School Leader Insights: Professional Learning as a Catalyst for Change

The School Leader Insights blog series provides school leaders with practical guidance and advice on how to develop and support digital learning programs within their schools and districts. Based on research and on-the-ground experiences working with school leaders, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute aims to identify and share effective practices with these school leaders to support their work and encourage their success. In this blog post, we discuss how professional learning programs for teachers can provide job satisfaction, improve digital learning outcomes for students, and serve as a catalyst for change.

Begin with the end in mind

At the end of the previous blog post in this series, professional learning was emphasized as a critical concern when introducing new technology in any digital learning initiative. When teachers feel comfortable with their ability to leverage the technology available to them, they are set on a path toward success in helping their students and growing as professionals. 

Some might argue that digital learning goals will be easily within reach if you give teachers new technology. Procuring technology is only one part of the equation. Adequate training and professional learning need to be offered and available. However, a distinction should be made between training and professional learning. 

Training refers to providing nuts-and-bolts guidance on how to do specific tasks involving technology, such as accessing software, uploading PDF documents, or recording a class. 

Professional learning centers on higher-order strategies of using technology and other tools to achieve particular instructional and professional goals. 

Some school community members may already have a lot of technical knowledge, so only offering training may be seen as tedious or unnecessary. School districts should provide professional learning to give teachers an opportunity to advance their instructional skills and abilities in serving students and the broader community.

When a school district establishes professional learning goals, they should be aligned to the instructional vision of the district. This ensures that teachers’ growth and development can have a direct positive impact on students. 

Additionally, professional learning goals need to align with how teachers are supervised and evaluated as well as where a school wants to be in meeting its curricular goals and objectives. When teachers see that they are rewarded for their commitment to growing as educational professionals, a school or district creates and encourages a culture of continuous learning and innovation which benefits the entire school community.

Personalizing professional learning

To implement an effective professional learning program, school leaders must understand the needs of adult learners. As noted in a Digital Promise study on creating conditions to implement new instructional technologies, teachers want professional learning lessons to be relevant, valuable, and immediately applicable. 

If relevance, utility, and application of lessons learned are not emphasized, adult learners will tend to tune out and not see professional learning opportunities as worth their time.

Professional learning should not follow a one-size-fits-all approach. School leaders need to provide teachers with a voice and a choice to pursue the opportunities that suit them, their needs, and their goals as professionals. A wide variety of options should be available, and teachers should be regularly surveyed about what topics and formats of professional learning interest them.

School leaders should use individual teacher data—collected from sources such as classroom walkthroughs, formal observations, and student assessments—to drive teachers’ professional learning. Not only does this make professional learning tailored, but it makes any professional learning opportunity more relevant, useful, and accountable for teachers and those they serve. A focus should be on building instructional competencies that can be applied and demonstrated tangibly in the classroom. Understanding the ins and outs of technology through training is essential, but what is most valuable is guiding teachers on how to use technology to make their teaching more effective and enjoyable for them and their students.

A focus on competencies means that school leaders need to revisit teacher supervision and evaluation. Rather than treating teacher supervision as a top-down formalized evaluation exercise conducted once or twice per year, school leaders should embrace regular open dialogue with teachers focused on skill development that can advance and enhance their instructional practices in the short and long term. 

By having recurring, informal conversations throughout the year, teachers and administrators can work together to identify strength areas to continue and opportunities to pursue for growth and improvement. When this process is continuous and intentional, the evaluation process becomes less confrontational. It focuses more on the reason teachers are evaluated in the first place—to support teachers’ ability to achieve excellence in their service to students and the school community. 

Role of the supervisor

School leaders play an important role in supervising teachers. The most effective supervision is focused on guiding professional growth and development rather than dictating from a position of authority. Giving teachers a voice and a choice in planning, implementing, and evaluating professional learning opportunities will go a long way to create a culture of agency among the instructional staff. 

When educators feel empowered in their professional learning and growth, they feel more satisfied and confident in their work. They also will be more apt to support, contribute to, and champion new innovations in digital learning. When teachers feel invested in a digital learning program that empowers them and their students, they become catalysts of change. 

Again, using individualized teacher data is essential to inform and shape the co-creation of professional learning experiences between school leaders and teachers. When teachers’ unique needs, perspectives, and goals are taken into account, they feel more valued and ready to bring their best and fullest professional selves to enact a new digital learning initiative.

Looking ahead

The following blog in this School Leader Insights series will focus on how to shift school operations effectively to advance the implementation of digital learning programs.

Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!


The authors would like to thank Tracy Gieseking from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute for her contributions and advice in writing this blog post.

About the authors

Christopher Harrington

Dr. Christopher Harrington, director of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Ed Timke

Dr. Ed Timke is a research specialist for Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Although he specializes in qualitative research — such as interviews, focus groups, ethnographies, and textual and visual analyses — he was trained in mixed methods research while in his doctoral program in communication and media at the University of Michigan. Ed has taught online and face-to-face courses on writing, research methods, global media and communication, the role of advertising in society, and intercultural communication at American University, Duke University, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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