This is written for two people:
- You're in charge of leading or organizing PD this year, and it's overwhelming or frustrating. You feel angsty or sad or resigned.
- You're a teacher who's attending PD this year, and it's overwhelming or frustrating. You feel angsty or sad or resigned.
Take heart! If we attend to a few key thoughts, I know we can do this.
“Wait, who is this guy to tell me?”
In addition to being a classroom teacher, I think about professional development a lot. As a teacher, I've had every educator's experience of sitting through too many incoherent, fad-chasing, off-key, or hypercomplex training sessions. As a PD provider, I've worked with groups of all sizes, disciplines, and grade levels in 40 or so states, plus a few places overseas. (Here's my experience and current offerings, in case you're curious.)
Here are some things that a few thousand hours of thinking about PD have shown me. I hope they help.
For providers, organizers, and decision-makers:
Tip 1: The context is key.
This year the number one thing you need to know about context is not what format your school's been in — that's the number two thing. Instead, think deeply on the inner landscape of your teachers. Not just that they are struggling, but why they are struggling — what the inner dynamic is like. You know as well as I do that your teachers don't want another person telling them that it's hard; what they want is help!
So, start with understanding this: the reason this is so hard this year is because we're caught in a recursive double whammy whirlpool that doesn't stop when we're not working. Our workload is up (including the number of new things we have to learn) and so is our pressure. The pressure is coming from all sides: workload (massive pressure), but also news (politics, pandemics) and family, and finances, and feelings (sadness, anger, anxiety).
Left to itself, this double whammy acts recursively, reinforcing itself in the worst way. The pressure leads to poorer thinking — performance always declines amidst too much pressure — and poorer thinking makes us prone to living in a suboptimal reactive mode. This reactivity makes us so much worse at getting a handle on our workloads… thus producing more pressure.
See the whirlpool?
(Don't worry, there's lots of hope.)
Tip 2: Context needn't always dictate PD topics, but sometimes it should.
This is just like good teaching. Sometimes a contextual factor (e.g., poor results on a unit assessment, a rift in trust, a tragedy in the school community) in my classroom needs only an earnest acknowledgment at the start of class; other times, it needs to replace my planned lesson.
In our present circumstances, the context is a big deal. So in thinking about the PD you're planning, you need to first ask: is there a way to offer a session — even if it's just an invitational, non-mandated one before winter break — on…
- …workload management during distance learning?
- …practical methods for creating work/rest-of-life boundaries?
- …ten tips for reducing pressure throughout the school day and while at home?
My sense is that these are no-brainers for every district in the country right now and likely so many throughout the world.
(Need help with any of this? I'd love to partner with your school. Be in touch using the contact form at the bottom of this page.)
Tip 3: When in doubt, ask your modestly successful teachers to share.
Here's an idea that works really well. Find the handful of teachers who are not miserable right now and are working sustainably and aren't mailing it in, and ask them to screencast themselves talking through 2-3 things that are helping them right now. At the start of this school year I was drowning, and so I started asking people who weren't drowning to answer a couple questions for me:
- How are you organizing your learning management system?
- How (if at all) do you use the LMS during a standard lesson?
- How do your students use the LMS if they are absent or quarantining?
- What is your workflow like with the LMS — during your day, when do you update it, what are you updating, etc?
Some of my best breakthroughs of the fall came from these simple videos.
Now notice: I said “modestly successful” teachers because you don't want to always have videos from the people known as “the best,” and you especially don't want videos from people who are working 90+ hours per week to produce their success. Why? Because many teachers do not relate to the first group and because you don't want any of your teachers working 90+ hours per week (unless you really like hiring new teachers all the time).
Another idea: ask teachers to create an #EducatorEncouragement video. They just record themselves sharing:
- At first, I felt [insert bad feelings].
- Then, I realized it wasn't just me.
- Then, I started doing _______, and it helped.
- _________ and __________ have helped, too.
The flow of the video matters — “I felt badly at first, then I realized it was normal. Then I did these 1-3 things, and I started to see better results.” When people watch videos like these and create their own videos in response, a powerful, evidence-based “attributional retraining” mechanism is at work. (The belonging belief research is fantastic. For a super nerdy video on attributional retraining, click here. To learn more about a whole course on this kind of stuff, click here.)
These two examples illustrate a principle we've all experienced: the better you can do at getting people who are in it in front of your teachers, the better the PD is likely to be received. This is always true, but especially so in times of stress. Aligning yourself with well-spoken, current practitioners communicates to your teachers at a heart level that we're all in this together and we've all got key roles to play — you in seeking out great PD for your team and teachers near or far in providing practical, relevant PD for times like these.
Tip 4: Think deeper than seat time.
Blending asynchronous reading or viewing experiences with synchronous, Zoom-style presentation/discussion experiences does something crazy — it gives your teachers a bit of autonomy in a time when they feel like so much is out of their control.
Practically, I'm talking about telling your teachers, “Hey, we've got this four-hour PD day in November. For the first hour of the day, we need you to set a timer and inspectingly read X, Y, Z articles or a module of your choice from the Fisher, Frey, and Hattie book or watch A, B, C videos. You can do that hour on the morning of our event from 7:30 to 8:30… or on a day and time you'd like, so long as it's before 8:30 on the day of our PD.”
(I've even gone so far as to record myself reading an article aloud so that teachers could listen to it asynchronously while doing something mindless with their bodies, like the dishes or jogging. While I don't have a future career prospect in audiobook recording, I do have confidence that some of my colleagues really appreciated this delivery method.)
And finally, for folks on the receiving end of PD:
Tip 5: Grace for them, focus for you.
Keep in mind that the people in charge of PD in your school system are having a hard time right now, too. Workload and pressure? We don't have a monopoly on that. So allow them some missteps; acknowledge that no one is capable of planning PD that is perfectly relevant to all people in all circumstances. Persist in thinking like this because in doing so, you are partnering with reality, warding away bitterness, making it easier for you to breathe, and clearing the path for you to do what you need to do…
…which is to focus. What matters most? What's the core of your work this year?
Everest sentences help with this. If your curious, here's mine this year:
My professional learning focus, at all times is this: how do I improve my instruction, my curriculum, my workflow, and my inner world so as to be the best guide I can be for my students and me? And how do I do these things without giving up the time my family and I need for the rest of life?
When I find myself in a professional development session that doesn't closely align with what I'm after, I adjust my attention accordingly, seeking the good of my students and my colleagues as I do.
We only control what we can control — but gosh, what we do control is a lot.
Best to you, colleague. One step at a time.