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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue D ::: June 2002

Pathways to Change

A Summary of Findings from NCSALL's Staff Development Study

by Cristine Smith & Judy Hofer
Opportunities for continued learning are viewed as an essential part of any professional's development, whether doctor, lawyer, farmer, or teacher. Indeed, one expert in the educational field calls teaching "the learning profession," since effective teachers are continually studying and learning how to serve learners better (Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 1999). But why do some teachers get a lot from professional development, while others gain very little?

In our multiyear study of 100 New England adult basic education (ABE) teachers, we found great variation in the way teachers change after participating in professional development. Relatively few experienced major transformation, manifested as putting new ideas into action in a substantial way; likewise, relatively few experienced no change at all. Most teachers changed a small to moderate amount, some learning new knowledge and concepts, others applying new knowledge in the classroom. Teachers' pathways to change are neither simple nor linear, but complex and shaped by the interaction among who they are, what professional development event they attend, and how the programs and systems in which they work function.

In this article, we focus primarily on the individual factors that influenced how ABE teachers changed after participating in professional development activities. We present briefly the most important professional development, program, and system factors that explain teacher change. This does not mean, however, that we found that the individual factors are most important in explaining change; teachers are both shaped by and shape their programs, just as programs are also shaped by and shape the larger ABE system. When trying to understand what explains change, think of teachers as part of an ecosystem made up of the individual, the program, and the larger ABE system. Aspects of one affect all the others.

Who Teachers Are

Understanding the individual factors that influence teachers involves knowing something about their personal characteristics, educational backgrounds, attitudes, and motivation. Teachers who gained the most from professional development were those who were open to and felt a need to learn. These teachers came to the professional development with a willingness to explore their own beliefs and actions as teachers and were not satisfied with just adding new concepts and techniques to their existing practice. They wanted their actions in their classroom and programs to match and reflect their evolving ideas about good teaching. They were able to initiate a back and forth process between their thoughts and actions to synchronize the two.

After participating in professional development, Elizabeth, for example, tried several new techniques to help learners clarify their individual goals. (Pseudonyms have been used throughout the article.) The techniques helped, but she was not satisfied, because she held a competing belief that the class as a whole also needed direction. Elizabeth struggled with creating curriculum for the class that took into consideration learners' individual needs. Meg also tried a new technique, asking students about the forces supporting and hindering their persistence as learners. Listening to them, she realized she was not as learner-centered as she thought she was and wanted to be. To bring her actions into alignment with her new understanding of learners' needs, she persuaded her director to allow her to change the class schedule to fit with learners' requests. She also helped the students conduct a survey about preferred class scheduling for the upcoming semester. By experimenting with developing curriculum more centered on the needs of students, she raised another series of questions: How to incorporate basic skills instruction into her more project-based approach to instruction? One year after participating in professional development on learner persistence, Meg could be described as still being in the thick of learning from the experience. Her "pathway" as a teacher has been profoundly altered.

Whereas both of these teachers were insistent and relatively skilled at bringing their actions into alignment with their beliefs about good teaching, we found that many teachers did not possess either the desire or this reflective skill. They had difficulty connecting their new thoughts and actions to a framework or theory about teaching and discerning the implications for future actions.

In-depth interviews with 18 teachers revealed that 10 attended the professional development offered by the study because of a strong desire to improve their teaching or an interest in the topic. The other eight attended primarily for other reasons. Two felt external pressure to attend: they were sent by their director or participated to fulfill certification requirements. As one teacher of General Education Development (GED) said, "[The program director] pushed me into it. I said, ŽAre you going to pay me? Sure, I'll go. What's the problem? I can go on a Friday.' If they're going to pay me to do it and I can benefit from it, sure÷.But I would have wanted to go to a writing workshop if one had been available."

Others - particularly four of the experienced teachers who had attended training and conferences over the years - were attracted more by the model of professional development than by the topic. Two teachers talked about their desire to participate in a national study and be part of an important effort in the field. Almost all the teachers expressed the desire to attend professional development in order to share and learn from other teachers and, to a lesser extent, to gain reassurance that they were doing a good job. New teachers - as well as more experienced teachers who seldom receive feedback on their teaching - viewed professional development as a chance to hear about other teachers' practices and to assess whether they were moving in the "right" direction. This was the view of an English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teacher, who said, "We're on our own÷ There's no support÷.Maybe that's why I gravitated towards the mentoring÷ I was so desperate for some kind of feedback! Am I doing a good job?"

