Teaching Opinion

The Most Professional Professional Development

By David B. Cohen — October 16, 2015 5 min read
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“Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.”

“Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

- from “Annie Hall

Substitute “professional development” for “food” in the quote above, and you’d have the attitude of many teachers regarding that aspect of our work. Most of us would like more professional learning opportunities, but there are so many ways that it’s done poorly. Most of us can cite examples of trainings or presentations that were ineffective because of problems with the concept, design, delivery, timing, or lack of follow-up. Conversely, when we have valuable professional learning experiences, they seem like rays of light breaking through the stormclouds, revelations. (Cue: “Hallelujah Chorus”).

When we talk of professional learning, too often we’re talking about what happens on “professional development days.” Depending on the district, and the current budget situation, we might find these are too many or too few, scattered throughout the year, or clustered at the start or end of the school year. Might we not be better off if these special days become a bygone practice, yielding to a model where professional learning is continual and embedded in our daily or weekly routines?

As much as I want to see that happen, I’m also still pumped up from the most recent professional learning experience in my own school district. Yes, it was a mandatory “professional development day” - unlike any I’ve attended before. Maybe there’s hope for the PD day after all. And so, although my usual blogging approach is to look beyond my own school or district experience, I want to share what we did in Palo Alto last week.

For starters, the whole approach to our day reflected effort to design a learning experience rather than deliver professional development. The teachers responsible for planning the event - actually, let me just stop right there. I repeat. Teachers planned the event. Even though it was a required work day, we were treated as if we had made a choice, as if our district wanted to deserve our patronage, as if we were attending a professional conference and might not return next time if we didn’t have a positive experience. So, there was breakfast, and coffee, and “swag” to pick up on arrival, while music played in the background. Our superintendent provided some opening remarks, followed by a keynote address from teacher and technology trainer Lisa Highfill, part of the EdTechTeam that provided much - but not all - of the content later in the day.

Among the one and two-hour sessions we could choose from in our “conference” schedule, there was an emphasis on educational technology, though there were some other powerful options as well. Our EdTechTeam guest trainers and presenters were not only fellow educators (teachers, coaches, at least one principal), but also skilled facilitators of new learning; their classroom-based knowledge and technical aptitude served us well in hands-on sessions. Mixed in to the schedule were teachers from our high schools, sharing their knowledge and best practices on topics both technical and non-technical.

Another key to the design of the day was that we had choices about where to go and what to do. Almost any time you have an entire teaching staff - especially secondary teachers - going through the same training at the same time, you can be sure your not meeting their pedagogical needs efficiently. There’s also a strong chance you’re not nurturing any sparks of inspiration that are going to carry teachers forwards in their learning and in their professional satisfaction. So, in my case, I went to three unrelated sessions, but I kept seeking out learning that meets a need. I have been trying to expand the use of standards-based grading in my district, so I went to a session led by my colleagues in order to learn not only what they’re doing in that regard, but also to support them and others taking steps in that direction. For my next session, I went in a technological direction, and I ended up as the only teacher who selected that particular session. It turned out to be a great hour, having the dedicated attention of a knowledgeable trainer helping me find resources based on instructional needs I identified. After lunch (provided - very professional), for my third session, I chose a presentation and discussion about supporting our transgendered students at various phases in their personal journeys and transitions. We had teachers, counselors, administrators and classified staff learning together in a way that may not produce an appreciable bump in district-wide achievement, but will almost certainly produce an appreciable positive impact in the lives of some vulnerable students, and hopefully improve the overall climate at our school as we understand and embrace difference.

My colleagues and I entered the closing of the event inspired. Dessert was served, and there was an edcamp style “slam” - a high-paced and entertaining sharing of quick ideas and specific tech tools that might be new to most of us. There were raffle prizes. There were rounds of applause for everyone involved in planning and organizing the event. But the accolades didn’t stop when we headed off to our weekend. My colleague, Josh Bloom, wrote the email below and sent it to the entire staff (included here with his permission):

To all of those who organized this event today I have to say publicly that you did an incredible job. This was the most professional professional development day I’ve seen...maybe ever. You deserve tremendous kudos, high fives, and hugs for the work you put in to make today engaging and worthwhile. As I consider deeply the tremendous care, effort, and sweat (physical and psychological) that must have gone into pulling something like this off - however perfect or imperfect anyone may have felt it to be - I can’t help but feel the love and passion that it represents for all of us and what we do. Thank you.

Then, in a rare case of “reply all” being the right choice, seven more emails followed.

There are those who would suggest that we evaluate professional learning in terms of boosting test scores and improving teacher evaluations. I can’t say with confidence that this event will produce either of those results for my district. I also don’t think those are sufficient metrics for evaluating professional learning, especially in the near term. What would our schools and districts be like if, someday, Josh couldn’t express surprise at being treated so professionally? What would it mean for the stability of our teaching force and the recruitment of new teachers if we could hold up this type of experience as the norm?

Photo: EdTechTeam Palo Alto Summit featuring Moonshots in Education; by Kimberly Diorio (used with permission).

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools 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.