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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Professional Development: Are You Content With the Scenario?

By Peter DeWitt — July 10, 2016 6 min read
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Just because you’re stuck with their policies doesn’t mean you need to be stuck with their mindset.” Michael Fullan

Ahh...professional development. The big P.D. We all go through it. Sometimes we want to be a part of it. Other times we’re “voluntold” for it. And many times it feels as if it has been forced upon us because of a “district/division initiative,” state mandate or accountability measure.

If PD is not done correctly it can help lead to teachers feeling enabled instead of empowered, which leads to more and more teachers finding themselves with a low level of self-efficacy. A low level of self-efficacy means that those teachers feel like they have little impact on the students sitting in their room (Ashton & Webb).

Why do they feel this way? For many reasons. Some may be personal while others are professional. They work in a building where they have to follow all sort of rules, and have to attend PD where they have little voice.

Fortunately, there are a large variety of types of PD that can help meet the needs of teachers. We have edcamps, which are free and loaded with teacher voice, and we have state and national conferences as well. We also have opportunities for learning which include district/division-wide, building level, regional or individual/partner.

It’s great to have so many opportunities, but it also puts us at risk of going in a number of different directions. Everyone should be able to dive into their own learning...especially our students, but it’s also important to think about offering better PD as a group. PD that can focus on important learning for all (centered on students), that also happens to include opportunities to include teacher and leader voice.

When planning PD, try to answer the following questions:

  • Do people know why they’re attending?
  • Does the presenter have learning intentions/success criteria that match what you want?
  • Have you had multiple opportunities to speak to the presenter about what you need?
  • When possible make sure that the PD chosen has been selected by a group (i.e. teachers, leaders, specialists, etc.) that is representative of the district/division (sometimes schools don’t have a choice because it’s a mandate from the state or ministry).
  • Will this PD help you improve on your current reality?
  • Are leaders and teachers going to attend it together so they can engage in important open and honest dialogue?

Content With the Scenario
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with leaders and teachers from the New Brunswick Teacher’s Association (NBTA) in Atlantic Canada. The NBTA institute is sponsored by the four teacher org’s in the region in the PEITF (PEI) NBTA (New Brunswick) NSTU (Nova Scotia) and the NLTA (Newfoundland and Labrador). They brought their A game and were highly engaged in asking questions, pushing back on issues they didn’t agree with, and creating new ideas together.

As I was sitting in the room after participants left for the day improving on the plan for the next day, Meghan, an educator who specializes in working with disenfranchised youth, came to me to say they were all “content with the scenario.” I took it as a compliment, and assumed it was Canadian for, “Wow! You’re awesome!

We laughed about it that day, and then her colleagues laughed about it with her for many hour after. She explained later that “content with the scenario” meant that they were onboard with the content, engaged in the process, and were leaving each day thinking more about how it was practical for them, whether they were a teacher or a leader.

As a former teacher and principal, I have been on the receiving end of really great...and really bad...PD, and have been thinking a lot about it, especially because I engage in it every week. To engage in authentic, rather than compliant PD, there needs to be the following elements:

Content - When it came to working with NBTA, day one focused on research (Hattie) and day 2 focused on instructional strategies and understanding the complexities of working with adults (Knight). Day 3 focused on putting it all together in the context that each participant can understand. The content of the PD is important, and I know that sounds like common sense, but not everyone who engages in PD opportunities has given a lot of thought around the content being taught.

Context - It’s important for everyone in the room, including the consultant/facilitator to understand the context that people were working in. As hard as someone may work to understand it before the actual PD, it’s really important to set up a dynamic where we can learn more about the context during the collaborative conversations we set up. It does not mean that the context becomes a barrier to why we can’t do it, but rather the context helps us understand our needs so we can do it better.

Clarity - Whenever PD is delivered, it’s important that we are all clear on why we are learning together, and why this content is important. It should not be about a program, as much as it’s about a mindset change and how to move forward to make sure we have developed practical applications. It also means that the facilitator was able to deliver the info in their head that participants can clearly understand. People shouldn’t walk out scratching their heads wondering what it was all about.

Collaboration - During workshops it’s important to get people up and moving a lot. PD should be about building synergy within the room, and setting up new relationships where people can “phone a friend” when they are finding themselves struggling. People should walk out of PD meeting several new people who they can use as part of their professional/personal learning network. Sit and get should be a thing of the past.

Climate - From the very beginning, the facilitator needs to set up a classroom climate that is conducive for learning. This is not always easy to do in a one hour or one day session, but it’s important that participants feel welcome, and also feel as if they can ask questions or pushback on things they disagree with.

In the End
The conversation that participants have in PD is equally as important as the content we are trying to cover. Those conversations allow for facilitators to walk around and formatively assess whether participants are on board and understanding what is being learned. There is no point in covering curriculum if the learners in the room are lost in translation.

Which brings me back to the educators from NBTA. They took 3 days out of their summer, and paid to be a part of PD where they had to sleep in dorm rooms on a university campus, because the PD was held on that same campus. They stayed together, ate together, played together and learned together. They were highly engaged.

Which brings me back to the first point of all of this. The educators of NBTA came ready to learn because they wanted to be there. As much as we can, in those times that we have some sort of control, we should be offering PD that people want to be a part of, and not PD people feel they have to attend. That will only lead to enabling instead of empowering.

What helps even more is when the learners, regardless of whether they feel they want to be there, approach all PD with an open mind about what is being learned, because it may be something that helps change their mindset, and helps reach a few more students in their classrooms. Michael Fullan said it best, when he stated, “Just because you’re stuck with their policies doesn’t mean you need to be stuck with their mindset.” And that leads back to content, context, clarity, collaboration and climate.

When it comes to your PD...are you content with the scenario?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.