Pressing needs, problems, or goals not directly related to the professional development topic motivated some participants to attend. For example, a teacher who was having difficulty with her director wanted advice on how to work with her colleague. The professional development activity provided an arena in which to confer with peers. And some teachers, usually new, were interested in learning any teaching techniques that they could use immediately in their classrooms.

Teachers did not always enter into professional development fully aware of their needs. Sometimes their perceptions of their needs evolved or gained more definition during the course of the professional development; sometimes needs that had been previously dismissed gained importance. These teachers typically found the professional development to be meaningful, providing them with insights they had not previously had or appreciated in the same way. Caroline, for example, attended a mentor teacher group. A new GED teacher, she recognized that her need to be treated with respect by her colleagues was, in fact, a legitimate desire. Having grown up poor, she often felt a greater sense of camaraderie with learners than with other staff. "Sometimes I relate to the learners maybe more than the teachers. Maybe that's some of my trouble," she said. By working with a mentor and the other teachers in her professional development group, Caroline learned that she did not have to take full responsibility for the problems she had experienced with her colleagues. In addition, she had the right to work in a more supportive environment.

Meg, the teacher who learned about her need to become learner-centered, also realized the importance of her need for improved working conditions. By making a connection between learner persistence (the topic of the professional development) and teacher persistence, she realized that until teachers' needs were better met, services to students would continue to suffer. "If the teacher's not motivated, then learners will not be. What we came to realize is that we need to do something to make sure the teacher is motivated. As teachers we are always looking toward making sure that learners' needs are met. I can't do that if my needs are not met." She advocated for improved working conditions for teachers both in her own program and throughout the state, successfully lobbying her program director to pay teachers to meet regularly to talk about teaching issues and conducting an informal survey of teachers' working conditions in other programs.

Given the wide range of reasons teachers have for participating in professional development, the goals of policymakers and staff developers responsible for offering professional development may not match the goals of the teachers who attend. The variety of motivation that brings people to any given professional development activity means that a wide variety of outcomes should be expected.

Background Characteristics

Three very specific background characteristics appeared to influence how teachers changed as a result of participating in professional development. Teachers who learned and did more to address learner persistence, after participating in the professional development, were more likely to be those who:

This does not mean that other types of teachers made no change, nor does it indicate anything about the quality of their teaching. However, in our sample, experienced teachers with more formal education (especially if they attended the activity for reasons other than a strong need to learn) do appear to be more settled. They seemed more likely than less educated or new teachers to enter the professional development with a high degree of confidence and satisfaction about their own teaching. We were surprised that teachers' educational levels emerged as such as strong factor in how they changed. It does, however, fit with the idea that those teachers who feel they really need to learn more about theory and practice of good teaching and learner success - those who are newer to teaching, newer to the field of ABE, and without as much formal education - would show more change in thinking and acting related to the topic of the professional development.

The Nature of the Staff Development

Another set of factors that emerged as important in understanding how teachers change relate, not surprisingly, to the professional development itself. It was surprising that the model of professional development in which the teacher participated - multi-session workshop, mentor teacher group, or practitioner research group - did not have as much impact on change as other factors. The greater the amount of time that teachers attended, for example, the more they learned and did on the topic of the professional development. The quality of the professional development also mattered. Both the teachers' own perception of the quality of the professional development, and the rating given to each professional development group by the researchers, were important. Skillful facilitation, good group dynamics, and a balance between adhering to the model and adapting activities to meet participants' needs and expectations characterized high-quality professional development groups. The higher the quality of the group, in the teacher's mind and according to a set of criteria, the more the teachers reported getting from their participation. Teachers' perception of low quality also played a role in whether or not they dropped out of the professional development before completing it, even in cases where the researchers rated the quality high, indicating that individual teachers assess professional development differently.

The Staff Development Study

Our research question was: How do practitioners change as a result of participating in one of three different models of professional development, and what are the most important factors - individual, professional development, program, and system - that influence (support or hinder) this change?

