It’s Not the ‘What’, It’s the ‘How’

There has recently been a focus on the amount of money spent improving public education in America. As taxpayers, educators and parents, we expect to see that this funding is making a dramatic difference in teacher training and student engagement. In 2015, a groundbreaking report called “The Mirage” was released that challenged many of the assumptions we educators have about professional development. A two-year study of three large school districts and one charter school found that school systems were indeed spending a great deal of money on professional development, and that it simply was not working. In fact, most teachers in the study did not improve substantially from year to year. “The Mirage” (released by TNTP, formerly The New Teacher Project) also reported fewer than half of teachers thought that the professional development they received was tailored to their development needs or teaching context.

Yet, teachers crave more learning opportunities. Recently Education Week reported, “In a nationwide poll of K-12 teachers conducted by the Education Week Research Center, 77 percent said they were familiar or very familiar with growth mindset, but 85 percent said they wanted more professional development in the area.”

Anecdotally, many of the professionals I meet in my work at CT3 who left the teaching profession did so not because of school leadership, students or salary but rather from not feeling supported in the classroom and instead, isolated. They left the classroom because they felt they could do better if only somebody would show them how. Some even thought that those with more training could do better.

How do we offer teachers professional development that is customized to their needs without spending a fortune? Are we throwing good money after bad increasing professional development dollars to make teachers happy even if they are not improving? If school leaders cut professional development, won’t teachers feel even less supported? What’s the answer here?

At CT3, we would argue that professional development still has great value, but most of it lacks a lever, a means of implementation from presentation to practice. Professional development must be measurable and sustainable, but flexible to work for every educator. Valuable professional development experiences go beyond the “what” of professional development and focus on the “how” to transform the lives of students.

One of the most impactful professional development programs CT3 offers is Real Time Teacher Coaching®. In this program, CT3 associates come into a school to train a cadre of school or district-based coaches. These coaches guide a process that helps the individual teacher focus on what he or she perceives as an area of development. The coach delivers feedback at the point of instruction, and the teacher has the opportunity to shift their practice in the moment. Student engagement can be evaluated, as can that teacher’s improvement. Teachers have access to their coach during the year, thereby receiving guidance and support. It’s immediate, measurable, customizable and sustainable since the coaches are school-based employees.

At CT3, we have worked in more than 350 schools across America to improve school culture, and help teachers be more effective at teaching and relationship-building with their students. We recognize that there are many other organizations like ours to offer strong professional development programs that, like Real Time Teacher Coaching®, are proven to be effective. The following are hallmarks of professional development (PD) that focus on the “how” rather than the “what” of teaching:

PD needs to be consistent. We learn by repetition.

It is nearly impossible to get real, lasting results from one-time sessions or meetings. Even an external partner who visits the school a few times throughout the year is likely delivering feedback too infrequently. We need to hear feedback on a daily or weekly basis.

PD needs to be relationship-based. We listen better when we respect who’s talking.

The best professional development employs a “train the trainer” model. Whether it be a teacher leader, administrator or school or district coach, we train those who have the relationships with the school community. This also helps cultivate leadership and increases the impact of your most successful educators.

PD needs to be active and immediate. We learn by doing.

How do we, as educators, implement best practices beyond simply “telling” and “presenting”? Coaches need to deliver in-the-moment feedback during class. Educators have told us that this changes their practice more than receiving feedback hours or days later. This way, teachers can change course immediately and see the results in their students’ engagement.

PD needs to be measurable. We grow with metrics.

After a professional development opportunity, how we know that our classrooms are improving? School or district-based coaches need to measure classroom engagement growth with tools, rubrics and data systems. Our associates explain and demonstrate how to conduct baseline observations and reflective discussions with teachers, how to coach succinctly and efficiently, and how to transform teachers’ classrooms. It is also important to measure the proficiency of those coaches to ensure the school’s investment has a long-term positive impact!

PD needs to be a group effort. We need schoolwide support.

Too often, professional development sessions are just geared toward teachers, coaches or leaders separately. For any coaching system to work, administration and leadership need to commit to making it a priority. Only then can a culture of giving and receiving feedback become a norm and prevent rifts in communication and implementation. Those delivering professional development should debrief with school leadership about their investment to determine how well their teachers are implementing this in the classroom, how often they’re being coached and what further support coaches may need.

Professional development should be a positive experience, even if some feedback may be negative. The right kind of training should empower and excite everyone to embrace and incorporate growth mindset into their practice. When educators guide their own professional development, they are ready to listen in a safe space and engage in a reflective process. The right training can completely change a school and transform districts. I have seen it firsthand in my work at CT3.

In my experience, teachers feel a sense of urgency and want help improving as soon as possible. They want to be highly impactful and are dedicated to supporting their students. The professionals I know don’t want to leave the classroom. With the right kind of professional development, they won’t have to.


TNTP, “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development,” August 4, 2015, accessed October 31, 2016.

Evie Blad, “Teachers Seize On ‘Growth Mindset,’ But Crave More Training,” Education Week, September 21, 2016, accessed October 31, 2016.

By William Sprankles, CT3 Associate

William is an innovator with a remarkable journey in urban education. He has a dynamic background in which he experienced the strategic change process as teacher, coach, and administrator. He has served as a teacher and leader at a New Concept/Turnaround school in Cincinnati, OH, which was the first of any public school in Ohio to earn consecutive Excellent Ratings with over 90% of students from minority and poverty-based households. He also served as Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at a 6–12 Secondary Campus with over 3,000 students, which is notably Ohio’s most diverse public school. He proudly led de-tracking and desegregation efforts of students in the mainstream curriculum, resulting in a 98% graduation rate for all students and multiple Excellent Ratings in the State of Ohio.
Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, classroom management strategies, and building relationships with students and their families, and properly addressing important issues in the classroom and school.
Category: Change, Coaching, Teaching