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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Teachers ‘Seek Relevance & Choice’ In Professional Development

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 01, 2015 20 min read
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(This post is the last post in a four-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here ; Part Two here; and Part Three here)

This week’s question is:

What are the do’s and don’ts of professional development?

This is the last post in a four-part series exploring how we can improve the state of teacher professional development today. The original questioner also raised concerns about a number of inappropriate and distracting behaviors exhibited by attendees of PD sessions.

The series began with Part One of an essay by well-known educator and author Rick Wormeli, who finished it in Part Two. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Rick at my BAM! Radio Show.

Part Three shared commentaries from educators Sean McComb, Robyn R. Jackson, Kelly Young, Paul Cancellieri, Jason Flom, and Barbara Blackburn.

Today’s post includes responses from Roxanna Elden, Sally J. Zepeda, Christopher Lehman, Jennifer Abrams, PJ Caposey, Patricia Reynolds, and Sharon Milano. In addition, I’ve highlighted comments from readers.

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is a National Board Certified Teacher in Miami. Her book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers, is widely used as a tool for training and retention. Roxanna also speaks at events around the country, providing training and support for teachers and sharing a teacher’s eye view on a variety of education issues:

To improve any professional development activity, it helps to keep two things in mind:

  1. In many ways, teachers are exactly like students.

Teachers do a lot of irritating things during professional development sessions. We talk. We play with our phones. We sit waaay in the back and do work for our other classes. Then, when we have to write follow up assignments, our first question is often, “How long does it have to be?” No one knows better than we do how frustrating these behaviors can be. On the other hand, we also know how the kids would react if we read aloud to them from a PowerPoint presentation. Teachers pay a high price when we’re not prepared, which makes it doubly frustrating when someone introducing new computer program, for example, answers questions by saying, “I think there’s a number you can call...” Sometimes, teachers who channel their students’ behavior during PD sessions are subconsciously putting presenters to the test. The good news is that presenters can improve the chances of keeping teachers’ attention the same way we keep our students’ attention: Learn as much about your audience as possible. Know your subject. Present it in an engaging way. And you get bonus points if you can make us laugh. Like students, we get a little restless sitting in our seats for so long.

  1. In many ways, teachers are not at all like students.

Teachers are not children. Additionally, we get frequent reminders that we barely rank above students in the education-authority food chain. It should be no surprise that we react with hostility when presenters lecture at us like kids in detention, ask us to change seats so they can keep an eye on us, or make us chant things in unison. As I mentioned earlier, the good news is that presenters can improve the odds of holding our attention the same way one holds most adults’ attention: Learn as much about your audience as possible. Know your subject. Present it in an engaging way. And you get bonus points if you let us out fifteen minutes ahead of time so we can beat traffic. Unlike students, we don’t need to be kept busy until the bell rings.

Response From Sally J. Zepeda

Sally J. Zepeda is a professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration, and Policy at the University of Georgia (Athens) where she teaches courses related to teacher and leader professional development and instructional leadership. She also works extensively with the Clarke County School District to support teacher and leader quality. To learn more about building personalized learning for adults, see Professional Development: What Works (2nd ed.) New York, NY: Routledge. She is also the author of Job-embedded Professional Development: Support, Collaboration, and Learning in Schools:

Teachers behaving badly during formal professional learning almost sounds like a spin off to a classroom out of control. Neither teachers nor professional development providers feel “good” when distractions take away from learning. Enduring professional learning is not the same as experiencing professional learning. For professional development to “work,” both participants and facilitators need to take responsibility for engagement.

For close to 20 years, I have held firm that although there are differences in the way children and adults learn, there are a few commonalities. First, I think it is fair and accurate that teachers need to believe that they can be successful, they need a voice in determining what they learn, the types of learning activities that will meet their particular needs, and they need to feel they can make a difference in their student’s lives. Teachers who sign up for professional learning not required by the system indicates that these are the teachers who want to be engaged.

Professional developers need to recognize that for a vast majority of teachers, the arrangements of the work day and how teachers work with one another in and out of the classroom have changed. Teachers are now more focused on students and learning outcomes. Routinely, many teachers have opportunity to interact with one another, share ideas, and examine and study artifacts (e.g., student work). Sitting passively listening is a turn-off for the adult learner. We know that:

Adult learners seek immediacy of application.

Adult learners seek relevance and choice.

Adult Learners Seek Flexibility.

