Professional Development Versus Arrested Development

I participated in a Twitter chat the other night that focused on professional development in school. I have always found this idea of PD to be an interesting beast. When I first got into education I thought, wow this is great! My school is going to pay me to go learn something and then I will come back to school and share it with all my colleagues they will be amazed at all the new things I’ve learned and we can all advance our teaching hand and hand into a golden rainbow of the future.

What I soon realized though is that the true reality went something like this. My school would pay to fly me somewhere, I would sit in a large conference room where a keynote speaker would tell me how bad standardized testing is and how we all need to change education for the future, and then I’d meet up at the bar with some teachers I just met to talk trash about our respective schools. I’d then return home, tell my peers how great it was, look over a bunch of random notes I made on my iPad, not really remember all that I crammed in my head in three days, and go back to teaching life as normal.

It didn’t really click for me until a few years into my teaching when I went to a Visible Learning conference in which I was introduced to the idea of “collective teacher efficacy” that I realized what the problem here was. And the irony was that I was attending this conference all by myself with over 1200 of my closest new friends. Now I don’t want this to be some pessimistic jaded rant about the failures of large-scale “edu-corporate” PD, because these gatherings can be very useful and I have gained a lot of insight in attending some of these.

What I do want to propose is that there are cheaper, more readily accessible, and less time-consuming ways to have a positive impact on the learning our students experience in our classrooms. And it’s something I’d like to call the “dream and do” approach (we can also call this the D-n-D approach too if you’d like). In fact, it’s the bi-line I chose to put at the top of my blog I believe in it so much. What this entails is dreaming up big ideas and putting them into action in your classroom. I’d suggest using a design-thinking framework when doing this to help you towards successful implementation. To get started I’d really suggest the Design Thinking for Educators toolkit that you can download for free here put together by IDEO.

As part of this process, I think it would be helpful to have open and candid discussions with your peer teachers that you trust about some of your ideas and be open to their feedback and input on what you are looking to implement. I’d carefully reflect on what you are doing and share out with teachers you trust or even ask one of them to come in and observe you in their free time if it lines up. Document everything you do, and be attentive to student feedback and how they react. Pay close attention to how you are impacting student learning and be open to pivoting if you see that something isn’t working. Be honest with the students that you are trying something new with the sole goal of making their learning experience better.

Consider jump-starting an account on Twitter and begin engaging and interacting with other educators (follow me at I’d be happy to chat!). I think you’d be amazed at the level of development that you can have in your teaching profession with this approach. And the amazing thing is it doesn’t even cost a dime! Before meetings share with other teachers what you are doing, or start a conversation with a teacher that you don’t often talk to and ask them if they are trying anything new. What this does is it helps you start to be part of a community of learners, just like we ask our students to be.

And then, now here’s the kicker, when professional development opportunities do come up during the course of the year, gather the people that you’ve been engaging with and bring your proposal to your leadership member/s. Tell them that you feel a team of three or four teachers should attend this conference because it would support insert teaching skill here. Now you can start moving towards authentic teacher efficacy. You can start to build a tribe of teachers looking to create shared learning networks around a common skill or need. From there the learning can spread and create a culture of learning and development unlike the individualized isolationist “development” of the past.

Is this a perfect model? No. Is this going to work for every teacher at every school? Of course not. But if you feel like you have been just going through the motions with your professional development proposals and starting to look at which conference is closest to your cousin’s town so you can go to a wine and food festival afterward, you might want to try this approach and begin to engage more deeply with your work and with your teaching tribe.

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