Emma Ahmed Learning Coach, American International School Lagos, Nigeria
Fanny Passeport Education Consultant , No Borders Learning

Emma Ahmed and Fanny Passeport look at ways that schools can rethink their Professional Development (PD) process to align with the school values, empower teachers and create effective positive outcomes.

From 'buy-in' to co-owning: PD without a carrot or a stick

Stephanie reluctantly walks into yet another staff PD on phonics, her heart sinking as she sees the PowerPoint attached to the calendar invite. She knows that her administrators are trying their best to accommodate all of the faculty and align with the school’s strategic plan, but she sighs to herself as she settles down to listen to someone explain this important area of practice, wishing she was able to explore her passion for how gross motor skills relate to pre-writing. She leaves the session frustrated that her school has a focus on student agency, but there is little opportunity for teacher agency.

Are we really aligning our values?

If we truly believe in the value of agency, it should extend to all stakeholders and not just be something that applies to students.

In connection with our shifts about student learning, agency has become an increasingly necessary part of our learning ecosystems. Student agency “includes a capacity for self-efficacy but also requires the intentional forethought to set a course of action and adjust it as needed to fulfill one’s goal” (Bandura, 2001, as cited in Silver & Stafford, 2017, p. 69). Klemenčič et al. (2015) also assert students are intrinsically agentic. Using an agentic approach connects to and extends our ideas about student engagement, as students who have a voice are seven times more likely to be motivated to learn (QISVA, 2016, p. 6).

However, this infrequently makes the shift into practices for teacher professional development, despite research findings that teachers who have a voice in school decision-making are twice as likely to work hard to reach their goals (QISVA, 2016, p. 6). If we truly believe in the value of agency, it should extend to all stakeholders and not just be something that applies to students.

Part of the hidden curriculum?

Students pay a lot of attention to how teachers act beyond the classroom and what the environment indirectly says about teacher agency

We don’t want the focus of a PD to be the source of corridor conversations that mention this is ‘yet another poster on the wall for the accreditation evaluators’ or ‘we talk about agency for students but teachers have no voice!’. What we want is to live up to our values and align the school’s guiding statements into intentional PD design that promotes agency for teachers because when teachers feel they don’t have a voice, the situation cascades down to the classroom. We know that teachers’ perceived self-efficacy translates into successful classrooms (Bandura, 1982). So we want to pay attention to how PD design is received by teachers, as this is part of the unintended or hidden curriculum; the type of curriculum that is argued most impacts student learning (Alsubaie, 2015). Students pay a lot of attention to how teachers act beyond the classroom and what the environment indirectly says about teacher agency (Glatthorn, 2020, p. 84). If this collateral learning - as Dewey (1938) puts it - plays a crucial role in shaping a school’s culture, we need to examine PD practices to realign to the essence of our vision, mission and core values.

The solution: Teachers need for autonomy

For teachers to drive their own professional learning, they need to be trusted and regain autonomy

The ways we design learning and professional learning makes a difference. PD that is forced, even if it is seen as ‘needed,’ does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes until there is autonomy, in the same way that learning does not necessarily occur just because teaching has happened.

When it comes to adult learning, Powell & Kusuma-Powell (2015) promote self-supervision, founded on the principles of self-directedness. They say that for teachers to drive their own professional learning, they need to be trusted and regain autonomy. They need to be able to make choices about their learning - within guidelines. When we commit to this principle, we acknowledge the importance of teachers' contributions and it becomes part of a school’s culture and processes to ensure we honour teachers’ agency. This causes us to become accountable in our actions. When leaders are vulnerable enough to make this commitment visible, it already sets the tone for trust and acts as a model of autonomy-supportive behaviours.

