Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


College of Education and Human Services


Teacher Education and Teacher Development

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Michele Knobel

Committee Member

Emily Klein

Committee Member

Jeremy Price


This qualitative study was prompted by the current climate of teacher accountability and educational reform efforts focused on teacher quality and effectiveness in the U.S. Initiatives, at both the national and state levels, reflect top-down professional development policies that tend to prioritize one-size-fits-all approaches to teacher development and ultimately serve to deprofessionalize teachers. As a result, little attention has been paid to understanding teachers’ professional learning in a grassroots sense. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine how a group of elementary school teachers of literacy engaged collectively in grassroots professional learning in the context of top-down professional development regulations.

Building off the literature on grassroots social and economic development theories and grassroots movements, grassroots professional learning emphasizes highly contextualized and collaborative forms of professional learning that are embedded in teachers’ everyday practice and can be understood as operating at the most grounded level of a school organization in relation to administrators and policy makers. Social learning theory framed my study, and key concepts like grassroots, distributed leadership, and teacher agency offered different vantage points on a group of teachers’ professional learning processes and practices. Participants included an already-in-place group of four elementary school teachers who engaged in collective professional learning with each other. Data were collected using semi-structured interviews as well as teacher-created documents and audio recordings of group get-togethers. Iterative coding methods were used to generate categories and themes.

Four findings about grassroots professional learning emerged from my analysis. Putting down our roots focused on how this group of teachers developed, navigated, and nurtured their relationships with each other. Coming (and staying) together focused on the well-being of the group itself. Getting messy with our learning described the interplay between the individual and the group in terms of the learning the teachers engaged in jointly and as individuals. Being savvy about institutional structures and processes captured how teachers in this group maximized their own learning within—and even because of—these constraints.

My study contributed a usefully messy and nuanced characterization of professional learning that is grounded in teachers’ day-to-day responsibilities, practices, and personal relationships. Given that the findings of this study highlighted the context-specific and highly personal dimensions of teachers’ learning, grassroots learning should not be considered a prescription for organic professional learning in schools. Rather, informally recognizing and supporting teachers’ homegrown and effective professional learning is an important step in pushing back against systems and policies that measure professional development in more standardized ways

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