Enjoying the Ride: Attending to the Needs of Adult Learners in Professional Development

“All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education.” Sir Walter Scott

As a learner, I appreciate when theory intersects with practice, especially my own. I’ve been devouring the reading in Zepeda (2012) this week about professional learning, but what has especially caught my eye is chapter 3 Focusing on Adult Learning: Releasing the Conditions for Professional Growth. I am the Chair of my school’s Best Practices committee and our chief responsibility has been to develop a professional development schedule for staff that addresses our most recent WASC accreditation report. Data-driven instruction, curriculum mapping, 21st century skills, differentiation are all areas that have been identified as “critical” for improvement. To complicate matters, nineteen of our twenty-six member teaching staff are new; the reasons for such high turn-over are many but suffice to say there is wide-ranging levels of skill and comfort with these areas for improvement. And to top-off the turnover in teaching staff; four out of six of our administrative team is new this year as well, so we’re essentially starting from square one.

Given this situation and the incredible amount of work we have to accomplish in the one year we are here (my husband accepted a one-year position as interim Head of School) it would be most expedient to simply mandate whole-school trainings and move on to more pressing matters. Yet anyone that has ever opted for the efficiency of an interstate over the picturesque country road recognizes that sometimes the shortest route is not always the most scenic, nor memorable. Indeed, Langer & Applebee (1986) as quoted in Zepeda (2013) cautions that, “To be effective, adult learning should be built on ownership, appropriateness, structure, collaboration, internalization, reflection, and motivation” (Chapter 3, Section 1, Paragraph 1). Administrative leaders can draw out the best in teachers by attending to these six principles for working with adult learners. Moreover, Zepeda tells us that, “Professional development needs to be situated within the school as a proactive process, not as a “fix-it” intervention merely to remediate perceived weaknesses in teacher performance” (Chapter 3, Section 5, Paragraph 1). I have to admit that with so much ground to cover in a very short amount of time, our professional development has been more of the “fix-it” variety rather than transformative; we are trying to “fix” teacher’s lack of technical skills and/or knowledge regarding the software and hardware that they need to do their job effectively. While this training in skills may lend itself to building a teacher’s sense of self-efficacy in using the tools of the trade, it makes for a dull and decidedly unmemorable journey.

With this in mind, I have been working on approaches to transform our professional learning in ways that offer choice and builds opportunity for teacher leadership. Today was a professional development day. Originally, we had a mandatory beginning Smart Board training scheduled; a company trainer was scheduled to come to our school for a one-hour session that all staff was to attend. I proposed to our Head of School that we offer teachers choice within a technology theme: Smart Board training, Atlas Rubicon training with our Curriculum Director, database training with our Media Specialist, or an introduction and opportunity to build an Edmoto site run by one of our high school science teachers that volunteered. This is a screen shot of the email I sent to all-staff detailing their choices:

All-Faculty Email

All-Faculty Email

As I circulated amongst the various groups, I noticed that for the most part, there appeared to be a high level of engagement. While the teachers in the Smart Board training did not each have a Smart Board to work with during their training, it seems from the anecdotal comments shared with me at the end of their session that they took away learning that will apply to their practice tomorrow and this is the whole point of professional learning: “What the teacher does with new knowledge and skills is more important than the professional development activity that the teacher attended” (Zepeda, Chapter 3, Section, Paragraph 1).

By working in small groups, we were able to somewhat differentiate according to teacher competency and needs. As quoted in Zepeda, 2012: “Professional development should provide for different learning styles, include hands-on activities, and allow for individual teacher goals and self-directed activities” (Glickman, Gordon & Ross-Gordon, 2009). The teacher-facilitators had great feedback about the power of working with a small, highly involved group of teachers. The importance of attending to the needs of adult learning is further strengthened when Principal’s take into consideration the developmental differences in teachers’ professional knowledge and skills, planning accordingly.

Pulitzer prize winning poet Mark Van Doren has said that, “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery”. I like this quotation because I believe it applies not only to the learning I witnessed today in our after-school professional development, but my own learning as well. Even though I am an administrative/curriculum intern with aspirations to make the transition to full-fledged administrator as my primary professional goal right now, I am always first an educator and a teacher. Through having opportunities to practice my own professional learning in my “classroom” and with my “students “, I have gained ownership of my learning. In fact, I’m even enjoying the long, yet memorable journey along the way.


Zepeda, Sally J. 2012. Professional Development: what works, second edition [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.



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