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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Professional Development Doesn’t Have to Be Boring and Painful

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 25, 2022 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

What is the best professional-development session you ever participated in, and what made it so good?

Who among us hasn’t spent endless hours in pointless, terribly conceived, and horribly executed professional development?

However, on occasion, amid these ordeals, some of us may have had a slightly more positive experience.

Educators will share those pleasant surprises in this three-part series, and we can only hope that professional-development providers will be reading these commentaries.

You might also be interested in previous posts appearing here about Professional Development and in The Best Resources on Professional Development for Teachers.

Today, Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., Justin Lopez-Cardoze, and Marina Rodriguez kick off this series.

Creating ‘Cognitive Dissonance’

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is a professor in educational leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High and Middle College. She is a member of the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Research Panel. Her published titles include Visible Learning in Literacy, This Is Balanced Literacy, Removing Labels, and Rebound.

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is also a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High. Previously, Doug was an early-intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles on teaching and learning as well as books such as The Teacher Clarity Playbook, PLC+, Visible Learning for Literacy, Comprehension: The Skill, Will, and Thrill of Reading, How Tutoring Works, and most recently, How Learning Works:

A memorable professional learning event we attended challenged our thinking about the ways in which students with disabilities should be educated.

The presenter told the story of two students and their profiles. We were asked to consider the range of supports each student needed and how these could be met in school. The presenter then revealed that there were not two students but one. The two profiles were developed by different people in this student’s life and represented the values and expectations each held for this young person. The opening for this learning event created cognitive dissonance, and we wanted to learn more.

From there, the presenter shared several stories about successes with students with disabilities, a range of disabilities, and learning alongside peers without disabilities in regular classrooms. We were presented with a moral and ethical challenge: Who are we to decide the fate of young people with disabilities? Recommendations for segregated educational experiences for students with disabilities are highly correlated with segregated adult living and work experiences. As the presenter noted, the least dangerous assumption we could make is that the student would learn academic and social skills from peers. The most dangerous assumption we could make is that the student was incapable of learning.

The session continued as we explored ways that supports and services could be provided and these included technology, personal, and curricular. The presenter invited challenges from the audience, and the audience complied. People argued that some students were too disabled to be included. Others argued that peers would not accept them. Others argued that specialized supports could not be provided. The presenter handled each concern with respect, yet was unwavering in the commitment to educating students with and without disabilities together. For each excuse, the presenter shared a success story, including the picture of a specific student.

What made this so effective was the journey that we went on with the presenter. There was humor; there was an emotional appeal. But the session allowed us to consider three questions, without ever stating them:

  • What is the problem to me? When audience members understand the problem, they can make informed decisions about the need and importance of this particular issue. It’s human nature to want to solve problems, especially problems that are relevant to us. In this case, the problem was that students with disabilities were being segregated and their life outcomes were being compromised. This “problem” was made relevant with the experiences of real students who experienced success. The presenter made us personalize this. Did we want to be the ones recommending segregation? Did we want to decide that a specific student would not have friends or a social life? Did we want to be the barrier to a valued adult life in the community?
  • What can I do about it? Leaving people with a new problem and no solution is a frustrating experience. When the audience accepts that there is a problem, they want to know what they can do about it. What solutions are you, the presenter, offering? Of course, we all weigh the cost-benefit of the solutions, and sometimes there are conflicting solutions. But an effective presenter lets the audience know what actions they can take to address the problem. In this case, the solutions came in a package of technology, personal, and curriculum supports that need to be balanced to ensure success.
  • What good things will happen as a result? Learning about a problem and understanding potential solutions may, or may not, lead to implementation. When audience members understand the impact that their actions can have on the problem, they are much more likely to change. In this case, we saw students and learned of their lives. It was very personal, and the impact was obvious. We saw withdrawn learners in institutionalized settings and then later the same young person interacting with peers in a regular classroom. The nonverbal communication said it all: I’m so happy to be here. We also saw evidence of increased learning, ranging from changes in the goals on individualized education programs to the products that students created in their classes. The message was clear: When you provide sufficient support and allow peers (other educators) to take some responsibility for collective learning, great things can happen.

We have profiled an experience that was powerful for us so that we could highlight the ways in which professional-learning sessions can impact knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Of course, we’ve all been to sessions that did not contain these aspects and we were left wondering why we were there or worse, recognizing that we’d never get that time back. They don’t have to be that way. Professional learning can be a lever of change, if we plan for it.


Student-Led PD

Justin Lopez-Cardoze teaches 7th grade science at Capital City Public Charter School in the District of Columbia and was the 2020 D.C. Teacher of the Year. He is also on the clinical faculty for Urban Teachers at Johns Hopkins University:

After a decade of working as an educator, professional-development sessions have impacted me in two ways (or so I thought). They either ended with a collective sigh of “this could have been an email” or “this was helpful.” I remain thankful that the latter sentiment has dominated over the former.

However, several months ago, I realized that PD could be more than just “helpful,” it could be really exciting and could spark real change in me. During a distance learning program at Capital City Public Charter School, Chavala Hardy, our science department chair and 8th grade physical-science teacher, welcomed us into her shared virtual academic setting. Although the convening was classified as a meeting, the outcome represented much more than biquarterly team time. Why? Because Hardy, despite being a masterful facilitator and leader, stepped back. Instead, a group of middle school science students led our team time.

