So I shared a bit ago about how one of the bad guys that's driving teachers nuts these days is bad PD.
Okay, driving them nuts is an understatement. Just ask a teacher.
And while leading some PD a couple weeks ago in the fine states of Oklahoma and Missouri, I started thinking really hard about this. You see, I'm passionate about empowering teachers to lead calm, impactful classrooms; thus, when I hear about all the angst being caused by, say, the Common Core, which could be quite simple and powerful yet seems destined to be presented as complicated and soul-sucking… well, I get angry.
And you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
So this post is 100% for administrators, PD committees, and anyone else who pulls the trigger on PD decisions. I'll break it up into three parts: PD basics, homegrown PD, and foreigner PD.
(And in case you're wondering how I have any authority to say anything about this, I just finished reading through 316 teacher feedback forms. I'm not an expert, but I'm not a noob, either.)
There are a few principles that should probably guide any kind of good, useful PD.
First of all, a mentor of mine likes to say, “Whoever's doing the talking is doing the thinking.” Good PD should involve a mixture of a leader talking and participants talking. Any PD that is 100% presented content probably involves someone selling you something and probably won't impact your teachers. The only exception here might be if the speaker is an absolute boss (e.g., I once listened to Leonard Pitts talk for an hour at a Michigan Reading Association conference; it changed my soul).
To be even more specific, participant talking should not just be in one mode. For example, there are times when participants can benefit from interacting with their peers, and there are times when participants can benefit from a limited Q & A session with the leader. It's all about mixing it up — but each strategy and activity used should be chosen with thoughtful intentions, not just for the sake of mixing it up.
Teachers don't like cutesy, and activity for activity's sake is cutesy.
So in general, a good PD session needs an appropriate, intentional mix of learning modes: hands on demonstrations of the strategies being discussed, video of actual teachers in actual classrooms, print materials with appendices that may or may not be directly addressed in the session, and plenty of time for teachers to process the information.
It's about making the session as useful and practical for real teachers as humanly possible.
Some of the best PD I've ever experienced cost as little as a Flip camera and a few hours of video editing.
Let me explain.
In my experience, the best homegrown PD involves getting into each others' classrooms and processing what's working and what's not. Yet, due to scheduling and space constraints, this is pretty impractical to do on a large scale.
But using a simple video camera (our district bought the camera pictured at right for around $200) and some common sense, you can get nearly the same effect. Here's how our video-visit PD worked:
- Prior to the PD day, building coaches or admins filmed various teachers in the school teaching a lesson (the teachers gave their consent for the filming in advance, and students were not focused on in the film);
- The coaches then edited the video down to 5-10 minute clips that showcased teaching strategies that were particularly effective (note: this wasn't fancy-schmancy video editing, it was the kind of cropping you can do right on the Flip camera);
- On the day of the PD, teachers were given a list of the various videos (name of teacher, subject/grade level taught, strategies illustrated), and they were allowed to travel to the filmed teachers' classroom, where the video was played;
- After the video, viewers had some discussion questions (prepared by building coaches) to guide them, and they were also able to ask questions of the host teacher whose video they had just watched;
- After 15 minutes or so, a PA announcement was made to move on to a different classroom to view a different video.
We watched and discussed three videos that day; it was so refreshing to see teachers we knew doing moves we had learned about. There was nothing flashy, no professional video editing — just teachers watching/discussing teaching.
PD from foreigners*
*that is, folks from out of town; folks like me (insert frightening music).
Even though I think the homegrown video PD outlined above is powerful and effective, there are times when bringing in an outside voice is worth the expense.
For example, in one of the schools I visited recently, teachers were overwhelmed by previous Common Core PD, and my hosts believed that my focused, non-freaked out approach would alleviate some tension and empower teachers to get started. The same message coming from someone in-district who wasn't me might have been somewhat effective, but coming from the guy who lives and breaths that message, it might have had a little more punch.
In another school, the staff was highly motivated and high-performing, and, honestly, my ideas seemed most valuable in that they reaffirmed the awesome work being done and perhaps added a new thing here and there (actually, one of the common takeaways from that PD was grit, something entirely unrelated to and yet totally necessary for Common Core).
Basically, outside voices have their place; foreign PD can be great.
But the thing is, when you start searching around for PD consultants, it can be like searching around for Common Core aligned resources: there are a boatload of 'em out there, but it's hard to tell which are worth… well, anything.
So how can admins and PD committees discern if a consultant is worth a fee? A few tips:
1. Is this person in a classroom?
For better or worse, teachers are super-skeptical of anyone who is not currently teaching at the exact same difficulty level as them. I honestly think that if George Washington himself walked in to give some PD to a group of teachers, half of them would be like, “This dude ain't a teacher.”
And they'd be right, because George Washington is dead.
But it's seriously important to teachers that the person presenting to them understands what it's like to manage a full course load with bloated class sizes and testing pressures and helicopter parents and free/reduced lunch issues and national standards movements.
So if you are looking at someone who is retired or semi-retired or a literacy coach or something, make darn sure this person can clearly explain how they gain rapport with teacher audiences. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I am saying it's hard.
2. Do they have stuff online? Is it quality?
A person's available resources are a great indicator of whether they'll “bring the ruckus” when it comes time to present to your staff. If they have nothing online — and I'm not talking about a website; I'm talking about fresh content, PDFs, videos, slideshows, an active social media account, or anything that shows they are regularly producing value for teachers outside of their presentations — it might be a sign that they can't bring it.
It might not. But it might.
Maybe they wrote a book once, but how are they serving and supporting folks in between publication cycles?
It's just food for thought.
3. What do some of your teachers think about this person?
Divide the teachers in your building into three groups in your head: high will, medium will, and low will. Pick a person from each group and show them a summary page or a video intro of the PD person you're considering.
How do they respond?
Ideally, the PD person you're looking at can engage each teacher, just like the ideal teacher can engage each kind of learner that comes in their room.
4. Where else have they spoken? What have been the results?
A great principal at one of the schools I visited recently asked, “What results have come from Dave's previous workshops?” What an incredible question. If the PD person you're looking at has no track record of results to share upon request, your teachers are likely to sense that this person is selling a soft hard-boiled egg.
5. Are they an engaging speaker? Are there any speaking clips available online?
Some of the brightest researchers and writers in the world are absolutely horrible presenters — just watch a TED talk. And while they are fascinating to watch, it's highly unlikely that their talks produce much change in their audience. Try to find some way — past participant feedback, video clips, etc. — to prove that this person will hold the attention of your teachers.
Now: wage war on bad PD and get this post in your administrator's hands… er, face!
I know we have a few administrators here in the Teaching the Core community, but most of us are teachers. Whoever you are, share this post with every principal in your life.
If I've missed anything, let me know in the comments!
Cecilia Lynch says
I really enjoy your posts tremendously. This one really didn’t apply to me, but today I have been combing past posts and getting my plans together. Thanks for your continued service.