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January 7, 2021

Planning Meaningful Professional Development

It was five days before I was scheduled to present a two-day professional development when I got the fateful call: “Lisa, you can’t present face-to-face because you are traveling from out of state.” The 2020 pandemic strikes another blow!

How was I going to take a set of highly interactive small- and large-group activities and turn them into a remote presentation? As I looked through my plans, everything I knew to be true about effective PD was put to the test.

Professional development has always been one of my favorite topics in educational leadership because I love finding ways to get teachers involved in the process. Their voices are crucial to effective PD, so it takes careful planning to make them heard. Here are the key principles to follow to make your PD meaningful and productive.

Identify Purpose and Needs

For too long, PD has been seen as “something to get over with”; just check the box and move on. This mentality often leads to subpar PD that not only wastes everyone’s time, but is also a missed opportunity for true growth!

If our goal, as teachers, is to deliver the best education possible, we must continuously improve our instructional practices. That starts by identifying (a) the unique needs of our school and our students and (b) what knowledge we need to meet those needs.

Before we go any further, let’s talk about staff buy-in. It’s tempting to keep the process of identifying needs at the leadership level. However, it’s crucial to involve teachers at every step of PD planning, including this first one. Teachers need to understand the “why” and the “what” behind their PD. Why is this specific PD needed? And what kind of PD is necessary to meet those needs? Involving teachers in these conversations will give them a sense of ownership over their PD—and also help them understand how to be data driven in the decision-making process. (But that’s another topic for another day!)

To effectively identify the needs of your school and students, your staff should meet together to discuss the following:

  • Look at student data and discuss strengths and areas for growth.
  • Reflect on current instructional practices, both as a whole school and in specific grade levels and content areas.
  • Reflect on personal growth needs and how they align with school needs.

These discussions should result in a list of needs and some sense of which needs you should prioritize first. I strongly encourage involving your staff in identifying the top two needs. If you listen to and value what your staff says, they will be more invested in the process and more willing to participate and, later, apply the learning.

Use In-House Experts

Once you know which needs you’re going to address, it’s time to figure out who’s going to lead the PD. There’s an old saying that if your parent tells you something, you won’t listen, but if your peer tells you the same thing, then suddenly you believe it. Educators are the same way! We value our peers and are more willing to follow what they say and do vs. what higher-ups tell us.

For example, one of the most powerful PD experiences I’ve ever been a part of was led by a group of fourth-grade teachers. Over two days, they taught and modeled best practices in writing instruction, including how to conduct a writer’s workshop. As a result of these teachers’ leadership, other teachers went to them throughout the year to ask questions, seek help, and discuss difficulties during their learning process.

I used this model repeatedly through my years as an instructional coordinator and principal. The more you practice using your teachers as in-house experts, the more teachers will be willing to lead and the more it will become the way of doing business at your school.

Make a Long-Term Plan

Once you identify key in-house experts, work with them to identify the instructional best practices you want to work toward, and make a long-term plan for helping teachers improve. I recommend having an administrator or instructional coach facilitate these discussions because people in these roles often have experience pulling together ideas in a cohesive way. Plus, it allows teachers to stay focused on the work in the classroom.

Here’s an outline of what these planning groups should focus on:

  • Develop guiding questions to outline ideas from the planning team (i.e., gather teacher representatives’ thoughts).
  • Use the planning team’s answers to begin a rough outline for the PD.
  • Use a graphic organizer to detail your plan, including: overview, purpose, focus for each activity, activity details, presenter, and materials needed.
  • In the classroom, teachers should talk 30% of the time and students talk 70% of the time. The same principle holds true for PD. Plan activities that focus on teacher discussion and group interaction.

Always remember, less is more. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t try to cram all of your school’s PD needs into one or two days. Over the course of the school year, focus on the best practices you identified and continually build knowledge over time.

Don’t Forget Food

Oh yeah, be sure and feed these people. Provide snacks and drinks even if it means doing a potluck of snacks. It helps with mood and attention.

The Benefit of Options

In the age of technology, professional learning opportunities come in many forms. You might facilitate PD online, face-to-face, or a combination of both. Online learning provides an optimum way for teachers and leaders to extend their learning in a flexible and independent way. Face-to-face learning provides another layer of human interaction where participants more readily build on each other’s emotion and passion.

Regardless of the method, planners and designers of PD must stay focused on their goals: improving students’ learning and meeting the development needs of their audience: the educators.

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