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How Do You Determine What Professional Learning Your Teachers Need?

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

As an administrator, you’re under immense pressure from your school board, parents, the state board of education, and other stakeholders to improve student learning outcomes in mathematics. Your job is to determine and implement a professional learning plan for your teachers as quickly as possible so that desired student learning outcomes can be met sooner rather than later. While it’s tempting to create a plan based on the insights garnered from your vantage point at the top, such a process is not as efficient as it seems. You must invest in time to listen.


Listen to your students.

What do their test scores say?

Assessment data speaks volumes. From classroom-level formative assessments to state mandated tests, student performance data can tell you a lot about what your students are and are not getting in mathematics instruction. Be sure to look at results for mathematical proficiency in both the Co​​ntent and the Practice standards. Some standardized tests, such as the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR), report performance on Reasoning and Modeling, two Mathematical Practices, in addition to Mathematical Content. If your classroom- or district-level assessments don’t already measure proficiency with the Standards for Mathematical Practice, advocate that they do. Such data can help you pinpoint teaching and learning strategies that will best serve the instructional needs of your students.

For example, a school summary report may show that 5th grade students are performing below proficiency levels on interpreting fractions as a division of two whole numbers (a Content topic). If you look into the Reasoning and Modeling scores as well, those may indicate that students also need support in understanding the relationship between multiplication and division (Reasoning) and in selecting the appropriate numbers for quotient and divisor (Modeling). These Content, Reasoning, and Modeling areas are interrelated and support each other as students construct a robust understanding of fractions as a case of division. Taken together, these scores suggest that students need to better understand the operation of division and what it means within the context of a problem. Practicing fraction interpretation alone, without the reasoning and modeling components, would likely not boost students’ overall proficiency.

What do their learner profiles say?

Beyond both high-stakes test scores and local formative assessment results, other student data should be collected and analyzed that could reveal factors affecting student learning. Student attendance rates, gender, race, and socio-economic backgrounds might show that the needs of a certain type of student are not being met at your school or in your district. Providing professional learning for teachers of mathematics that incorporates how to best approach students having that profile might be more powerful than professional learning focused only on math content.

What do they say?

No doubt, student mindset, family support, and learning style preference all affect how students interact with instruction. Because mathematics can be intimidating to students, their performance in mathematics is particularly sensitive to their attitudes about it, the support they receive from parents, and the ways in which mathematics is presented to them.

So, listen to students’ voices directly - whether through an online survey, a series of focus group discussions, or individual interviews. Finding out what students think they need and what they want in order to be more successful in mathematics will give you immense insight and real ideas. You may not be able to give students everything they need - homework help at home, for example - but you might be able to support their teachers in using more hands-on math manipulatives to make math visible, in incorporating

more social-emotional learning opportunities to increase students’ growth mindset, or in creating a low-profile, push-in math group for students who missed out on modeling basic math concepts in their earlier school years.

Listen to your teachers.

What do test scores tell them?

Your teachers have seen - or should have seen - the same data reports you have and may be confounded by the results. What worked for their students in the past, they are finding, isn’t working for their current students who have to meet these new math standards. Understand, the Standards for Mathematical Practice are more than a list of competencies - they reflect a radical idea about what mathematical proficiency means and dramatic shifts in the instruction of mathematics. For many teachers of mathematics, these shifts are not made quickly. Even for teachers who attempt to engage students in the conceptually-challenging skills of reasoning and modeling, ​

​recognizing and articulating where their own instructional limitations lie can be difficult. Nonetheless, ask teachers directly what professional learning they believe would help them help their students.

What solutions do they think will work?

If teachers are reluctant to share their own challenges or are unaware of their own shortcomings, first pose the question to them in the context of what they think would most benefit their students. What does this group of students need in order to improve their mathematical proficiency in (the pinpointed need)? Then, ask a broad question about what we - the district, the school, the community, the staff - can do to provide that for the students. Be authentically open to teachers’ ideas. You might hear creative, non-traditional solutions that really could address the problem at the same time that you gain the respect and trust of teachers when they sense that you truly do listen to them. It is only in a climate of trust and respect that teachers will open up about the gaps in their own knowledge base and pedagogical toolkit when asked: What is it that staff members need to know, learn, and/or practice in order to effectively address the needs of this group of students?

What motivates them?

Effective adult learning taps into teachers’ intrinsic motivations. If a program does not have the buy-in of its participants, those participants will be resistant even to hearing its messages, let alone to engaging with the difficult work of transformative learning that the Standards for Mathematical Practice require. It is only by recognizing their own challenges and tapping into their personal motivation to be a more effective educator for their students that teachers will be willing to commit to shifting their instructional practices. And you won’t know what those motivating challenges are unless you ask and really listen to your teachers.


No doubt the pressure you’re under to turn in an improvement plan is real, yet a process that includes listening to the stakeholders who must make the changes - namely your students and your teachers - will yield better results than a plan that misdiagnoses the needs of the students or that is imposed on teachers. If you take shortcuts, ultimately, you and your staff could spend a lot of time and effort just to end up in the same place you were when you began.

So, put “listen” on the top of your list of things to do in your process of developing a professional development program with, not for, your teachers. If you do, and you follow through, you’ll get to the desired positive learning student outcomes much faster than if you don’t.

Ideas in this article are based on the Standards for Professional Development developed by Learning Forward: The Professional Learning Association.

For assistance in developing and/or implementing an effective professional learning program, contact Pear School Solutions.


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