Co-creational Professional Development: Not Just Another Fad for Disempowered Employees
When disempowered employees, like part-time professors, are told they need professional development, it often creates negative emotions that leadership does not address. To disempowered employees, professional development commonly seems like a time investment that does not address day-to-day job challenges.
My research aimed to find opportunities to use shared leadership to empower systemically disempowered employees. I chose part-time professors as the subset for the study as they are historically and systematically disempowered in their workplace. Co-creational professional development presents a unique opportunity for disempowered employees to have a stake in their learning while opening doors to leadership opportunities in a closed system.
This article presents the findings of a three-year action research project that created and tested a co-creational professional development framework (Emerson-Young, 2022). The study included 260 part-time professors in the California community college system, representing 17 institutions.
Professional development and the paradox it creates for leaders and disempowered employees
On one side, you have disempowered employees who don’t buy into professional development; on the other, you have leaders who need what professional development promises. This creates a paradox as leaders and learners often don’t align.
Leaders have many challenges with assessing professional development results as they often need to know whether their attempts at professional development are working. Many continue for years, even decades, to promote learning that has little to no effect. When they ask participants for feedback, getting honest data on whether the program increased their employee’s knowledge is a challenge as many employees don’t want to speak out. Leaders may also not know how to adjust professional development to solve internal problems.
Paradoxically, the people who can help solve the leaders’ problems with professional development are also the people they think need it. Leaders consistently ignore this fact as they are in positions of power and often do not want to share the power they have obtained (Green, 2007). When institutional norms are present, as they are in educational institutions, there are structural power dynamics in play. Those in leadership positions primarily retain decision-making power, and these people tend to feel they have rightfully earned it, so why share?
The paradox deepens as part-time professors are seen by administrators as temporary or less capable of creating inter- and-intradepartmental programs that affect the departments they work in. Because of this, part-time professors seldom have a say in departmental and institutional decision-making that affects them.
Leaders need to think about their employees the right way. Part-time professors have the ability and knowledge to inform leaders about what topics professional development should address in and the best time and duration for delivering the learning.
The need for administrators to look at their biases and better understand their employees
To be successful, administrators need to better understand the people they are trying to teach. Low pay and job instability loom in the background for many disempowered employees. Part-time professors report working many additional unpaid hours to meet job responsibilities; they juggle such complex tasks as lecturing, grading, curriculum creation, and student communications while balancing feelings of instability about their job (Feldman & Turnley, 2004).
Once administrators better understand their employees, they must look at their biases. Why not let others share in the power? What stops administrators if their goal is to improve their department, improve student learning experiences, and have their employees learn authentically, passionately, and collaboratively? When disempowered employees are given the power to make decisions, they become authentic learners who feel welcomed to the table (Matherson & Windle, 2017). When they feel their leaders have faith in them, they choose topics that align with the problems they experience and do so without fear. Then something amazing happens: learning becomes more about growing. Who better to solve internal organizational issues than those experiencing them? Administrators need to have faith in their employees.
Providing a flexible, adjustable framework
Once bias and egos are checked, then it is time to begin planning. Co-creation can take many forms, but researchers have found ways to make shared leadership, namely co-creation, more successful. When it comes to co-creation in professional development, I suggest providing a loose framework so the participants have a guide to follow. Employees have the knowledge to identify problems or innovations they would like to address. Once they choose a topic, the group can begin to plan their professional development meetings. The proposed co-creational professional development framework is cyclical and includes three main components: inspiration, reflection, and co-creation (Figure 1).
Planning and inspiration
To achieve inspiration, the group chooses a topic for the professional development course. The topic should pertain to an internal teaching problem or a teaching methodology. Once the group selects a topic, it should choose a presenter. This may take a bit of research. For example, the action research study conducted a professional development session on experiential learning. Professor Perry Parks of Michigan State University was selected an expert to present as he used experiential learning in his classroom.
Next, the group meets for the first session, where they learn from the presenter. Once the first session is over, the group takes time for reflection. Reflection is vital to learning and should have a planned time set aside for it as part of any professional development series. Reflection can be researching and writing about the topic, asking questions, and coming up with answers that are personal to each participant’s work life. Reflection is when the participants can bring in their culture and think of ways to connect their new learning with past ideas or actions. Reflection aids in breaking through barriers that may prevent them from using new learning,
Lastly, the group plans and conducts a final meeting. This meeting is meant for participants to discuss how to use their new learning, to co-create new ideas, and to support each other socially as peers. The co-creational professional development study found that speaking about ideas helped the participants solidify their newly learned thought processes.
Co-creational professional development is an ongoing process that has the potential to bring more inclusivity to disenfranchised workers and deepen connections with other employees. It gives a voice to those with the knowledge and ability to co-design education for themselves which encourages happiness and belonging which will inherently bring positive changes on their campuses. When part-time professors are given the power in their professional development, they can learn from each other on how to build and implement meaningful professional development which naturally creates leadership positions. The next step is creating programs that support pay for professional development. Horn & Goldstein (2018) have found that giving teachers a professional development budget for the programs of their choice is the first step in giving the teachers the ability to make professional development decisions. They found that when teachers get a budget as opposed to leadership making the budgetary decisions for professional development, the teachers are further empowered.
Emerson-Young, H. (2022). Co-creational professional development that encourages preparedness and empowerment in part-time professors in the California Community College System (Publication No. 2754018055) [Doctoral dissertation, Northeastern University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Feldman, D. C., & Turnley, W. H. (2004). Contingent employment in academic careers. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(2), 284–307. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2002.11.003
Horn, M. B., & Goldstein, M. (2018). Putting school budgets in teachers’ hands: What if end-users in the classroom made purchasing decisions? Education Next, 18(4), 82–83. https://www.educationnext.org/putting-school-budgets-in-teachers-hands-end-users-classroom-purchasing-decisions
Matherson, L., & Windle, T. M. (2017). What do teachers want from their professional development? Four emerging themes. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 83(3), 28. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1929673568
Heather Emerson-Young, EdD, is a part-time professor and a global marketing strategist. She teaches at the University of Denver, Ocean County College, Youngstown State University, and Georgian Court University. Dr. Emerson-Young is a change agent who uses educational methodologies to create innovative curricula for students of all socioeconomical backgrounds and ethnicities.