Q&A: Connected Professional Learning in Practice

A principal and a teacher describe how professional learning benefits from rigorous curriculum, expert-led collaboration, and frequent feedback

Read the blog as it orginally appeared on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website


Leaders in successful school systems know that professional learning is more powerful when it’s connected with and embedded within a teacher’s everyday work, such as understanding the curriculum and planning lessons that engage students. Igniting the Learning Engine, a recent report from Education Resource Strategies, spotlights school systems that are re-organizing their resources to put this belief about professional learning into practice.

To learn more about these school systems’ approach to effective, job-embedded professional learning, we spoke with two people on the ground in the systems featured in the report: Marianne Simon, principal of Reynolds Lane Elementary School in Duval County Public Schools, and Daniel Cuellar, a teacher-leader at Washington Academic Middle School in Sanger Unified School District.

Marianne, what are the key elements of professional learning at your school and how do they differ from what you have experienced in the past?

Marianne Simon: The majority of the professional learning time at our school is spent in common planning sessions with teachers. My assistant principal, math coach, reading coach, and I have 90 minutes each week to meet with each grade level. (During this time, the students are at PE, art, and music classes.) The instructional support teachers may join these sessions as well, depending on the topic. During these common planning times, we sometimes do a deep dive into data and work on regrouping students based on data; sometimes we will do observations in each other’s classrooms, with a session afterwards for feedback. Lesson planning is a huge part of these meetings as well. In the past, before we had these common planning times, most teachers had to leave campus to get these professional learning opportunities.

Why do you think it’s important for teachers to have professional learning happen within their school?

Marianne Simon: It is so important for teachers to see the connection between what they learn and their everyday life in the classroom. A teacher can go to a training center and learn all about asking high-order questions, but then the teacher is left to themselves to figure out how to incorporate it into what they do every day. On the other hand, at the school level, I can differentiate—if I want a teacher to learn about high-order questioning, I am going to do it with a lesson that is coming up in the teacher’s classroom. That way, the teacher will see the connection and will actually implement the new learning.

What role does curriculum play in professional learning at your school?

Marianne Simon: Curriculum is the main focus of most of our professional learning. Our district’s curriculum is aligned to the state standards, and every lesson planning session is based on that curriculum. Every classroom observation that we do is based on understanding how a teacher takes that curriculum and turns it into an engaging lesson for students. We also look at data in the core curriculum areas to decide if the students are getting what they need from it—and if not, what can we add to it, what can we change? Every conversation we have through the common planning sessions revolves around the curriculum.

How do teachers work together to analyze the data and how does the data inform their instruction? 

Marianne Simon: This year, we implemented six-week cycles of data reflection. Every six weeks, our teachers come together for a data chat, where we look at commonalities and differences between classrooms. Was there a classroom who did well in a particular area that the others did not? What did that teacher do differently that could be tried in other classrooms? The teachers have these discussions. Also, we have been working with the teachers on regrouping their students based on the six-week cycle data—instead of waiting until we give a mid-year assessment or even longer to do that.

Do you have any examples of ways that professional learning has had an impact on your teachers?

Marianne Simon: One of our fourth-grade math and science teachers has several years of experience but was new to our school this year. We had a district coach come in and do a walkthrough of the classroom and the feedback came to us that she needed to focus more on student ownership. So we worked with our school’s math coach to push student ownership into the common planning time. The teacher shared the district’s feedback with her fellow teachers and they worked together and identified specific opportunities for creating student ownership within their lessons. Then she went even further and asked the coach if she could videotape her lesson so she could see how she did in implementing those strategies. They watched the video together and worked on transforming future lessons—it wasn’t a one-time thing, it was continuous. To see a very experienced teacher learn so much in just a year is amazing, and she has really seen her students grow significantly.

What impact has this approach had on student learning? 

Marianne Simon: In visiting and observing classrooms, I see big improvements in the culture of learning. This is my third year at this school, and the changes I have seen in our students over that time are amazing—both academically and behaviorally. We also see it in our data: We were an “F” rated school when I came in, and last year we had a “C” rating—and I have very high expectations that we will receive a “B” this school year. Every year, we keep investing in the teachers’ professional development and their instruction is getting better. And we are definitely seeing the positive results come through in the students’ growth.

Daniel, what does professional learning look like at your school and how is it different from what you have experienced in the past?

Daniel Cuellar: At our school, a lot of our professional learning is done as a team and a lot of it is learning from each other. Typically, we will observe each other—teacher to teacher—talk about lessons, and review what’s going well and what’s not. When we modify the curriculum or implement a new one, we make a list of pros and cons and possible pitfalls in the curriculum together.

Before I was in this district, my professional learning was very isolated. It was very much like, ‘OK, everybody: here is the information, have at it, try it.’ But the information wasn’t examined or implemented or reflected on collaboratively. In my school now, we will try something and talk about it as a group to see how it went.

How does your team work together to improve your teaching practices?

Daniel Cuellar: We do a lot of writing our own curriculum and modifying our curriculum through our professional learning. Whether it is something as simple as peer observation or as complex as conferences or seminars with team members, we get new learnings and we come back and see how it affects our curriculum and then we modify it accordingly.

Also, every time the students have a summative unit test or a formative test, we look at data. That’s done every three to four weeks. We also look at qualitative data: What are the kids saying? What are you seeing when you’re giving the lesson? What were some of the common trends that we saw in the classroom? That qualitative data is discussed on a day-to-day basis.

What does the collaborative learning process look like of collaboration at your school?

Daniel Cuellar: I think the professional learning community (PLC) model—something we pride ourselves on—is the foundation of how we collaborate. The idea is that we don’t do things alone here. That’s not just our school site—it’s districtwide. We don’t believe in doing things on your own, and we don’t work in isolation.

One time our PLC team wanted to try to teach the Pythagorean theorem using a new inquiry-based method. It was a challenge to get four different individuals on the same page when we all thought differently. Some of us wanted to give students a lot of freedom in the lesson, and others wanted to keep the approach more traditional. So we did a lot of meeting each other halfway and listening to each other and modifying each other’s ideas so that we could mold them into one approach that would work. It turned out great.

What has been the most useful professional learning experience you have had in your school?

Daniel Cuellar: I think the most useful experience is being able to observe my colleagues. A lot of the time as teachers, we only get to see what is happening in our classrooms. Because we use common lessons, it’s interesting to see the same exact lessons being interpreted in a different way right next door.