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The importance of professional learning for teachers

28 September 2022

Professional learning for teachers is often encouraged by educational leaders. It’s also required by professional standards. But what exactly is it and how important is it to get some?

In this guide to professional learning for teachers, we’ll answer those questions, as well as explaining the personal and professional benefits. You’ll also find a blueprint to key types of professional learning, and where you can find some free resources to get you started.

In fact, reading this article is an act of professional learning in itself. So, let’s take a deep dive into the importance of professional learning for teachers.

What is professional learning for teachers?

Professional learning is one of the Australian professional standards for teachers that applies to all career stages. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) outlines the areas of focus in this standard as:

  • Identify and plan professional learning needs
  • Engage in professional learning and improve practice
  • Engage with colleagues and improve practice; and
  • Apply professional learning and improve student learning.

While these guidelines provide a technical answer to the question, ‘what is professional learning for teachers?’, they don’t really provide much detail about what teacher professional learning opportunities actually looks like.

Professor David Lynch is the Course Coordinator of the Master of Education at SCU Online and he points out that professional learning is not necessarily professional development.

“Professional development, which has a long history in schools, is education systems centric, in that it seeks to orientate the teacher to the system’s current view of the world, orientating them to sets of understandings and procedures to ensure adherence to a prevailing policy position,” says Professor Lynch.

In contrast, professional learning is driven by the teacher on a personal level. It’s about seeking out opportunities that satisfy your evolving needs and help you reach your goals as an educator.

“Professional learning recognises the key role played by the teacher in the school improvement equation and firmly seeks to enable each individual teacher to deal with the dynamic nature of their teaching and classroom work and to set them on a course of continuous professional growth,” says Professor Lynch.

SCU’s online Master of Education is one example of professional learning. An even better example is the different specialisations within this postgraduate qualification that align more closely to your professional objectives. You can also choose a Master of Education with a specialisation in educational leadership, educational wellbeing or educational inclusion and diversity.

Why is professional learning important for teachers?

There’s no doubt that professional learning is important for registered teachers because it helps them to meet the standards set out by AITSL. But the real impact of professional learning can be measured in so many other ways.

The easiest way to answer the question, ‘why is professional learning important for teachers?’ is to put it directly to a teacher.

Danielle Harris is a graduate of SCU’s Master of Education with a specialisation in Educational Leadership. For Harris the impact has been enormous.

“I’ve gained a greater understanding of Educational Leadership and the theories behind it, which has enabled me to become a better leader in my current educational institution,” says Harris.

“It’s also opened up other leadership opportunities.”

Professional Learning is important for teachers because it provides professional benefits as well as personal benefits.

Professional benefits

Just like Harris, Aleksandr Taylor-Gough has reaped the professional benefits of professional learning.

Taylor-Gough is the Principal at Drayton State School in Toowoomba where he leads a team of around 50 staff. He’s also worked outside the school leader’s role as Principal Advisor for the Department of Education and Training, working with teachers, principals, and department leaders to improve their capability and capacity.

It may have been Taylor-Gough’s memory of his high school taking him from a shy, timid year 8 student to a confident member of the community that encouraged him to pursue a Master of Education with a specialisation in educational wellbeing.

“I’ve found multiple links to my current role, along with my substantive position of Principal at a Queensland state school,” says Taylor-Gough.

“Connecting elements of wellbeing, diverse learners and leadership experiences to schools is important – and gaining additional skills in how to improve student outcomes has also been very relevant.”

Professional learning and development in education can help develop transferrable skills that deliver professional benefits to teachers at any stage in their career.

A few years ago in the Netherlands, there was a national reform in secondary education with the introduction of a new pedagogy. Through this change, researchers followed the progress of a 55-year-old teacher, Nicole, who had been teaching 22 years.

In the first year of the new pedagogy, without professional learning, Nicole struggled, and her students were de-motivated. In the second year, with professional learning, she was able to change her relationship with the new pedagogy, which improved her performance in the classroom, even winning the praise of her students.

When the researchers checked on Nicole two years later, they found a teacher dedicated to professional learning. In fact, she was actively taking steps to transform her workplace into a learning environment.

Personal benefits

Teachers are expected to demonstrate a variety of teaching competencies which are measured when applying for jobs and promotions, just like any other industry.

However, researchers have also found that a range of personal qualities such as creativity, trust, and flexibility can also be excellent measures of good teachers.

These personal qualities, along with courage, sensitivity and decisiveness can all be enhanced with professional learning.

Multi-level learning is a theory of learning that uses the idea of an onion with those personal qualities sitting in the inner layers of identity and mission, while the outer layers relate to your competencies, behaviours, and environment.

The idea of multi-level learning is to connect the outer layers of the onion with the inner layers of the onion. Through professional learning you increase the outer layer competencies, which stimulates the inner layers of core values, improving your abilities as a teacher from the inside out.

Similar results can also be achieved through reflective practice, which is also a key element in professional learning. In particular, the Educational Wellbeing specialisation of SCU’s online Master of Education focuses on the importance of reflective practice in supporting student wellbeing in difficult times.