Adult Learners Seek to Interact with Content.

Adult Learners Seek Opportunities for Private, Self and Public Reflection.

Adult learners value social interactions with peers as they are learning.

Here are a few lessons that can support the engagement of participants:

Lesson 1: Professional learning is not a spectator sport. Teachers need to be engaged in discussion, small and large group activities. They need to think about, reflect, practice, and get feedback. Effective professional development includes multiple modalities of learning. The last thing a teacher wants to do is listen to a “talking head.”

Lesson 2: Teachers want personalized learning, and they want immediacy of application of what they are learning--tomorrow in their classrooms. Immediacy of application adds relevance.

Lesson 3: Professional development extends over time. The one-shot in-service regardless if required by the system or voluntarily enrolled, teachers need to learn, practice, reflect, and refine practices over an extended period of time. Professional developers can cue participants and add simulations on how to work with materials over time.

Lesson 4: Professional development includes planned follow-up activities as part of the process. Teachers want a safety-net--they want to be able to engage in follow-up, including, for example, peer observations. Adults need and want feedback.

Lesson 5: Professional development promotes ongoing reflection and inquiry. During professional learning, engage teachers in reflecting out loud about what they are learning, the insights they are gaining, and how they can continue to reflect on practice once they return to their schools.

Response From Christopher Lehman

Christopher Lehman is the Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative and author/coauthor of several popular books on education including Falling in Love with Close Reading. He can be reached at TheEducatorCollaborative.com or on Twitter at @iChrisLehman.:

As both a frequent speaker who notices the occasional side conversation during presentations and, to be fully--if not embarrassingly--transparent, I have also been a participant who on occasion checks my email during someone else’s meeting (okay, you caught me). I can empathize with this question.

It can be a distraction, sometimes even an annoyance, when you are focused and someone around you is not. It can, as this writer expressed, also be somewhat irritating when the person who is talking out of turn tends to be the same person whose room is whisper silent no matter the time of day.

There are many ways to approach answering this question, but I would like to take two: to consider this from a distracting participant’s stand point and then from the one noticing the distraction.

Why We Are Shopping Online During Meetings

I think an important place to start is how we think and react when our colleagues, or even we, ourselves, distract during a meeting or workshop.

Aiming to see the world through the eyes of others is an important first step in handling annoyances in our community.

As an example, one of my most important realizations on how we function under time or focus stresses came from Paula Kluth, an educator and specialist in inclusive education. When describing how teachers can support students on the autism spectrum she explained:

“Imagine yourself toward the end of a long workshop, your leg may bounce a little, you might find yourself checking your email a few times, or there may be other small, silent ways of taking a mental pause. We all need moments to stop, both for our minds and our energy.

“Often times students on the spectrum, however, do not yet have methods for taking these same quick mental breaks in ways that others find socially acceptable. For a student who needs to flap their arms, it may come across as strange to some, but it is often no different from your need to bounce your leg. You just know how to do it in a way that doesn’t grab the attention of others.”

She went on to explain that a more inclusive classroom, then, is one where we not only help find ways for that student to take breaks, but also (and possibly more importantly) one where the whole community learns to think about that child’s mannerisms in a new way. Arm flapping could seem weird, or we can learn to understand why. It can actually become as accepted as anything else when we become more empathetic.

I found this explanation eye opening and it has changed not just the way I think about inclusive classrooms, but how I think about so many interactions in our lives.

Just as we can support our students in understanding the reasons other students may act out of turn, I think we need to see adult distractions during a staff meeting or workshop as more than just annoyances:

  • Processing time is hugely helpful for all of us. Sometimes people turn to talk not just to strike up a conversation, but to clarify, share excitement, brainstorm, or take a quick mental break.
  • Anxiety affects focus. If you have a mile long list of to-dos it can sometimes be a challenge to stay connected. Equally, if a meeting is perceived as challenging someone’s deeply held beliefs in a way that feels threatening, then anxiety can rise. For some, anxiety can overrun focus, leading to email answering, assessment grading, or other behaviors.
  • Fun is fun. There is also the reality that in our device-packed, entertainment-driven lives it is hard to not feel addicted to the tweets, likes, promo codes, and points that surround us. Turning your screen to a colleague so they can laugh with you is often more about our short attention spans than an act of defiance against someone speaking.

When we adjust our beliefs about the actions of others, we approach solutions in an often more constructive way.

