I’m glad to be able to say that I’m reasonably intelligent and fairly well read. I take my work seriously, and try to keep up with what the world is learning about education, child development, and mental health. But I’m not a scholar. Or an expert. I believe I have the capacity to be an intellectual, but I’m not one. It’s not because I’m anti-intellectual or because I think scholarship is unimportant. I’m thrilled that there are passionate researchers who are dedicated to pushing the envelope, testing assumptions, and generating quality data. I’m glad that there are content-area specialists who dive deep and focus closely. It’s just not where I can add the most value. I also don’t think it meets most educators’ direct needs.
When I teach educators, they expect that I know what I’m talking about (I expect that of myself!). My work with them should be supported by research and aligned with our best and latest thinking about teaching and learning.
But when educators show up for professional development, they’re not looking for a human academic journal. I’m seldom asked about my degrees (don’t worry, I have them) or about standard deviation, effect size, or internal validity within the research. They don’t expect that I have plumbed the depths of every issue that arises. I find that whatever the topic, educators have four basic and critical questions:
Will you hold my attention?
There are few things worse than boring PD. Time always feels scarce in a school, and it’s too easy to think that there are more important things to do than pursue one’s own learning. This is especially true when teachers have little or no say in what PD is being offered. Whether or not it’s said aloud, teachers are often thinking, “There are lessons to be planned, papers to be graded, parent emails to return! Who has time for this??” PD providers must be purposeful about engagement. Sometimes that means being an entertainer, telling a joke, or weaving a great story. It also means involving the educators in the learning – through movement, choice, group talk, personal reflection, and a strong feedback loop.
Do you understand me and my school?
The best professional development providers know what teachers and leaders are going through because they’ve worked in schools. They are able to share their own stories and establish basic credibility through the strength of their experience and knowledge. But they don’t only understand schools in the generic sense. Quality PD providers understand that a large and historic Orthodox Jewish high school in New York and a start-up Community Jewish elementary school in Georgia have different cultures, different goals, and different challenges. Educators want to know that PD providers have taken the time to understand what makes them unique, and have tailored the experience to address their particular needs.
Is this realistic? or Yeah, but what does it look like in the classroom?
I’ve had the experience of being wowed by a keynote speaker. I walk away from the experience thinking, “He was amazing. I could never do that.” Whether ‘amazing’ meant charismatic, brilliant, or creative, if the speaker held my attention, understood me, but didn’t help me see how I could achieve the vision he was sharing, it ultimately fell flat. True PD requires action on the part of the learner including personal reflection and practice. Rather than marveling at the amazingness of the presenter, PD should leave the learner empowered, saying, “I know what steps I need to take to improve my practice, and I feel like I can begin implementing small changes immediately. I know that the next steps are within my reach, and that I now have the knowledge and skills to be moving in the right direction.” This means not getting lost in jargon or bogged down in theory, but taking the time to demonstrate and practice new skills and to create concrete action plans for the subsequent days.
How seriously should I take this?
Some schools have brought in a wide range of PD of varying quality that is immediately forgotten by everyone as soon as the next day. PD has the most impact when it is sustained over time. It is easy for leaders to introduce new ideas and strategies, and relatively easy for educators to understand them. It gets sticky when it comes to implementing changes based on those ideas and strategies. Research has shown it takes an average of 20 instances of practice before a teacher has mastered a new skill. Teachers don’t have to try it once or twice, but TWENTY TIMES. This requires significant attention and persistence on the educators’ behalf and a great deal of patience, reinforcement, and support from leadership. All parties must be ready to commit, follow up, and follow through for PD to really take root and make a difference for students. No single workshop or flavor-of-the-month initiative will accomplish it.
As you think about what’s next for your school in PD, consider these four questions. Use them to inform your choice of presenter. Rather than choosing for deep scholarship or expertise (or even a big name), consider whether the provider will understand your school, engage the educators, and provide a concrete, actionable path toward implementation. Consider also whether the provider is in it with you for the long haul, and your own commitment to providing the time and support to sustain growth over months of practice.