Making Professional Development Work for You
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2017 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
At 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning in May, Peter Cameron booted up a computer in a Seattle hotel room and prepared to learn from more than 60 teachers around the world. He was attending MAD PD—short for “Make a Difference.”
Cameron didn’t simply attend the 12-hour conference. He also presented and co-organized it with Derek Rhodenizer. A few months earlier, the two friends had decided to hold a professional development day where teachers would share one thing they’ve done that has made a difference in their classrooms. “We limited it to nothing,” says Cameron.
The conference broke barriers. First, geography wasn’t a factor. It was entirely virtual, using Google Hangouts, YouTube, and Twitter. Presenters broadcasted talks on individual YouTube channels. They spent 15 minutes speaking and the next 15 minutes interacting with other educators. Many topics came up: #MADPD trended all day, reaching number two in Canada.
“The concept of this conference has helped blow apart the size of where we can learn. It doesn’t stop in the walls of your school and your district,” says Rhodenizer. “This type of technology is the highway to help us connect these people.”
MAD PD also broke barriers about who could present. Many of the the presenters had never attended a conference before, given a presentation, or even used Google Hangouts. The traditional conference format was also disrupted. All the talks are archived online, so people can watch them again or share with others.
MAD PD appears unique. In some ways, it is. Twitter, YouTube, Google Hangouts: all are recent developments. Even Cameron—who calls MAD PD the most meaningful conference he has attended in more than 20 years of teaching—says that five years ago, he never thought he’d be on Twitter. But these developments demonstrate some of the key factors for successful professional development: the need for self-direction, the importance of community, and the willingness to be vulnerable.
Teachers are often told to individualize lessons for their students. While all students in a classroom may need to learn the same concepts or master similar skills, teachers need to be flexible in teaching the material so all students are engaged. Student choice is valued. But that isn’t always true when teachers are the students.
“Personalization has to exist in professional development in order to have perpetual growth for educators,” says Noa Daniel, a teacher in Vaughan, ON, who participated in MAD PD. Teachers need choice, so they can choose to learn about topics that will be most meaningful for them.
Teachers can’t decide everything. When new a curriculum is introduced, for example, teachers need to know about it. If a school district introduces new technology or grading platforms, then everyone needs proper training. Professional development will be more successful, however, if teachers have some choice about what they want to learn and how they participate in that learning.
All those activities could be called training, says Ruth Dawson. As the coordinator of professional development and curriculum at the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, she plans and organizes professional development for educators across the province. But teachers need more than that.
Professional development, or learning, is “a lot less about going to see an expert and a lot more about exploring things and the impact they have on student learning in your classroom or the culture of your classroom,” she says.
Teachers know what their students need. Governments may be focused on improving test scores, says Dawson, but teachers want to learn how to support students who are new to the country or living in poverty. Teachers also need flexibility in how they receive professional development. Teachers who are raising families or going to school themselves may not have time to attend a workshop. Online learning may be better for them.
Teachers also need to know what they need to learn and be aware of what they’re good at, plus areas where they need to grow. “When we have a sense of ourselves, that’s where we can self-direct,” says Daniel, noting teachers can’t wait for administrators to decide what they should learn. “The students need us to do more and be more for ourselves, because then we bring that to them,” she says. Yet teachers can’t rely on themselves. Professional development only exists because teachers need to learn from others.
That’s how MAD PD happened: Rhodenizer is a regular podcaster, so he could handle the audio. He’s not a blogger, but Cameron is. So Cameron did more of the writing. “We recognized each other’s strengths and went with it,” says Cameron.
Regardless of what their school or district’s plans are, teachers need to seek out professional development opportunities that work for them. This requires creating a learning community. “You need to find your learning team,” says Dawson. “Whenever you have someone else that you’re learning with, it makes it more powerful.” For many people, that means getting active on Twitter. If this seems intimidating, Dawson recommends starting by asking a trusted colleague and then seeing who they follow.
Twitter can be a good window into what’s happening in other schools and districts. This is particularly important for teachers who are isolated. That’s what Cameron and Rhodenizer discovered, even though the two teachers have yet to meet.
Both are in “oddly similar situations of isolation,” says Rhodenizer. He is the director of academics at Westboro Academy, an independent Ottawa school. Cameron is in Thunder Bay, hours from urban centres in southern Ontario.
Twitter keeps Rhodenizer informed about new ideas in education. There’s always something new being shared. Many people criticize Twitter for this shallow nature. “It can be. But it’s great for that because it’s a constant stream of information,” he says. Teachers need to learn how to use the tool appropriately: as an entry point to learning about subjects more deeply, “140 characters isn’t the answer, but it’s the starting point,” he says.
Face-to-face interactions help teachers apply what they learn to their own classrooms, says Dawson. Educators consistently rank in-person learning as their preferred method of professional development in the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario surveys, she says.
“A lot of educators are social beings, and that face-to-face piece is that whole social aspect of learning as a collective,” she notes. Online learning has a place; it’s how Dawson earned her master’s degree. But it can’t work for everything. Some topics—like classroom management—are best discussed in-person.
Teachers should also pursue in-person professional development with educators outside of their school. Craig Mah, principal at Walton Elementary School in Coquitlam, BC, doesn’t determine topics for in-school professional development for his staff. He says professional development is more “relevant” when teachers can choose what they want to learn, but he says educators should pursue opportunities beyond their schools. He has found EdCamps and Ignite sessions helpful.
EdCamps are “unconferences,” explains Mah. He started attending them partly out of curiosity; he had been taught that professional development happens in formal workshops, he says. EdCamps don’t have pre-planned schedules or keynotes. Participants create the schedule at the beginning of the event. They decide what they want to learn about. This ensures the topics are relevant to teachers. At a recent EdCamp Mah attended, there was a session about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
Ignite are evening gatherings of teachers, often held at restaurants. They’re similar to MAD PD: teachers present for a few minutes about topics that interest them or what has helped them in their classroom. Then, they listen to others. Learning from others doesn’t mean becoming like them.
“It’s not about necessarily copying something and hoping that the teacher is going to copy it just the same way. That’s never really worked for anyone,” says Katherine Mulski. As a district instructional coach in Langley, BC, she often helps teachers who are in new positions. “It’s about teachers finding their own groove with something that’s being presented out to them and seeing how they can take it out to their kids.”
What works for one teacher may not work exactly the same for another. Teachers need personalization in what they choose to learn. They need it in applying those lessons. They also need to be vulnerable. Professional learning becomes “deep” when teachers share where they need to improve, says Dawson. This can be frightening, but beneficial.
Some of Noa Daniel’s most recent professional development came when she was vulnerable with her students. She enjoys giving professional development because it keeps her accountable and helps her learn. But she prefers giving in-person presentations; doing so online “terrified” her. Her students were ready to teach her, staying in at lunch to show her how to present virtually. “We’re not there to be filling empty vessels,” she says. “We’re there to model learning and support learning for our students.”
Students learn best by example, so teachers need to be good learners themselves—failures included.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.