Giving students a platform to lead and speak in traditionally educator-only spaces strives toward academic justice—the freedom to lead authentically—for our youth. The group that led our team meeting consisted of four girls in STEM across racial and ethnic backgrounds. The purpose of their leadership was to educate us on what worked in distance learning and what could undergo improvement.

Hardy crafted critical questions for the students to provide in-depth responses. A panel-style experience usually ping-pongs between panelists and the facilitator; however, this panel engaged the audience. The student panelists explicitly acknowledged the experience as space for us to engage in sincere dialogue and ask questions that mattered. One student stated, “We’re here to speak, but we’re also here to listen. That means we have to be real with each other.” When Hardy asked a question, the panelists would usually answer, followed by offering a probing question to the department. For instance, when Hardy asked the panel how social skills could improve in virtual settings, another student asked, “How can science teachers create opportunities for students to feel safe to speak?”

One key takeaway from this experience that changed my pedagogy for the remainder of the year focused on establishing meaningful roles for students in the virtual space. Jomayra, one of the student panelists, said, “Let your students lead breakout rooms with particular instructions that you create with your kids. Let them come up with their expectations. Let them help you do what you need to do. You’re not alone.” Because I had access to students during these adult learning experiences, my practice became radically more student-centered. I have redefined my practice in the following ways:

  • Eliciting and responding to targeted feedback from all students related to character development, social-emotional learning, and understanding of content. This doesn’t mean asking for feedback for feedback’s sake. This also isn’t the type of thing to toss into the recycling bin because it’s an assignment we choose not to grade (we’ve all done it). I think of it as the assignments my students assign to me and grade me on.
  • Developing a student instructional council that meets every two weeks to create and revise classroom policies and procedures. Schools have instructional-leadership teams for the same reason—I made one for my classroom, and my shared space became more of a liberatory haven for learning.
  • Teaching students how to teach. It’s that simple. From assigning students to craft scaffolded questions for Socratic seminars to providing explicit instructions on leadership profiles, I wasn’t the only one facilitating content in our classroom anymore.

Professional development must give power to the real professionals: our students. Why? Because students tell us how it is in a way that only they can deliver but everyone can understand. When Hardy decided to promote student leadership in our professional learning environment, our individual compasses aligned with one another toward our youth. Soon, student empowerment became a constant in our department meetings, further aligning our compass as a school. In an era of recovery and reentry, we must share professional learning spaces with students. Too much remains at stake if we do not allow our students to teach us.


‘We Were Challenged’

Marina Rodriguez is a 4th grade dual-language teacher in College Station, Texas. She has taught 4th grade dual language over 15 years, leads an after-school blogging club for multilingual students, and is a former co-author of Two Writing Teachers. She can be reached through her website, marinarodz.com, or on Twitter @mrodz308:

The best professional-development session I have ever participated in was one where I came face to face with an expert.

In June of 2013, I attended a course that challenged my knowledge about reading and created a new perspective. It was the summer my district introduced teachers to a series of experts―authors who shared ways to teach reading, writers who shared ways to teach writing, and poets who shared ways to teach poetry. They were doers of their craft and experts in their field. Their impact was long-lasting, and out of all of the professional-development experiences I have had throughout my 15 years of teaching, one stood out to me the most. It was a session on reading workshop with Frank Serafini.

The session evolved my thinking about reading. That single professional-development experience, with Serafini, carved a permanent place in my mind, and the strategies I learned that day continue to guide my teaching.

What made this professional development good was not only that it was led by an expert in the field of reading, it was led by an expert impassioned for his craft. The energy and excitement in the room cultivated the right environment for an authentic and meaningful experience. It called on giving students a chance to do more than learn to read, it called on giving students a chance to want to read. I remember leaving the session inspired and energized and I couldn’t wait to get into my classroom to use my newfound knowledge.

When I think of books and students, I often reflect on that day. It isn’t hard to remember what it felt like, and that feeling continues to inspire my teaching each year. Good professional development is like good teaching. It is purpose-driven, authentic, and meaningful.

How did Serafini’s professional-development session ignite a long-lasting impact?

  • The Expert “Doers and Makers”

Teachers were given an opportunity to learn from a person deeply immersed with expertise in the area of reading. We were granted an experience with a person who is a doer of the work, an expert maker of the craft. That allowed us to imagine the impact of our own expertise on students.

  • Teacher-Centered

The conversations fanned in and out between participants and presenter. The presenter offered his knowledge while creating a space for the teachers to voice common concerns and explore possibilities. The room of educators developed a “coaching” feel to it. We became aware that we are in this work together, exploring the possibilities of differentiation within the given strategies, and teachers felt empowered.

  • Interactive

The interactive portion of this session was an invitation. Participants had the choice to join the interactive practice or not. Choice gave the adults in the room agency. Those who remained in their seats participated in open conversations, asking questions and offering ideas. Teachers had the option to physically participate by facing the room and speaking out loud to the audience. Or they could take note of the experience and observe the strategies. We were challenged to explore while learning through laughter, and it helped us imagine much more.

Sometimes the thought of another professional development can feel daunting, even dispiriting when we think of the time we chance losing to information we cannot promptly apply in the classroom. Teachers are educated professionals, and time is valuable. What we can offer teachers are the experts, the doers of the crafts we are trying to teach. It is better to learn from those who do than from those who can only tell us what to do.

Professional development that is relevant, sustainable, and used to ignite ideas that support curiosity, collaborative exploration, and imagination in teachers can have a reciprocal effect on the students we teach.


Thanks to Nancy, Doug, Justin, and Mariana for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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