One hundred teachers from Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut participated in up to 18 hours of professional development in one of three models of professional development between July, 1998, and June, 1999. The three models were:

  • Multisession workshops: up to 16 teachers came together for three or four full-day group sessions, over a span of one to three months

  • MentorŮteacher groups: up to five teachers met for four group sessions over a span of four to six months, interspersed with two mentor observations of each teacher's classroom

  • Practitioner research groups: up to seven teachers met over a span of six months and conducted inquiry projects in their own classrooms or programs.

The professional development topic was learner motivation, retention, and persistence. Designed by the research team, the professional development was facilitated by experienced teachers or professional development professionals in each state. The objectives of the professional development were to help participants to:

  • learn more about the topic of learner motivation, retention, and persistence
  • be critically reflective about their work
  • try out new learning by taking action to address learner motivation in their classroom or program.

We measured change in terms of movement towards the objectives of the professional development offered by the study. We also took into account teachers' views about teaching and working in the field of ABE at the beginning of the study and at the end. When teachers named and took action based on concepts they learned related to the topic of the professional development (which, in this study, was learner persistence), we called it "change on the topic." When teachers felt that they gained in positive ways that were not directly related to the topic, such as by increasing their confidence, reducing their sense of isolation, or learning more about the field, we called it "change off the topic."

Each participant completed three questionnaires: the first before participating in the professional development, the second immediately after the professional development concluded, and the third one year later. The questionnaires asked about teachers' backgrounds; their program and teaching situation; amount and type of other professional development before, during, and after the NCSALL professional development in which they participated; their views about teaching; their thinking on the topic; and self-reports of action on and off the topic (as a learner, a teacher, a program member, and a member of the field). In addition, 18 participants (two from each model from each state) were selected randomly and interviewed before, immediately after, and one year after the professional development. Their classes were observed and their program directors interviewed. The 15 professional development groups were audiotaped and notes were taken as well.

Although differences between professional development models were not significant, those who participated in practitioner research groups demonstrated the most change overall, largely via change off the topic in areas such as increased awareness of the field, a greater appreciation for learning with other teachers, and knowledge of research. Practitioner research groups, however, also had the greatest percentage of dropouts (38 percent dropped out of practitioner research, compared to 14 percent from mentor teacher groups, and no dropouts from multisession workshops). Mentor teacher group participants seemed to learn and do more to address learner persistence, and slightly more teachers who had participated in this model put learning and action together in an integrated and substantial way.

Program and System Supports

A final set of factors that we identified as important in understanding teacher change is the programs and systems within which teachers work: their working conditions. We defined working conditions as access to resources, access to professional development and information, access to colleagues and director, access to decision-making, and access to a job with benefits. (See "The Working Conditions of ABE Teachers," by Smith et al., Focus on Basics, 4D, p. 1, 2001, for more information.) The working conditions that influenced teacher change the most include access to benefits, number of working hours, access to prep time, and freedom to construct their own curriculum. Teachers who received benefits such as medical insurance and vacation through their ABE jobs seemed to get more from the professional development than those who did not. To a lesser extent, working more hours a week and having prep time were also related to teachers' acquiring new knowledge and taking action as a result. While access to more paid staff development release time was not directly related to more teacher change, it was related to the number of hours teachers attended the professional development, and this was related to more change. Not surprisingly, being required to use a particular curriculum in the classroom limited teacher change; teachers who felt they were able to make changes in the goals, content, materials, or activities in their classrooms were better able to take action to address learner persistence. We also found that those who teach GED and define their main purpose as supporting students to pass the test as quickly as possible were the most bound to adhering closely to workbooks and the least likely to take actions that addressed the broader needs of learners.

Program structure plays a complex role. Teachers who had some voice in decision-making and who worked in programs that had not already implemented many of the strategies presented in the professional development seemed more able to advocate for and take action than teachers who had little voice in program decisions. For example, Debbie, an ESOL teacher who worked in a satellite site and rarely saw other teachers, was stymied by her inability to influence program practices. She wanted to start a learner "buddy" system for new learners, but after being turned down by her director when she asked to add Saturday classes to better accommodate student schedules, she never tried again to initiate such a system. In contrast, Erica, an ABE teacher working in a family literacy program with strong student involvement, was able not only to incorporate learner goal-setting into her instruction but also to work with other teachers in her program to explore how better goal identification could become part of the program-wide intake process.

