I love learning, that is one of the reasons I became a teacher. I knew that I would have opportunities to continue to learn and grow throughout my career and that has certainly been the case for me. I have participated in hundreds of hours of professional development over the years ranging from staff workshops to university study, and most of it has inspired and motivated to me to continually improve my teaching and leadership practice. Read on to see my five tips for getting the most out of professional development.
Recently I was chatting to a young teacher who I have known since her first year. We talked about the school PD she was doing in literacy and numeracy. She was feeling quite overwhelmed with all the new ideas and trying to stay on top of the implementation. The conversation swung from all the positive new things she was learning to the utter frustration of trying to get her head around it all.
“You know Carolyn, this PD is all great stuff, but it is just too much of a good thing and I don’t know where to start!”
This is a familiar cry for many, and since that conversation I have been reflecting on professional development for teachers and wondering - is it a blessing or a curse? I'm still not sure, and obviously it can depend on individual circumstances.
There is always something new happening in education and keeping up with the latest research, listening to differing opinions about teaching methods or curriculum implementation, while maintaining how you are currently teaching, is bound to feel overwhelming at times. Does having more professional development help with this overwhelm by taking you step by step through new ideas, or does it just confuse you and make you feel even worse?
Are you participating in professional development at the moment?
Is it something you have chosen to do yourself, or is it mandated by your school?
This can have a huge impact on how much you will get out of the experience. You may be feeling excited and motivated about what you are learning, or you may be frustrated and annoyed about having to attend yet another meeting.
Below I have listed some ideas that could help you get more from your professional development experiences. Applying a thoughtful, systematic approach to participating in PD definitely works for me and allows me to feel in control of the process and maximise my learning.
Being fully present to listening, watching, discussing and reading can be hard after a long teaching day. However the most effective way to learn is to pay attention. You can not focus on the learning if your mind is somewhere else.
Before each PD session give yourself a couple of minutes to make a list of all the things that are on the top of your mind – what you need to do to prepare for tomorrow, what you have to buy for dinner on the way home, bills you have to pay etc. Just scribble notes quickly then put the list away out of sight.
Now you can feel confident that you will remember all those things and get them done later, and stop thinking about them now. This helps you to feel more in control and organised. Your mind is released from the burden of trying to remember the ‘every day things’ and is now able to focus fully on the PD.
Don't be fooled by how simple this strategy seems. It is very powerful. I often started our staff PD this way by asking everyone to write their lists and then put them away, and many teachers commented on how useful they found this exercise.
Another seemingly simple tip, but how often have you rushed from the classroom to attend PD and quickly grabbed a piece of paper on the way, only to have misplaced it by the next session.
Have a good system for keeping your notes organised and together. Grabbing that spare piece of paper when you are on your way to the PD will probably mean that it will end up at the bottom of your bag, or mixed in a pile on your desk and then you won’t be able to find it before the next PD session, leading to more stress and wasted time looking for bits of paper!
Create a system that suits you – a clear file, a ring binder, an exercise book, or a digital file. It doesn’t matter as long as you use the same thing each time to keep all your notes and handouts together. Set your system up before the first session and be disciplined to use it each time. If you are receiving paper handouts from the presenter make sure to date them so that you can always put them in the right order if needed.
Your professional development will probably be a mixture of theory and practice. Throughout the session you will be thinking about actions you can take back in your classroom.
I have found it useful to keep a separate list of possible actions as I am taking notes. This can be a column running alongside my notes or a completely separate page of bullet pointed items I may want to do in the future. Sometimes I just highlight possible actions in my notes as I go.
While you are participating in the session keep focussed on what it is that you may want to implement. Listen for actionable items and keep track. Taking action embeds your learning, but be sure to read Tip 5 below before you implement anything.
Time to reflect on your previous learning is imperative. This doesn't mean you have to sit in silence for an hour meditating on your notes (although you could do this if you want!).
Reflection could be discussing the session with your colleagues in the staffroom. You could partner with a 'study buddy' who is doing the same PD and is happy to regularly get together for a chat and to compare notes. You could write in a reflective journal, or make space for reflection notes in your general PD notes. At the very least reread your notes before the next session.
Some useful reflection questions could be
You may now have a long list of ideas that you could take action on. However it is vitally important that you prioritise what you want to implement. I know from past experience that it can be tempting to jump on the next great educational idea and decide that it is imperative to have it in my classroom right away. Think carefully before making changes or there is a possibility that the baby might get thrown out with the bathwater. Just because it is a good idea does not necessarily mean that it is better than what you are already doing.
If you are going to make changes try to do only one thing at a time. In most cases you are better to integrate your new learning into what you are already doing successfully, rather than trying to start from scratch. Small, consistent steps will probably be more effective that a complete change of practice, and will be more sustainable over time. Remember, you still have your awesome list of ideas from Tip 3, so you won't forget anything, you just don't have to do it all at once.
So there you have my top 5 tips for getting the best out of your professional development.
Remember the reason you are doing professional development in the first place is to improve the educational outcomes for your students, but this will only happen if you think carefully about the individual needs in your class and tailor your implementation appropriately based on this.
Happy Learning 🙂