How To Make Sure Professional Development Is Not An Oxymoron

This post first appeared on Edudemic.

I have always contended that the term “Professional Development” is an oxymoron for most educators. Let’s face it, most people do not look forward to Professional Development (PD) Days in their school district due to the fact that most of these are created with someone else deciding what is most important for the learners. While there are certainly exceptions to this approach of deciding what professionals need to learn about, the fact of the matter is that most educators do not have enough of a voice when it comes to their own learning.

It is interesting to me that we focus a lot of time looking at differentiation, learning styles, and relevance when it comes to student learning but then toss these factors out the window when it comes to the learning opportunities for the adults in our schools. Maybe it is the time crunch or the ever-increasing number of mandates that we need to implement? Whatever our excuse, we need to find a way to present learning opportunities for our staff that replicate the types of opportunities we would like to see for our students in the classroom.  The question for the administrators setting up PD Days is – How would you evaluate this learning experience if it was one that you were viewing with students taking part instead of staff?

In our district, we have had a lot of discussions about Phillip Schlechty’s “Eight Qualities of Engaging Student Work.” (Graphic Below)From my standpoint, we could change PD dramatically for the better if we focused our professional learning efforts on just two of these eight qualities, choice and learning with others.  

In regards to choice, it baffles me that we do not allow more choice for the talented educators that we have hired to lead their own learning and go deeper on topics and issues that impact their day-to-day efforts with students. While I understand that a neatly organized schedule for the year of upcoming PD events looks great on paper, I know that we would never expect a teacher to create a schedule of learning for their students that was set in stone ahead of time. The reality of the matter is that some of the most meaningful “teachable moments” in classrooms occur when teachers make adjustments on the fly based on feedback and/or assessment results from learners. We need to find ways for our staff to receive the same kind of timely support based on priorities that may have come to light well after the year’s schedule for Professional Development was created. We know how important timely interventions are important to support students learning and we need to create the same opportunities for adult learning in our schools.

This leads me to “Learning with Others,” my favorite of Schlechty’s eight engaging qualities. In fact, I would contend that a Professional Development program focused on bringing educators together to share best practices on topics of their choice would be far more meaningful than most of the current PD experiences that educators experience in their schools and/or districts.  There is also a deeper issue here in regards to collaboration that we can help address here. It has been clearly stated by Harvard’s Dr. Tony Wagner and others that one of the fundamental skills are students will need to be successful is the ability to “collaborate across networks.” My concern here is that we have not done enough to foster collaboration within our school network and this inability on the part of the adults to see the value in networking locally will stifle our ability to teach students how to access on a broader level.  In order for our students to develop this critical skill,  we need to ensure opportunities for our staff members to collaborate with people both inside their school and outside of their school network and these opportunities must be both face-to-face and virtual.
With so much happening in public education with the Common Core, New Educator Evaluation procedures, and a number of other new mandates it is imperative that we take advantage of the professional learning time that we have available. So don’t forget that the same engaging qualities that we strive to create in our classrooms should be replicated for staff members when it comes to planning professional development.

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