Teachers in programs that were already implementing strategies presented in the professional development generally did not feel the need to initiate further change outside of their classrooms. We also found ample support in our study for the common-sense idea that teachers who had opportunities to talk or meet with other teachers in their programs also felt more supported to take action based on what they had learned. For example, attending professional development along with colleagues whose names she had barely known struck one ESOL teacher as powerful: "Having it [the professional development] all within the same program, that whatever program change we needed to do we could do as a group. I thought that was very significant÷ very positive for the program." We heard over and over again, however, that opportunities such as this were rare in many programs.


The most obvious conclusion is that all three models of professional development can support teacher change. However, the differences between teachers - their motivation for learning, background, program context, and reactions to the professional development - also means that one model will not suffice. One implication is that professional development systems should offer a variety of types of activities.

Our findings also indicate that what we know about serving adult learners also applies to teachers. Teachers' learning profiles are unique. Who they are, what they care about, what professional development they attend, and what program they come from all play a role in determining how much teachers will learn from professional development and what use they make of it when back in their classrooms and programs. Also, like adult learners, teachers sometimes recognize needs and goals in the process of learning, and these new insights affect their "pathway" to change.

Just as adult learners are helped by identifying short- and long-term goals (Comings et al., 1999), teachers need help in identifying needs. Both new and experienced teachers can use guidance to develop plans for professional development. These plans, in turn, can help professional development staff and program directors to organize activities that meet the paramount needs of teachers, thereby maximizing what teachers will gain from them.

Teachers need to be supported to learn how to do their jobs. Teachers need to be supported to attend professional development for as many hours as possible, and the professional development needs to be of high quality. Our research found that professional development does not need to be facilitated by college professors or adult education experts; teachers, with training and support, can run high-quality professional development for other teachers. On-site professional development activities are useful, too, especially when they provide teachers with role models or mentors from whom they can learn. Just as adult learners benefit from the support of other learners (Kegan et al., 2001), teachers greatly value and learn from colleagues. Teachers want feedback from colleagues and directors, especially when these individuals have knowledge of the craft of teaching. Regular feedback would reduce the isolation many teachers feel, reinforce what they are doing well, and help clarify their needs and goals as learners. Regular feedback also builds a program culture that takes seriously the expectation that learning is an essential aspect of teaching.

The presence in our study of teachers who expressed the desire to connect theory and practice, but did not know how to do so, leads us to think that professional development should provide direct instruction in it. We believe that models such as mentorŮteacher groups help teachers acquire these skills. They walk teachers through the process of thinking about a problem, taking action to address it, analyzing how it worked for learners, and reflecting on what this means for one's beliefs about teaching and learning.

Teachers care about their programs. They may make better use of what they learn in professional development when they have a chance to shape program policies and practices to serve learners better. This calls for program structures that allow teachers to share new ideas and strategies they have learned with both their fellow teachers and their administration.

Just as adult learners benefit from supports such as transportation, child care, and counseling, teachers who have supportive working conditions such as benefits, prep time, and paid professional development release time may find it easier to learn more and do more as a result of participating in professional development. Teachers might also benefit from the addition of activities, during professional development, that lead them to analyze how to increase their own supports, decrease hindrances, and realistically plan for next steps.


Acting upon our findings presents a challenge to the field of ABE. Resources will be needed to improve the quality of professional development, to enable teachers to attend for more hours, and to improve teachers' working conditions. Perhaps an equally important challenge for professional developers and program directors is how to support all teachers - no matter how experienced - to remain open to learning. 


Comings, J., Parrella, A., & Soricone, L. (1999). Persistence Among Adult Basic Education Students in Pre-GED Classes. NCSALL Reports #12. Boston, MA: NCSALL.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Sykes, G. (1999). Teaching as the Learning Profession: Handbook of Policy and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kegan, R. & The Adult Development Research Group (2001). Toward a New Pluralism in ABE/ESOL Classrooms: Teaching to Multiple "Cultures of Mind". NCSALL Reports #19a. Boston, MA: NCSALL.

 About the Authors

Cristine Smith, World Education, Boston, is Deputy Director of NCSALL, and directed this study of professional development. She coordinates NCSALL's dissemination activities and is a co-editor of the Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Judy Hofer is the Research Coordinator for NCSALL's study of professional development. She works for World Education in Massachusetts and the Coalition for Literacy in New Mexico and has been in the ABE field as a community-based educator, staff developer, and researcher for more than 10 years.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL