Professional Development

Can PD Ice Breakers Be Less Cringey? We Asked Teachers

By Madeline Will — September 19, 2023 3 min read
Close up of a blue nametag on a lanyard with the word "Meh" written where the handwritten name would appear.
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There’s a part of professional development sessions that inevitably makes many teachers cringe: the ice breaker.

What is meant as a get-to-know-you and team-building activity can often feel cheesy, like a waste of time, and even patronizing. Teachers on social media bemoan the forced nature of having to come up with “fun facts” about themselves or participate in a silly song-and-dance routine.

But experts say that that ice breakers, when done well, can serve an important purpose in building a positive team culture. They can ease people’s nerves about speaking up in a group setting, set the tone for the training or meeting, and encourage people to talk about themselves.

“That’s the foundation of relationships: self-disclosure,” Anton Villado, a psychologist and consultant on company culture, told the Cut in 2016. In new relationships, “we engage in self-disclosure over some period of time—typically lots of time—and icebreakers are simply meant to hasten that. They’re this opportunity to take what might happen naturally over several days or several hours and compress it into a few minutes.”

He added: “Even if people don’t really enjoy the relationship-building that we’re trying to stimulate, trying to enhance here, it still works.”

Experts told the Cut that facilitators should explain the goals of the ice breaker—both before and after the activity itself—so that people understand that it isn’t “some goofy activity with no purpose.”

And incorporating teachers’ input into the design of these activities could help make it more palatable. Education Week asked teachers on social media to share ideas for ice breakers that don’t make them cringe. Here’s what they said.

Encourage more natural conversation

Some teachers said they don’t want any cutesy prompts or games—just an opportunity to introduce themselves to their colleagues in a more natural way.

“Introduce yourself like an adult and share 1-2 things you’d like to share.”

@AymeeTiffany

“As you walk back to your room to work on your own for the morning, say ‘hi’ to a couple colleagues.”

@DavisLaughlin

Have food

Everyone loves free food, and that can create some natural openings for conversation. Some teachers suggested that the best ice breaker starts with: “Let’s eat!”

When it is actually broken ice in a glass for refreshment during the meeting.

Paul B.

“Here are some donuts.”

@IowaHSTeacher

“Welcome back breakfast potluck food tasting. The end.”

@EricENichols

Try these non-cheesy prompts

Some teachers shared some discussion prompts and activities that could encourage conversation and even some laughter.

“Read any good books lately?”

Noel P.

“Take out your phone and pick a recent picture. Tell the person next to you the story behind the pic.”

Samantha S.

“The 4Cs--use a character, car, colour, and cuisine to describe yourself”

@skye_blyth

“Making memes together”

@misspreraphael

“Check in question—What was your first concert? generates some pretty fun stories! Mine - U2 at Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1984—epic!”

@eacushing

Practice an activity for the classroom

Some teachers suggested trying out an ice breaker that they could then use with their students.

“Tape a paper plate on everyone’s back, play some fun music, and spend the next couple songs having everyone write a strength on everyone’s plate. Everyone leaves reminded what their strengths are … which leads to doing the same activity with students!”

@loveiskeytoday

“We did this with our Educator Team first and they then did with our kiddos. Create a portrait—BUT incorporate measurement using either area (using 1-inch squares) or tool-based (a ruler)—of yourself and a word describing your contribution to the Team. Lots of laughs!”

@MimosaTunney

Just skip them

Some teachers say that there’s no way to make ice breakers—especially those in large-group settings—more pleasant.

“I really hate icebreakers with folks with whom I MAY spend three to five minutes in the coming year … almost invariably a colossal waste of time … Icebreakers should be used sparingly when a group of strangers will be working closely together in a team effort …"

Kenneth H.

“I think teachers are the only profession that attends a meeting/conference/professional development and are treated like children. Try to imagine any other group of professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers …) asked to dance, sing, play a game … and at the end of the meeting be asked to write down an “ah ha” moment, a question still “rolling around in your head” or some other comment to prove you were paying attention AND then told to go post it in the “parking lot” (a piece of large chart paper) so others can see it and comment.”

Roxanne P.

“The one where you play ‘Let’s get this meeting started!’”

Christina G.

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