When there is too much emphasis on an external locus of control, such as goals generated by administrators, teachers may feel contrived and disengaged unless they already strongly believe in the rationale associated with the goal. While teacher intrinsic motivation is the most important predictor of student engagement (Demir, 2011), extrinsic motivation can lead to positive results when teachers are able to integrate it into their value system (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

If schools truly value students releasing their agency, we need to model this with our teachers and create the conditions under which they are most likely to integrate institutional goals as their own, as well as receive support to empower themselves in pursuing their own inquiries. We would like to advocate for professional development to move away from extrinsic goals decided by others to ‘better’ teachers, especially the ones focused on areas of needs only, to aspirational goals that allow teacher autonomy focusing on choice, value and volition. Such a shift can be achieved by using the Self-Determination Theory.

The contribution of the Self-Determination Theory to our inquiry

Through the Self-Determination Theory, Deci & Ryan (1985, 2018) propose that there are three universal essential needs we need to satisfy in order to be intrinsically motivated: relatedness, competence and autonomy. 

  • Relatedness is the sense of belonging, interconnectedness, of feeling cared for and caring for others.
  • Competence is similar to self-efficacy. It is the sense that we can be successful when learning is made accessible.
  • Autonomy is the sense that we act volitionally and find value in what we do and how we act.

When those needs are satisfied, we thrive. When they aren’t, it negatively impacts our performance and wellness. In the context of PD, supporting the satisfaction of those needs within the whole system allows for optimal outcomes.

As schools, we can cultivate the conditions for teachers to have high quality motivation about their professional learning by making the shift from approaching PD as a deficit model or a gap to be filled towards a strengths-based or aspirational approach. When schools have generic PD policies, it can feel like a hidden agenda. In relation to Self-Determination Theory, one-size-fits-all PD that does not foster trust or support autonomy can have detrimental effects. As Powell & Kusuma-Powell (2015) state, schools need to adopt a clear and coherent learning definition that embraces different perspectives, including needs but also wants, ambitions and aspirations.

How does this look in practice?

It is easy to agree with this idea and advocate for it, yet it is harder to change habits and implement the new paradigm. Leaders can intentionally create an environment that balances structure and dialogue and that invites agentic professional learning. Let’s go back to Stephanie’s experience and consider how it could be different when we apply this theory.


Even when schools have outstanding material and financial resources for PD, the most valuable resource is the human resource. Schools that are intentionally inviting in all the aspects of the system - by prioritizing wellbeing and developing strong relationships and interconnectedness - create a trusting environment where words and actions are more about ECO than EGO (Scharmer, 2016). The underlying exemplary practice to promote here is relationship building between administrators and teachers. Listening actively with the intention to understand is a way for leaders to co-sense and co-design learning ecosystems to create the conditions where teachers feel heard, understood, recognized and valued.

When we invest in building a community of learners, we encourage peer observation, sharing practices and engage in group and inter-group collaborations to find common interests. Such habits of informal and low-stakes exchange of ideas, questions and practices lay the groundwork for relatedness. What if the school environment was conducive to sharing ideas and goals frequently, and acknowledged teachers’ inquiries? By the time a PD comes up, the administrators and teachers are already aware that Stephanie would have a lot to share about phonics and could even lead part of the PD. They could facilitate her collaboration with interested participants into the inquiry process about pre-reading skills. This would not only benefit Stephanie but also spark others’ interest and drive collective action.


If we focus on needs only, we never feel competent. We also need to elevate teacher strengths and acknowledge their expertise. Oftentimes, teachers suffer from ‘impostor syndrome’ or when they admit a strength, they may attribute success to external factors such as luck, or a perceived ability instead of acknowledging their inner growth power. When we support teacher competency, we strive to develop self-awareness and reflective skills (for example by practising mindfulness or engaging in journaling) in order to reveal and celebrate what everyone has to offer. Leaders can encourage this by practicing vulnerability and developing emotional intelligence themselves and by making teachers' strengths visible, recognizing them not through praise (that reinforces judgment and comparison) but by making evidence visible and tangible. During meetings or coaching circles, teachers can teach others what they know and are proud of. They can share classroom anecdotes and stories - especially ones that include mistakes and iterations. This further promotes the non-linear process of developing competency, through modeling risk-taking and resilience. When engaged in PD, we also need to ensure that everyone can feel successful by scaffolding learning, offering various modalities for learning and remaining flexible.