Professional learning is an opportunity to take a break from our day-to-day – to take a moment to reflect on teaching practice, providing an opportunity to bring our core qualities into our daily practice.

“The professional learning concept is thus concerned with increasing the teacher’s agency in classroom teaching and learning process, motivating, and positioning them to deal more effectively with their student charges,” says Professor Lynch.

The flow-on effect of bringing out our core qualities such as fairness, kindness, honesty, and love is that they enhance transferable skills that deliver personal benefits far beyond the classroom.

Male teacher with group of students huddled around a laptop

What can I learn during professional learning?

Professional learning in education can align with your goals and passions. It’s really only limited by your imagination.

Jessica Nelson is a Health and Physical Education Teacher in Canberra who is passionate about wellbeing and pursues professional learning that supports this interest.

After completing her Bachelor of Secondary Education, Nelson went on to complete a Graduate Certificate in Youth Mental Health. Taking advantage of the universal possibilities with online learning, Nelson has also completed online courses in positive psychology through a university in the United States.

When she was ready for her Master of Education, Nelson chose SCU’s online course with a specialisation in Educational Wellbeing to align with her area of focus.

“The units specific to wellbeing were my favourite units,” says Nelson.

“The educational leadership with regards to wellbeing was very engaging due to its informative content and high level of relevancy with what is currently happening within schools around Australia.”

While professional development is usually prescribed for you, professional learning is instigated by you. That puts you in the driver’s seat for choosing what you can learn.

Professional learning resources for teachers

One of the greatest professional learning resources for teachers is other teachers. For early career teachers, the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers recommend seeking advice from colleagues to identify and plan professional learning activities.

Professional learning modules with accreditation are also available from a range of providers through webinars, face-to-face, and online courses.

The AITSL website provides a wide range of professional learning guides that can help you maximise your professional learning experience.

Education Services Australia offers a broad selection of short professional learning courses that can help you discover your passion.

The Australian Academy of Science also hosts a library of professional learning resources through its Science By Doing website.

And of course, SCU’s online Master of Education is a professional learning program for teachers with specialisations in the areas of education that matter to you.

Why Study Education with SCU Online?

SCU knows teachers. As an educational institution, we were established as a teachers’ college in the 1970s before transforming to a university in 1994. In that time, we’ve had over 55,000 students from diverse backgrounds successfully graduate.

As experts in teaching, we know that the student comes first, and we practice what we preach. Education is not about teachers giving knowledge to students, it’s about teachers providing opportunities for students to learn.

At SCU, we put a lot of effort into creating and delivering high-quality learning experiences that are relevant for today’s teaching environment and ready for tomorrow’s educational challenges.

Here’s three more reasons why study with SCU Online is a good option for you – as well as your student’s learning outcomes.

Study on your own terms

SCU’s online Master of Education is a 100 per cent online course, which means you can study in your own time, in your own way, on your own terms.

When Aleasa Brink embarked on her online Master of Education she was Principal of a regional primary school and mother of a toddler. An average day for Brink began with a peek at our online system on her phone to develop a mental priority list for the day – while still snuggled in bed.

Brink was able to take advantage of occasional half-hour breaks in her workday, when they arose, to catch up on reading and other online coursework. The bulk of her studies were completed on a laptop in the evening.

“This degree provides me with great synergy between my work and family life, and complements what I am doing professionally at school,” says Brink.

We recommend setting goals and using lists to track productivity so you can fit study into your life seamlessly. To make that easier and improve your chance of success, we’ve created a learning environment that’s designed for online.

Learning designed for online

If you’re new to online learning, or if you’ve had a disappointing online learning experience in the past, you’ll be pleased to hear that SCU’s online courses are specifically designed for online.

We have learning designers working with academics to transform educational information into course content that will deliver the best results online.

You can expect short, sharp videos along with text that’s easy to read on screen and a variety of ways to connect with course facilitators and other students.

Matthew Scott was teaching at a school on the border of Victoria and NSW while he worked through his Master of Education with an Education Wellbeing specialisation. If that relatively remote location wasn’t enough of a test of our online learning platform, Scott took the sentiment of studying anywhere, anytime, and online just one step further.

“I can virtually study from anywhere and in my own time. I even completed an assignment from Cambodia in my school holidays, while I was overseas undertaking volunteer teaching work,” says Scott.

Early exit options

In the same way that the most prepared teaching plan can quickly fly out the window shortly after you step into a classroom to teach it, we understand that life can derail our intentions to study alarmingly quickly.

So, we’ve come up with some early exit options to help you maximise your study.

Contained within our Master of Education are the four units that make up a Graduate Certificate of Education. What that means is, if your circumstances change when you’ve completed four units of your masters, you can tap out with a graduate certificate.

Alternatively, if you feel you’re only able to take on a graduate certificate at this stage, you can come back later and complete the other four units that make up the Master of Education.

Most importantly, our graduate certificates align with the specialisations in our Master of Education. So, you can choose from a Graduate Certificate in Education (General), Educational Wellbeing, or Educational Inclusion and Diversity.

Learn more about our online Master of Education today.