Usable Knowledge Turning Around Teacher Turnover The sticking power of high-quality K-12 professional learning Posted January 19, 2023 By Elizabeth M. Ross Career and Lifelong Learning K-12 School Leadership K-12 System Leadership Teachers and Teaching New research shows that the teaching profession is facing its worst challenges in 50 years, with job satisfaction and other metrics nearing 50-year lows. While there are likely several reasons for burnout and no easy solutions, a recent study on successful professional development strategies offers a promising path forward. “When teachers get good quality professional learning they tend to stay. They tend to stay more often than teachers that don’t get that,” explains Heather Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.In one math coaching study that Hill worked on a few years ago, she found teachers who received strong professional development were 10% more likely to be teaching math again in the following year than those who did not. It’s a “protective factor,” she explains.What makes for successful professional learning (PL)?School districts around the country spend an estimated $18 billion on teacher learning programs every year but caliber and relevance are key, according to Hill. She says some teachers don’t like professional development and consider it a waste of their time. “It’s only when they feel like it’s actually beneficial to them and their practice and their students that they seem to stay.” In their recent paper, Building Better PL: How to Strengthen Teacher Learning, Hill and co-author John Papay of Brown University draw on research literature and rigorous studies to identify what is most effective for teachers and students. They also provide helpful next steps for future research in each key area of their report. “It’s only when they feel like it’s actually beneficial to them and their practice and their students that they seem to stay.” Key takeaways for professional development practitioners:Emphasize instructional practices over building teachers’ content knowledge.Hill says that a lot of money in the United States has been poured into building teacher content knowledge in STEM, but there is sometimes a gap between acquiring greater knowledge of a subject and teaching it. She recalls sitting in one professional learning session with a mathematician and a group of middle school teachers. One of the teachers, after learning new material, asked the mathematician, “This is all great, but what does it mean for me when I teach it?” Hill explains, “The content knowledge is not in and of itself sufficient to change what happens in classrooms. Focusing on those instructional practices is going to get you a better bang for the buck.”Offer teachers practice-supportive materials versus general principles.Giving teachers materials to take back to their classrooms and support their day-to-day instruction is more beneficial than broader principles that leave them with the extra work of having to figure out how to best integrate those new ideas into their existing teaching methods. “Supportive materials likely also increase uptake of the program and may improve the quality of implementation,” the authors write in their brief.Focus on teacher-student relationships.Improving teachers’ relationships with their students may be as critical as boosting subject-specific instruction. Programs that seek to help teacher-student relationships and create caring and emotionally supportive classrooms see greater student achievement and reduce racial disparities in discipline. “The content knowledge is not in and of itself sufficient to change what happens in classrooms. Focusing on those instructional practices is going to get you a better bang for the buck.” Beyond improving teachers’ day-to-day practice, Hill and Papay say that successful professional learning also includes follow-up from other educators to foster social accountability. Teachers are more likely to implement changes if they know they will eventually have to report back to colleagues about their experiences.Professional learning methods that encourage success include: Peer collaboration – Teachers learn from one another and thrive in more collaborative environments, especially when there are shared and specific goals.Coaching for teachers – With regular one-on-one check-ins, teachers feel that they have someone in their corner, in a non-evaluative way, to help them improve and “help them serve their kids better, which is what teachers are all about,” says Hill. Follow-up sessions to address any concerns – Teacher-driven follow-up meetings provide an opportunity for educators to share their experiences, put instructional changes into practice, and receive feedback from their peers and trainers. Hill and Papay’s brief, published by The Research Partnership for Professional Learning, is the second paper in a research series which follows Dispelling the Myths: What the Research Says About Teacher Professional Learning. Additional resources: Doing the Math A Global Approach to Teacher Development The Right Way to Lead Teacher Learning Teachers Need Our Support Usable Knowledge Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities Explore All Articles Related Articles News A New Vision for Teacher Collaboration Inspired by their work in HGSE's Instructional Leadership Certificate program, a group of Connecticut educators create an in-school learning lab Usable Knowledge Innovating to Support Teachers in an Unprecedented Year Lessons on enriching and expanding peer support, even in a pandemic Ed. Magazine Teachers Need Our Support What educators say they need now.