3 Tips for Professional Learning Days

I’ve spent the last two days (and again tomorrow) with teachers in professional learning. Those of you who plan PD can appreciate how anxiety-inducing this process can be -especially if you are doing it with great intentionality and care. Our teachers have worked so hard this school year and deserve to professional learning that both honors their time and priorities and takes good care of them.

Our team gathered feedback from administrators and teachers and heard resounding themes emerge: people did not want to feel shuffled through conference style PD, they wanted learning that felt relevant, and they wanted time to reflect and plan.

We received thoughtful, positive feedback about the two day experience we put together which has me reflecting upon some of what makes professional learning good or at a minimum, what makes professional learning more tolerable!

Student & Teacher Voice

We kicked off our experience with a student panel, and students inspired us and nudged us in more ways than we ever dreamed! One of the most underutilized resources in our schools is our students. We collected questions from teachers and invited a diverse group of students to join us and share their perspectives. They did not disappoint! Many teachers were worried that students were going to tell them that they were doing a bad job, but they were pleasantly surprised. Our students were not only encouraging, they were honest and articulate and thoughtful about the things that aren’t working for them too. Many of us left with a sense that students should be present for all of our professional learning in some capacity in the future. Kids remind us of why we do these jobs and encourage us to keep trying even when things get hard.

As I previously mentioned, teacher input helped shape many aspects of these two days, but it was important to us that teacher voice outweigh facilitator and administrator voice. One of the best ways teachers learn is through dialogue with each other about their thinking and instructional practices. I will never forget a quote from David Weinberger. I first heard it when George Couros shared it in a keynote, “The smartest person in the room, is the room.” If you were to count up the total number of years of experience sitting in professional learning spaces, it’s a lot of years of experience. I’m not calling us old! It’s just the truth – together, we know some stuff because we’ve done some stuff for some time now. So, when facilitators or administrators lead PD or meetings and take up the majority of the airtime, we are missing out on valuable insights and perspectives. We must be mindful of equity of voice in the spaces we serve.

Model & Name

When we facilitate rooms for meetings and learning, it is important to model the practices we want to see in classrooms. A great irony in education is the fact that often people talk at us and don’t engage us in the learning process while presenting on “best practices” in education. As Katie Martin so eloquently describes in her book, Learner-Centered Innovation, “Teachers create what they experience.” If we want teachers to smile and greet at students as they enter their classrooms, we should smile and greet educators as they enter our meetings and PD. If we don’t want students sitting and passively listening for along periods of time, we shouldn’t have adult learners sitting and listening for long periods of time. Be the change you wish to see. But also, name what you are doing and why you are doing it. Unpack the strategy you used and the moves you made. Ask people in the room to share about similar strategies and moves they are making in the classroom and how that is working for their students. Life is busy. People are tired. We must be clear about what moves we are modeling. Name those moves. And explain why we made those choices. Otherwise, people may miss it.

During these professional learning days, we spent time digging deeper into hope, belonging, student engagement, and 21st century learning with an emphasis on hope. The research from Battelle for Kids inspired these four areas of inquiry, but it’s hope that captured the hearts and minds of our teachers on these PD days. The BFK research indicates that hope is a stronger indicator of future success than any academic measures. It’s a stronger predicator of future success than SAT score, ACT score, or GPA. Our kids need hope. We all need hope. We need hope for our futures and a belief that we can create the futures we desire. Additionally, BFK research indicates that teachers can give kids hope but only if they have hope themselves.

So, we focused deeply in our planning process on modeling and naming strategies that built hope and belonging. Strategies that would not only built hope for teachers but that through the modeling, naming, and conversation, teachers themselves would leave equipped and affirmed by strategies that they could use with students to grow their sense of hope.

Make Space to Reflect & Do

I’ve had the great pleasure over the past year to learn from Tim Kubik, author, consultant, and co-founder of Project ARC. Tim has been artfully facilitating learning for a group of almost thirty K-12 educators in my district. These incredible educators have been looking at what it means to create a student-centered learning ecosystem in our schools and classrooms. In essence, they have been exploring how to get to deeper levels of student learning. Each educator developed a community-connected project alongside their students and a community partner. Throughout that experience, Tim provided time for conversation, connection, and reflection. He would often quote John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting upon experience.”

Too often, we shuffle educators through PD. Again, funny how critical we can be of educators who move quickly through covering standards when we do that very thing during professional learning. It doesn’t matter how great of an experience we have provided if people do not have the opportunity to reflect and therefore learn from their experience. Reflection is not wasted space. It is the secret ingredient to meaningful professional learning. And I don’t mean a few minutes here and five minutes there. Nice windows of time. Chunks of time. It doesn’t matter how good the learning was if people don’t have an opportunity to think about and work with what they learned.

Einstein once said, “Curiosity is more important than intelligence.” Do teachers have time to be curious? If they don’t, we shouldn’t be surprised if students don’t seem very curious in the classroom either. Playful, curious, and happy teachers lead playful, curious, and happy classrooms. We must ensure that we aren’t schooling this out of our educators and therefore students.

We offered teachers a half day (learning occurred for two days) to reflect, process, connect, and plan.

Switch it Up

As I mentioned earlier, we focused on four areas during our professional learning. Two of those areas were 21st century learning (which makes me laugh, we’ve been in this century for 22 years, but ok…) and student engagement. Teachers are very busy supporting students in their classroom every day. As educators, we don’t know what we don’t know. Since we are busy doing good work with kids, we don’t often get to leave our school setting and visit other work environments. This is real shame because we are preparing kids for the workforce and work environments, and we don’t often get the chance to go see what’s out there. So, we sent high school teachers to spend a half day with various community partners to make that connection and learn more about the skills and attributes that make students marketable and employable and also the skills and attributes that make employees successful long-term.

We were worried that teachers would hate this, honestly. I lost sleep over it. My teammates too. Sometimes, it’s hard to know how people will feel about certain experiences. Every teacher I talked to – LOVED IT. Many left with connections made – such as speakers for their classroom or community-connected learning ideas. Others felt more knowledgeable about opportunities they could share with their students who struggle with a plan for their future beyond high school. It all goes back to hope – teachers left feeling more equipped to inspire hope for the future in their students.

I spoke to a teacher who said, “You know we also liked this because it was different. For those of us who have been around for awhile, a lot of these days feel the same.” It’s amazing what taking people out of their every day environment can do. Sometimes, in order to think differently, we need to be somewhere different.

And back to that teacher voice piece, we invited the teachers who I previously mentioned had done community-connected projects to share about their experience when people returned from these experiences. I could go on, but let’s just say that there was a good kind of electricity coming off teachers when they returned from these visits.

I love asking for feedback on notecards. One of my favorite notecards from these days said, “Meaningful. Today was a very meaningful and surprising PD day. Honestly, this is one of the best PD days I’ve had in a very long time, and I appreciate all of your hard work and effort.” Wow. These were the kinds of notes we received about JUNE PD.

To bring this on home, let’s end where we started. Teachers are so smart. They make me smarter. When we listen to the educators who are working closest to our students every day and allow their insights to inform planning for professional learning, the plan gets better.

Perhaps next, we can also involve students in the planning process.

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