Imagine that the phonics PD allowed for teachers to express their needs and aspirations about the topics beforehand. During the PD, various sub-topics of ‘phonics’ could be tackled, through various modalities that allow teachers to share what they already know, build upon it and have flexibility to pursue their inquiry (through ‘unconferences’ or peer-coaching for instance). While some teachers might benefit from a direct approach to learning about phonics, others might prefer to dive into specific needs associated with phonics. Greater flexibility celebrates diversity, includes all learners and is responsive and scaffolded to needs and wants.


When we do not leave space for autonomy, we feel coerced or manipulated and this negatively impacts the experience and outcome. We want to move away from ‘busy work’, towards a personalized PD experience. A way to develop student autonomy is to know their interests and try to connect them to our curriculum and instructional practices. Similarly, we could find out about teachers’ interests, values and goals and draw upon them as we plan PD sessions. The rationale and big idea can deliberately tap into teachers' curiosity thus fostering intrinsic motivation.

It would make a difference for Stephanie to have an opportunity to express her ideas about how pre-reading motor skills relate to phonics and to have choices in learning about this topic. When teachers choose sessions volitionally and there is scope for engaging in ‘free inquiry’ time, teachers feel in control of their own learning and are more likely to learn at a deeper and more personal level. The internal locus of control takes over and Stephanie can connect to the general purpose of the PD to her specific goal (zooming in and out herself, modeling flexibility), choose the learning modalities and strategies (inquiring with others through discussions, engaging in a book study or journaling…) and explore her interests and passions. A culture where teachers feel empowered and trusted to drive their own learning - within a structure - generates positive impacts across the system. An example of autonomy supportive structures may include the use of a pre and post self-assessment that encourage teachers to pause and reflect to start off the PD day intentionally and follow up by examining their learning gain based on their initial assessment. A few weeks later, there could be further questions to explore and reflect upon. In order to truly satisfy autonomy, those questionnaires need to remain personal. School strategic goal success can be measured by other means than tracking and hovering on teachers' perception of their own growth and rather focus on evidence.


When a PD goal is extrinsic, such as those decided by an administrator, the likelihood for the teacher to internalise it and appropriate it is unpredictable. However, when we intentionally create the conditions that support teachers’ intrinsic motivation, their students learn at a deeper level. They also have an increased enjoyment for learning and are more confident and competent. (Deci & Ryan, 2018). When schools move beyond extrinsic goals and needs, to intrinsic goals and strengths, teachers have opportunities to feel valued, develop a sense of self-efficacy and gain control over their own learning (connecting to the why, what and how).

Oftentimes PD designers are trying to gain ‘buy-in’ from teachers when planning and delivering PD. This approach implies that teachers need to ‘buy’ something, that it may cost them but we know that when humans are inherently driven, learning is a free flow. The Self-Determination Theory has been around for decades; it is simple but not simplistic, empirical but also practical. It gives us a framework to move away from ‘buy-in’ (that can be perceived as manipulative) towards co-owning (that implies a genuine desire to build a healthy learning culture).

In order to grow such culture, we deliberately create the conditions for the three needs to be met:

  • We are intentionally inviting, caring and valuing everyone (relatedness).
  • We are intentionally designing learning so that everyone can feel capable and successful (competence).
  • We intentionally listen to all voices (including the divergent ones), provide choices, connect institutional goals to teachers' inquiries and develop reflective practices (autonomy).

We want PD to be meaningful, relevant and authentic and to spark innovation. When we are dedicated to transforming schools, we need to remember that changing a system involves changing ourselves. A first step might be to examine ourselves as an influencing part of the system and consciously self-monitor and self-modify so that when we transfer our learning into the area of PD, it causes a ripple effect.

Takeaway questions

As a reflective practitioner, where might be my areas of growth and strengths in relation to the Self-Determination Theory?

What might I pay more attention to and elevate to re-align?

Do we always need to grow?

Is growth an accumulation of ‘more’ or doing more with less, including heightening awareness and continuous reflection?


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