Opinion
Education Teacher Leaders Network

Professional Development: How to Reset Your Attitudinal Dial

By Vicky Gilpin — February 03, 2010 4 min read
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The air is getting warmer, or at least we like to think so. The students are still eager return to school, and everyone awaits the start of new television episodes. It’s that time of year again, when we endure the chill of winter because we believe in the coming of spring.

It’s also time to prepare for a string of professional development workshops that are impossible to avoid. Whatever the acronyms used for the credits or points required for continued certification by a state or district, teachers have a need to collect them, and the easiest way to do so is by attending workshops, conferences, or other training sessions.

I’ll confess. I enjoy workshops. I like the opportunity to have someone teach me for a while. However, as I ran through a typical string of professional development opportunities recently (some voluntary and some mandatory), I started thinking about the old adage: “Teachers make the worst students.” My co-workers are good workshop attendees. They usually pay attention, ask questions, and write notes about the content of the presentation. But I can recall some professional development days where we weren’t so…professional.

I remember one workshop where the speaker was so monotonous and the lack of professional courtesy so acute that teachers were openly passing notes, playing hangman, drawing, grading, and otherwise passing the time until they would be released. This was also the day when we threatened to stage a revolt after the speaker attempted to tell us we could not take a bio-break after four hours in our seats. If memory serves, it was also during this session that I created a twelve-stanza haiku that elaborated upon activities in which I would rather be participating. It was not, perhaps, my finest moment as an educator or a professional.

As someone who also presents at conferences often, I’ve been thinking more about the levels of responsibility during a workshop or other professional development activity. Of course, as teachers we have a right to expect that the presenter will be engaging, relevant, and triple-check his or her PowerPoint presentations for typing errors. But what are the responsibilities of the listeners?

Obviously, few of us are going to be in joyous ecstasy anticipating each and every professional workshop we’re required to attend. Often we’d rather be grading, prepping for future lessons, or engaging in teaching-based activities—not to mention getting some sleep, taking more than five minutes to eat a meal, or remembering what our loved ones look like in natural light. However, like our students, teachers must have accountability for what we get out of a learning opportunity.

Barring the ubiquitous professional development days that are inappropriate for the audience (too often have I been to workshops touted as perfect for my grade level and subject area, only to find upon arrival that they are focused on strategies for an entirely different age level and subject area), I believe every presenter has some kernel of wisdom to share.

Going With The Grain

The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (2009) presents a strategy of reading called “against the grain” and “with the grain” to encourage readers to explore works using multiple perspectives. When reading with the grain, the reader accepts the material’s thesis and seeks to discover its relevance and application. When reading against the grain, the reader searches for ways to resist the thesis of the work and challenge the author’s arguments.

Many teachers simply cannot quell the tremor of dismay they feel if a conference or “brand new implementation” appears to be the same-old defunct strategy, gift-wrapped in a shiny new acronym. But I’m here to argue that going to a professional development activity can be more rewarding if the participants are determined to make it so. If we teachers attend workshops with an open mind, we can retain our objectivity and analytical awareness while also being receptive to ideas we might otherwise have overlooked.

Instead of immediately assuming that familiar-sounding material at a conference is just re-packaged initiatives from five years ago, I try to remember where I last heard the information and attempt to make connections between the professional development activities then and now. By doing that, I’ve become more adept at detecting when ideas presented in seminars and workshops are not simple re-hashes but attempts to build on previous implementations.

For example (and forgive the jargon in advance), by smoking out the KRSP method—Knowledge, Reasoning, Skills, and Product—lurking behind the content of a recent standards-alignment workshop, I was able to make deeper connections between the presented ideas and the Response to Intervention strategies my school is developing. I had a similar experience on a recent morning when I heard echoes of Harry Wong’s ideas in the PBIS—Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports—workshop.

Had I been seeking to listen to these speakers against the grain, I would have missed several great opportunities for learning (and an “aha” moment or two) and would have left the presentations with a lot of annoyance and little understanding. But when teachers set their attitudinal dial to go with the grain, we have a much better chance at gaining something meaningful from almost any presentation or workshop. And when we consciously adopt a specific and positive mindset before the event begins, we’re also in a position to encourage colleagues to look for connections and join us in some open-minded discussion rather than immediate resistance.

I’m not promising that I will never doodle during a presentation—I’m no Pollyanna. But I strongly believe that I have a much better chance of growing as a professional by listening closely and making intentional connections than I did back in the days when I was crafting my mega-haiku or puzzling through my weekly grocery list.

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