You know the feeling. I know you do. Because I’m a teacher too.
Perhaps you are sitting in one of your school board’s or districts teacher PD sessions as you read this. Maybe you’ve been given the Herculean task of planning your school’s next PD Day. Or, if you’re really lucky, you have only ever worked in a school where PD is meaningful and you’ve always gotten great things out of attending PD events. If that last one describes you, you can skip this article and revel in the fact that you have been as fortunate as you are, or you can stick with me and keep reading. Why? Because you will someday sit in a PD event and wonder “Is this really the best we can do?” These 5 rut-busting tips will certainly help not if, but when, that happens!
How do we make PD more meaningful for teachers? If I had a dime for every time that question has been asked, I could have retired after my first semester as a history teacher. But alas, here I am in year 15 and fully aware of the fact that teacher PD has not really changed much since before I even became a teacher. Instead, I feel like I am stuck in the same Spongebob Squarepants cartoon flipping Crabby Patties.
So how do we get better? Well, first we must address why we aren’t already better. Budget cuts, lack of vision, vague and dreadfully repetitive government mandates/documents, and lack of good leadership are often the culprits when PD is not as “rockin'” as it could be. Some of these things are out of our control, while others are not. Here are 5 ways to improve teacher PD that can be implemented by school leaders without adding extra cost or boring PowerPoint presentations.
- Make Everyone An Expert
Having one person be the unlucky soul who has to deliver the school board’s initiative all by themselves is as cruel as it is unproductive. Every teacher in your building is an expert in something. Use that to your advantage. Ask those “experts” to help you with creating a PD environment that will turn the next PD day into something different than just nasty coffee, stale bagels, and everyone staring at a PowerPoint slide deck that looks like it would be just as home in 1998 as it is in 2018.
2. Offer Choice
Create a workshop-style environment where you allow teachers to choose what colleague-led workshop they want to attend, and give those workshop facilitators the ability to create something that is useful and will leave teachers feeling inspired and armed with Monday-morning-ready resources they can use!
3. Stop Chasing Every Educational Leadership Guru (and their books, programs, and merch…..etc)
Yes, there are many phenomenal education writers, researchers, authors, keynote speakers, etc. But there are just as many, if not more, that are looking to re-package what has been done for years into a book that they can sell you. The other issue I keep running into as a teacher is everyone getting super excited about any teacher/author that proclaims that homework/projects/social media/cursive writing/the arts/squirrels/red m&m’s/whatever else you can think of is “the old way of doing things” and must be “stopped/banned/excluded from schools in the modern era.” Yes there are merits to many of the ideas being discussed on various Twitter edchats, but there is also a lack of research-based evidence being brought forth by some of the “gurus” school districts are paying big money to have speak to their teachers. There is not much you can do if your school board has hired such a person, but as a school leader, you can totally take the approach of learning what you can from said individual, but also offer your teachers the ability to dissect what they have to say and perhaps have a great conversation about what they had to say before adopting whatever seemingly awesome idea they presented. In other words, don’t be afraid to jump, but know what you’re jumping into. Jumping blindly is never a sound PD strategy.
4. Make a Decision and See It Through
Or in the words of Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, “Plan till the end.” It’s easy to see or read about a program or PD initiative that is seemingly a fail-proof way to increase student test scores, or make your students less anxious, reduce bullying, etc and want to try it. But then you try something else. Six months later, something else. This is one of the key factors that has created many of the PD messes that exist all over North America. We often hear our colleagues complaining that their students don’t have the “follow through” that they’d like them to have, but what about us as leaders and teachers? If we’ve chosen a program or initiative, and we are encouraged that it is working, we must stick to it until we see it through. Otherwise, we end up with binders on the shelves of teachers, principals, and superintendents everywhere that have the blood, sweat, and bored tears of people who worked really hard to….well…fill a binder that would go on someone’s shelf, but not do much else. Also, initiatives take time to implement on a large-scale level, so don’t be afraid to give it some time.
5. Listen to Your Best
This one is quite possibly the most difficult thing on the list to pursue. How many times have you been a part of a planning committee that takes a wonderful PD experience to their teachers/staff/colleagues, only to have a small turnout of only the most enthusiastic history nerds like myself revel in your efforts? It’s frustrating, no doubt. But those enthusiastic participants – ask them: “Did you get what you needed from this PD session?” If the answer is yes, stay the course. Keep doing things that gets those same few to turn out and participate. “Buy in” (I hate that term) will not come from people insisting that a new program gets used. Instead, what we should aim for is “investing”. I don’t buy in, I invest in something that is going to make me a better teacher. How does that happen? Let those eager few that attend use what they’ve learned and show off what it has done for their practice. Then you’ll get more “investors”. We don’t want “buyers”. Buyers are fickle and their sentiments can change with whatever prevailing winds come their way. But if you’ve invested in what makes you better, like working out for example, then long-term success is more likely.
Teacher PD has always been a difficult proposition, but with these 5 tips, and a little bit of luck, there is a chance to create PD events and situations that create a stronger faculty, and that leads to student success. We all know that’s why teacher PD really matters anyhow.