Most People Want To Do Good, They Just Forgot

I formally present to thousands of educators each year. One the simplest solutions I have found to addressing distractions is really just a quick reminder. I know that it can sometimes feel uncomfortable or you worry that you are “just complaining,” but 99 times out of 100, the person you remind was not even aware anyone noticed them.

So make the reminder brief, purposeful, and then let that person find solutions.

Typically when I’m presenting I assume everyone intends to be their best selves, so if something arises I’ll wait it out for a few moments. Often things solve themselves.

If not, if a distraction continues, I’ll usually just give a quick reminder like, “Could I have you end your conversation? I’m sorry to interrupt, I’m just feeling distracted,” and then I’ll move quickly back to what I had been saying to the group. Including how that distraction is personally affecting you helps because it takes focus off of their problem and more to finding solutions.

Another approach is to let the person leading the meeting or workshop know you have been distracted. I am usually on top of noting distractions, but sometimes I do not. I always appreciate it when someone approaches me during a break and asks if I could remind people to silence their phones or end conversations quickly. It’s a simple thing to do and I am glad it was brought to my attention.

Proactively Plan for Engagement

Then, of course, is the role of the presenter or meeting facilitator. The more we consider the diverse needs of those participating with us, the more proactively we can plan to support the highest level of engagement possible.

Whenever someone tells me they found a workshop or in-school experience I led “practical and engaging” I am grateful. It is not by accident though, it is because I am obsessed with planning experiences that feel this way. It is easy to just flip through slides and talk, it is more work--though more reward--to plan with your colleagues in mind. Just as we keep a close eye on how our students interact with our instruction, we need to keep an equally careful pulse on how our colleagues are interacting with our professional meetings.

So, when planning meetings or workshops, be sure to plan for conversation, plan for collaboration, plan even for possible anxiety and how you will help to lower it early on.

Then don’t forget: it’s either you or that shopping website, so plan to have some fun, too.

Response From Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams is a communications consultant and author of Having Hard Conversations and The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate and Create Community:

Two thoughts in response to the frustrated group member above and two do’s and don’ts for professional development

  • When any group of people comes together, norming occurs. These norms are either established informally by the participants in the group or can be more formally established by the facilitator. If norms aren’t clearly stated upfront, it is easier for group members to adopt individual “ways of being.” Without stated norms for interacting, group members aren’t accountable to how ‘the group will play well together for the day.’ Often an articulate and clear statement and/or reminder by the facilitator as to how the group interact with each other helps everyone to be his or her ‘best self.’ And, after putting the norms on the table, if someone does engage in side talk or other unhelpful ways of interacting, it is understood by the group why the behavior is addressed.

  • Norming and reminding each other of the norms of participation is everyone’s responsibility, not just the facilitator. We are all responsible for both taking care of our own learning as well as taking care of the learning of the group. If we cannot hear, it is our responsibility to ask person talking to speak up. If someone in the group has been distracting, we, as group members, must feel ready and willing to ask the individual to change his or her behavior and to request their focus. We all, regardless of role in the group, must learn to have these types of productive conversations in order to build a culture of professionalism in our meetings.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is Superintendent of Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois. PJ is an award-winning educator who has become a sought after speaker throughout the nation. Additionally, PJ has written two books in the past two years including Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders:

Classroom management, at its core, is driven by one of two things - control or connections. As an instructor, I can be driven by my desire to control the environment I am living in or I can be driven by the desire to connect with my students and connect them to what I am teaching. It is the difference between someone who teaches or talks to someone and someone who teaches or talks for someone. It is also often the difference between a great teacher and, well - the rest.

That same desire to either control or connect is what dictates behavior when receiving professional development - or simply attending a meeting. If my desire is to connect or contribute than I will force myself to engage and be mentally present as well as physically present at every meeting I attend. If my desire is to control my surroundings, then I will do what suits me at a particular moment. This may mean talking, not showing up, or in some cases listening intently and being an active participant. The core of my actions was my decision - however.

Moving forward as a leader, there are three options:

  • TELL THEM - Depending on your role, personality, and political capital it is possible to force compliance. Be careful here - because as a leader you may simply be trying to control your own environment - what you are hoping to help your colleague from being compelled to do.
  • SELL THEM - Communicate for your colleague. Self-awareness is not everyone’s strength. Enlighten them to their behavior - feel free to play the card that they would not accept such behavior in their class. This may not work - but at that point the person in question is clearly making the choice to be a disruptive force.
  • PARTICIPATE - Provide your own, personal PD for the person. Inform them that curiosity is not a trait - it is a choice and one that they can make in every situation they are in. They can choose to be an active, learning member of every group that they happen to work with.

