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10 Ways to provide differentiation in professional development for teachers

Student generations come and go, and the needs of today's students aren’t the same as they were ten years ago. Similarly, there has to be a differentiation in professional development for teachers if we want them to keep up, adapt and find innovative ways to engage their students.

This is a major undertaking since the final goal of teacher professional development is the improvement of student achievement and growth.

At the same time, teachers are usually busy and making time for their professional development spells out “mission impossible” for many of them. The success of professional development (PD) programs is achievable through a combination of approaches and methods based on the needs of the learning community.

And here comes the issue: teachers need PD that is adapted to their needs, sustainable, and sustained over time. This is not a one-time or one-size-fits-all process.

The classic workshop model is not enough anymore because everyone gets the same information regardless of their expertise and prior knowledge. The solution in this case is differentiated professional development.

The benefits of differentiation in professional development for teachers

Why would differentiated professional development be the best solution? Because it caters to specific teacher needs, it is more engaging and task-oriented — all for the benefit of the students.

Differentiation in PD changes professional development into continuous professional learning, with teachers training at their own pace while collaborating with their peers at different levels of expertise. This type of PD caters to different teacher needs to stimulate professional growth while considering teachers' readiness and interests.

Since differentiation works for students and has become a target in itself in the teaching process, it can be the same for educators as they also have different goals and interests.

Read more: 5 Steps to take for successful PD for teachers

Ways to differentiate professional development for teachers 

Here are ten PD elements that take into account teachers' skills, interests, level of expertise, and readiness to shift the perspective towards differentiated professional development: 

  1. Offer asynchronous training

    Between grading, paperwork, meetings, and much more — without even considering their personal lives — teachers are overwhelmed by their workload.  However, continuous PD is essential throughout their teaching career, so we need a solution that fits into a teacher’s schedule.

    Asynchronous training is an alternative that ensures teachers learn when they find fit and still keep up with the PD requirements. The pandemic has shown we can teach and learn asynchronously, so we need to consider programs that include all, or at least, a percentage of the training in an asynchronous format.

    Having a part of the training face-to-face and part online can also be a good solution. This blended approach benefits teachers in two ways: one, regarding the lack of time, with teachers learning at their own pace asynchronously, and the other, regarding the need for social interaction with peers and learning firsthand how to apply a new method in the classroom. Also, we could include a flipped PR version, with teachers receiving online resources beforehand and discussing them in person.

    Including an asynchronous component in PD contributes to creating a digital community that supports the learning process beyond the training itself. PD can contribute to another crucial need: teacher wellbeing.

    Read more: How edtech supports teacher work-life balance and wellbeing

  2. Use micro learning

    Teaching trends and methods are in continuous development, so teachers need to keep up with the changes. But we all know teachers' number one enemy is time which means we have to consider alternatives to keep teachers in the loop without overwhelming them.

    Splitting larger topics into micro lessons of 5-10 minutes can help teachers learn faster. PD programs should also differentiate the content of their lessons according to teachers' level of expertise because some may be unfamiliar with the subject, some may have partial mastery, but some may already know the content being taught. Allow teachers to opt out of some of these lessons and choose what they need to learn.

  3. Host thematic PD months

    PD should be a constant in a teacher's career. However, requiring teachers to learn different things at once can be counterproductive. Hosting thematic months is a solution.For example, January can be about learning how to use blended learning, February can be about health and safety and March can be dedicated exclusively to edtech, and so on. The delivery of training is similar to module-based learning where teachers concentrate on a subject at a time and don’t need to learn everything at once.

    Read more: How to succeed with online PD for teachers

  4. Create opportunities for peer observation

    Information is crucial but it can be useless if teachers don't implement it in their classrooms. Since teacher PD trainers cannot be there to model methods and new teaching techniques all the time, having a peer observation program can go a long way. Even if it's online, observing a fellow teacher's work provides valuable insight into other approaches to teaching.

    For example, more experienced teachers can record their lessons (in-person or online) and upload them to the school’s learning management system (LMS), so any teacher can see them and learn — even if the original lesson took place one or two years ago.

  5. Build collaborative experiences

    Teachers learn better when they have collaboration opportunities. Whether it's face-to-face or online, collaborative experiences promote professional growth at a deeper level since peer expertise can compensate for the gap between the information provided by the training program and teachers' real level of expertise.

     Using online tools to facilitate these collaborative experiences also contributes to sustainability over time. Using the school LMS to message, chat or just be in a group with fellow teachers encourages collaboration no matter where they are.

    Read more: 3 Reasons why you should use a school LMS to deliver PD for teachers

  6. Do a needs assessment for teachers

    PD is not and should not be universal. It has to rely on a teacher's requirements list. So, using needs assessment surveys can help trainers develop a PD program that answers teachers' needs which ensures active participation and involvement. A good practice is to split teachers into groups according to their level of expertise (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and have them take different asynchronous courses, so they won’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of new information.

    A needs assessment for teachers is very easy to do since there are many survey tools available, such as Survey Monkey. However, it’s even easier to use the school LMS to create surveys for teacher needs assessment.

    Read more: 8 Ways surveys help school leaders make better decisions

  7. Offer training opportunities beyond mandatory PD

    Although PD such as health and safety is mandatory, teachers need opportunities for other types of training.  For example, some may want to deepen their learning on a particular subject and others want to find alternative teaching methods. Alternatively, maybe they need specific courses on time management or other personal development skills that aren’t necessarily covered by teacher PD.

    Creating flexible, self-paced non-mandatory PD allows teachers to invest in their professional development without feeling the pressure of limited training time frames.

    Read more: 6 Manageable ways to participate in PD this summer

  8. Set the scene for peer instruction

    Teacher trainers try their best to offer programs that help teachers evolve, but they are outnumbered. Setting the scene for peer instruction is a wonderful approach that allows teachers to become trainers and share their expertise or discoveries in terms of new tools and teaching methods.

    Moreover, teachers are more receptive when a peer delivers an instructional program because their colleagues know what are the most pressing issues and face the same struggles. 

  9. Include extension activities

    Any professional development program should find a way to continue the impact of the training. Having PD sessions without follow-up activities is irrelevant since teachers won't implement what they have learned or they won't even bother if it doesn't have a specific purpose.

    Organizing online discussions or feedback on implementing the notions they were taught will trigger responsibility and will make learning relevant. This means the training program has a final goal that is recognizable, which can be then analyzed and improved. 

  10. Foster teacher voice and choice

    Teachers are avid workers, always searching to improve themselves, even without the mandatory PD programs. Nonetheless, teachers can feel misunderstood and cornered with a series of irrelevant programs that (besides being time-consuming) are useless in the long run.

    It’s better for them when they get to choose most or all their PD training sessions because they know their needs. It’s also rewarding to feel like they are heard and their voice matters. When teachers have a choice, they’ll be more engaged in their training and more likely to follow through.

    Read more: Teacher PD training: Should self-care be part of it?

Differentiation in professional development for teachers

Teachers are in constant need of professional development. They want learning opportunities, but on their terms. Juggling a career as demanding as theirs with their personal life is a struggle. As a consequence, without listening to their needs or providing differentiated PD, teachers will lose interest and focus.

Teacher commitment and involvement, their learning and teaching abilities, their interests, and their relationship with their peers make all the difference when it comes to PD training. Of course, it will also improve student outcomes and achievement.