.
  • An accountability system needs to be established where educators have the responsibility for follow-through and getting appropriate credit and acknowledgement for doing so.

Teacher Agency: Educators Moving from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset

It is a myth that we operate under a set of oppressive bureaucratic constraints. In reality, teachers have a great deal of autonomy in the work they chose to do in their classrooms. In most cases it is our culture that provides the constraints. For individual teachers, trying out new practices and pedagogy is risky business and both our culture, and our reliance on hierarchy, provide the ideal barriers for change not to occur. As Pogo pointed out long ago, “we have met the enemy and it is us.” http://www.cea-ace.ca/blog/brian-harrison/2013/09/5/stop-asking-permission-change

Educational psychology has focused on the concepts of learned helplessness and more currently growth-fixed mindsets as a way to explain how and why students give up in the classroom setting.  These ideas can also be applied to educators in this day of forced standardization, testing, scripted curriculum, and school initiatives.

Many educators feel forced into a paradigm of teaching where they feel subjected to teaching practices outside of their control. Then when they are asked to engage in a process of continued growth and development, many profess: “I don’t have enough time.”, “I don’t have enough resources.”, “I need more training.”, “I need to teach using the textbook.” ,”I need to teach to the test.”, “I might lose control of the class.”, “I have always successful taught this way.”


But these are external obstacles whereby the educator places blame for resisting change or engaging in a growth mindset outside of one’s own responsibility. The result is a fixed mindset of learned helplessness, “I cannot change because the system won’t let me change.”  Sometimes educators are creating some obstacles for themselves that in reality don’t exist.


A mental shift occurs when a fixed mindset which often leads to learned helplessness is changed to a growth and positive mindset, believing that there are options; that one can grow, change, and be significant.

How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you. http://mindsetonline.com/changeyourmindset/firststeps/

It becomes focusing on what can work rather than what is not working.  This is not to devalue the obstacles that teachers face. It becomes about noting where change is possible and making some small changes in teaching.  Small changes often result in larger, more systemic change.


Teacher Agency

The deeper issue related to a fixed versus a growth mindset in education is one of teacher agency.

Teacher agency is typically viewed as a quality within educators, a matter of personal capacity to act (Priestly et al., 2012) usually in response to stimuli within their pedagogical environment. It describes an educator who has both the ability and opportunity to act upon a set of circumstances that presents itself within that individual’s leadership, curricular or instructional roles. The educator described would then draw from acquired knowledge and experience to intercede appropriately and effectively. Agency is increasingly rare in the educational world of prescriptive improvement, and the term is too “often utilized as a slogan to support school-based reform” (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2012, p. 3). Teacher Agency in America and Finland By Roger Wilson, GVSU Faculty

But most educators would probably agree that out of all of the professions, they feel that their voices have the least amount of power; are the ones least heard of any profession when voicing desires, needs, innovative ideas.  Samuel A. Culbert, a professor in the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted in the New York Times opinion piece: How to Raise the Status of Teachers: Allow More Autonomy:

The way to make stars out of teachers is to let teachers be stars, to let them be as innovative as they can be, to let them find the path that works best for them and their students. If they are allowed to search for the best answers, they’ll find them.  Instead, we’re doing the opposite: we’re telling them that if they want to keep their jobs, they have to do what people who know so much less than they do about education tell them to do. They have to dance to some constantly changing, politically created tune that is guaranteed to leave them demoralized and their students floundering.

The bottom line, is that teachers need to reclaim their perceived and real teacher agency, voice, and empowerment. They need to develop a growth mindset that they can and do have agency in their profession.

With all that is happening in the education profession today, it is important to remember that teacher’s have power to change the system. This power for change can be called “Agency” which is defined as the capacity of teachers to shape critically their responses to educational processes and practices (Biesta and Teddler, 2006).  With all the external push from various sectors, ultimately teachers are the ones that can cut through all of the cross-purposed mandates and transform their own process and practices to ensure the best educational experiences for their students.  Teacher Agency and Today’s Teachers

Some concrete strategies educators can do for gaining and increasing their agency include:

  • Revisit and/or develop a strong teaching mission and vision.  Use it to inform your teaching practices, broadcast it to students, students’ parents, and colleagues.  See How Do I Write a Teacher Mission Statement?
  • Create time and space to develop a classroom you wished you had as a child; would want for your own children.  Be fearless and unapologetic about creating this type of classroom.
  • Find and use your own voice in the teachers’ lounge, teachers’ meetings, via blogging or social media.  Publicize your successes and accomplishments via social media.  See my post, Every Educator Has a Story . . . Just Tell It.
  • Develop and participate in strong Professional Learning Communities.
  • Get involved in local politics – attend and use your voice at school board meetings, local political meetings.

In conclusion, teacher voice, empowerment, and agency is needed for the educational reform that so many desire . . .

More than ever we — teachers — must be a vital part of this national conversation. As teachers, we have a responsibility to our students and communities to share our collective wisdom in an effort to facilitate quality reform. To get this reform effort right, teachers must be seated at the table demanding the type of change that will be in the best interest of our children, our fellow teachers, and our country.

Reforming our great profession is a necessary step in the development of our nation in general. We have a unique opportunity to share our stories, the good and the bad, in an effort to equip our colleagues to more adequately prepare their students for the future that awaits us all.  Teacher Voices Must Be Heard