Response From Patricia Reynolds

Patricia Reynolds is a member of the ASCD Faculty. In her education career, she has been a middle school teacher, assistant principal, and principal in New York City Public Schools, and the director in the Division of School Support and Instruction for the New York City Department of Education. Reynolds’s areas of specialty are progressive school leadership, effective school-based PD, research-based curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices, and differentiated instruction:

Facilitators of professional development for teachers sometimes forget, that many of the same principles of good teaching apply to professional learning. They consequently send a, “Do as I say, not as I do” message to teachers about how learning occurs. This can result in low levels of engagement on behalf of teachers, and some of the behaviors you’ve mentioned here. It can also hurt the chances that professional development will translate to better classroom practice and student learning. Facilitators that respect best classroom practices can incorporate them into professional learning as well. We might do well to consider some Facilitator’s Do’s and Don’ts of effective professional development.

Hook/Engage the Learner’s Attention:

DO generate interest in the content and get teachers’ attention!

Don’t just begin with a welcome and “dive in” to the content.

Build Relationships:

DO share the experiences that qualify you to facilitate the work of the group today, and attempt to build a relationship with the group.

Don’t share so much about your own experience that it becomes “all about you”. Don’t bore the group with your credentials and resume details.


DO pre-assess the group’s knowledge and experience. Encourage teachers to identify and share their goals for the professional learning.

Don’t make too many assumptions about what the group needs. Be prepared to differentiate.

Make it Relevant:

DO help teachers appreciate how today’s learning may help them solve a challenge they are facing in the classroom.

Don’t focus on fluff. Enthusiasm is fine, but today’s teachers need real solutions to real problems.

Gradually Release Responsibility to the Learner:

DO give teachers something to do! Let the teachers (in this case, the learners) do the heavy lifting.

Don’t answer all of the questions, monopolize the dialogue, and do all the work during the session. Let the learners earn their learning.

Support Reflection:

DO allow teachers an opportunity to make meaning of their new learning and let them decide how they can best make use of their new knowledge or insight.

Don’t end the session abruptly or with an, “Any questions?” prompt.

Response From Sharon Milano

Sharon Milano is a teacher in Franklin Lakes, NJ. She continues to enjoy sharing her love for learning and sense of curiosity about all that goes on in the world with her students and family:

I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that an effective meeting or workshop must have a purpose that is interesting, engaging, or relevant just as an effective classroom lesson must meet the same criteria. Effective pedagogy is essentially considered to be providing opportunities for students to discover what is meaningful and interesting to them through student-centered lessons that foster creative thinking and problem solving. The more hands-on and engaging our lessons are for all of our learners, the fewer behavior problems we tend to experience in the classroom. I have often found this to be the case at meetings where teachers are in attendance as “students”.

It cannot be argued that a paradigm shift has occurred where learning no longer takes place within a single school building or classroom where a teacher simply pushes out information to a classroom full of students. Through the use of Web 2.0 technology and social media tools, teachers and students have access to information and expertise from all over the world making us not only consumers but creators of information. Just as our pedagogies must transform to meet the needs of our 21st century learners, professional development must be such where teachers are also able to manage and explore their own learning.

Learning is fluid, teaching is fluid, and the same needs to be true of professional development opportunities so that teachers are able to collaborate, share best practices and apply what they have learned and discovered to the lessons they create for their own students.

Responses From Readers

Carol Curtis:

Be clear about the purpose
Walk the talk...if you’ve been pushing DI, then model it
If it can be stated in writing, then don’t stand there and say it. Give me the written words to read later.
Make it interesting and relevant
Spend time preparing it
Have follow-ups
If it’s not relevant to part of the staff, give them something else to do or time to work on their own
Use local talent...don’t waste money on big names ... Develop your own pool
Have snacks and drinks
Use music as starters, break timers, etc.
Give positive messages throughout

Tammy Morris:

DO respectfully meet teachers wherever they are in their journey of the topic of the PD session, and guide them to move along. At the end of the session, they should be able to tell something specific they can do or know that they weren’t able to do /didn’t know at the beginning of the session.

Thanks to Roxanna, Sally, Chris, Jennifer, PJ, Patricia, and Sharon, and to readers, for their contributions!

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