While leading the best possible professional development session for every teacher in the room is unlikely to ever happen, there are some ways we can help avoid professional development being a “waste of time.”
1. Be the change. Leaders of professional development seem to forget that they’re actually teaching, and that part of teaching is modeling the activity you hope to see adopted. A session devoted to equipping teachers to implement more collaborative learning that is presented via “death by PowerPoint” is an oxymoron, a term originating from a Greek word appropriately meaning “pointedly foolish.” As one teacher recently expressed it, “Why does the worst teaching often happen in sessions on how to improve teaching?” Why, indeed? Modeling is a powerful teaching technique. In addition to communicating that the suggested new approach promotes learning, demonstration taps into some of the brain’s natural learning systems:
This may be because demonstration actually encourages the brain to engage. Specialized neurons known as mirror neurons make practicing “in the head” possible…When a teacher repeatedly performs a sequence of steps, her students’ mirror neurons may enable their own preliminary practice of the same steps. In other words, as a teacher demonstrates a skill, students mentally rehearse it.1Leading professional development sessions that utilize the instructional techniques and approaches being recommended is more than a courtesy. It increases the likelihood that teachers will appreciate and understand the concepts being shared.
2. Listen. I have a tendency to get preoccupied with my preparation and forget that I’ll actually have people in the professional development session. Not just people but colleagues!
A few years ago, I was asked by another organization to lead a day of professional development for a large school district in the Northeast. I arrived early and began to prepare the room and my materials. The teacher whose classroom was being used as the meeting site was there when I arrived. She shared with me what had been going on at the school. Contract negotiations were underway and not going well; a strike was likely. She informed me that I would have representatives from both the union and administration sitting in for the day and that either or both may speak up at any time to contest any ideas I presented. After thinking of possible escape scenarios, I left the room and found a quiet place to think. I needed to redirect the focus of the group—at least as much as possible—or the day would be a waste.
As the teachers and union/administration reps came into the classroom, I asked them to think back to when they decided to become an educator and to jot down the most influential reasons for their choice. I opened the session sharing a brief account of my decision to become a teacher. I then had them do the same in small groups. As they recounted their original motivations for becoming educators, I could sense the atmosphere change. I mentally collected comments I overheard from the conversations and used them to summarize why we were now coming together to explore how we could do what we wanted to do even better. Surprisingly, there were no objections from either rep during the day. While it wasn’t an ideal day of professional development, it became more beneficial because I listened and had enough flexibility to adapt to the needs of my colleagues.
Though we’ve been invited to lead professional development, we do not have all the answers. Professional development involves merging new research findings with current personnel—i.e., bringing ideas and people together. One way I’ve tried to do more of this recently is to ask teachers if any of them have tried something similar to a new approach I’ve explained. If any have, I invite them to share their experience. This invites elaboration, a critical cognitive process for constructing understanding. If the teacher’s experience was positive, we discuss why the approach was successful. If the teacher’s experience was frustrating, we often find together the reason for it and develop a plan for structuring it better the next time. This give-and-take values everyone, respects the experience present in the session, and allows the leader to be a colleague rather than an aloof expert.
3. Follow up. I’ve written previously about the importance of coaching and the characteristics of an effective coach. A one-time information flood is ineffective, no matter how engaging the session’s leader may be. Teachers need support as they begin to implement new ideas, methods, and approaches. Note that support, not judgement, is needed. Showing up with an evaluation form is a certain way to kill any benefit professional development might yield. Teachers are learners, and we need the time and space to try, to reflect, to try again, to get helpful feedback, and to truly master implementation. We need the opportunity to learn. Coaching provides this opportunity, along with the encouragement and feedback necessary for success.
Let’s not dismiss professional development as useless because of a few bad experiences. Rather, let’s structure professional development so that it truly invests in teachers, providing them with new and effective means of investing in our students.
Authentic learning for both is what we’re chasing. Catching it requires professional development of the highest quality.
References Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 68.
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