Monday, February 18, 2013

Don’t Waste my Time: Seeking out Meaningful Professional Development

 I’ve been teaching for about five years and I can count the number of meaningful district-run professional development opportunities I’ve had in that time on one hand. It’s not for lack of trying on my part. I regularly scour the “PD Planner” on SchoolNet.  I’ve gone to schools all over the city to attend workshops and classes on a ton of topics, but by and large, they’ve been busts.  Fed up with District offerings, I broadened my search.  Using my newly formed PLN (I joined twitter last June and have found it to be an invaluable professional resource… check me out @MrTeachPhilly), I started seeking out different opportunities.  Below are some of the resources that I found: 

#engchat  -  This hashtag was the reason that I joined Twitter in the first place.  I read an article about a teacher in Philly who started a weekly Twitter chat for English teachers and how quickly it had grown. I thought I’d give it a try.  The first time I tuned in, I just “lurked”.  I tried to join the conversation, but it seemed to move too quickly and I didn’t yet understand Twitter.  After a few weeks of slowly breaking in, I now look forward to #engchat every Monday night.  There’s always an engaging topic and a great group of educators from all over the country who contribute. I’ve gotten some wonderful resources and inspiration from these folks. Not an English teacher? No problem.  There are tons of #chats for different subjects and levels. 

Educon 2.5   -  Educon is another opportunity that I learned about through Twitter (and felt foolish for not knowing about before).  It’s a conference that takes place every year in Philadelphia at Science Leadership Academy (SLA).  SLA is one of the District’s “special-admit” schools and exists in partnership with the Franklin Institute.  The conference is put together by the school’s dynamic staff and students led by Principal Chris Lehmann.  The theme changes each year, but the focus is always on building connections, transforming learning & instruction, utilizing technology, and cultivating inquiry.  Workshops are led by educators, entrepreneurs, techno-folks, and various others involved with education across the country.  More than anything, Educon is about conversation and learning from one another.  
In addition to great speakers, including the always powerful Salome Thomas-El whose words had me ready to walk out of there and start my own school, I attended 6 workshops on a wide range of topics including Fostering student voice, What does a 21st century classroom look like?, Spoken word poetry, Cultivating the “ethic of care”, Students’ lives outside of school, and Pushing back against high stakes testing. 

Though I really encourage folks to come check out Educon 2.6 next year, there are experiences like this in cities across the country. Sure I had to sacrifice a weekend and a few dollars to attend Educon, but many of the workshops, panels, and conversations were the breath of fresh air that I needed half-way through the school year. 

PhilaSoup  -  Professional development absolutely does not have to be based in instruction and it certainly doesn’t have to place in school.  PhilaSoup is part of a growing “-soup” movement where people concerned about a particular issue get together to discuss innovative ideas and share a meal (in this case, soup).  PhilaSoup takes place once a month at different locations around the city.  Educators and education-supporters pay $10 at the door then eat delicious homemade soup and talk informally before listening to four short presentations, each by a teacher who has an innovative idea for their classroom.  After hearing the ideas, everyone votes for the project they like best and at the end of the night, the winner gets a grant (the money from the door).  The dinners have been a great way for my fiancé (also a teacher) and me to get to know other teachers from all over the city and to support great teachers directly. 

TAGPhilly & ItAGs   -  The Philadelphia Teacher Action Group has a ton of great opportunities for teachers and other folks who support education. Recently they started this year’s ItAGs(Inquiry to Action Group) and I’m really excited to be participating in one on Project Based Learning.  These groups meet for six weeks around a common topic or idea.  They are not classes led by an “expert” (though the facilitators are exceptionally qualified). The idea is to participate in genuine inquiry about a specific topic, collaborate with like-minded peers, and bring the topic back to your classroom.  The groups are free and completely voluntary. is the epitome of professional development.  A group of teachers united by a common interest or objective collaborating, raising questions and concerns, and working better understand a pedagogical practice.  It is a sustained effort that can be tailored for each individual educator.  There is no reason that school districts couldn’t co-opt this ItAG model for professional development.  In fact, they’d save a ton of money on “so-called experts” who come in to do their stock workshops and peddle their books…

Teachers Lead Philly  -   Another great network of teacher-leaders in the Philadelphia area.  This year, I’ve been to two TLP meetings (both of which included a meal… a nice bonus at the end of a long school day) and I left each one feeling a new level of motivation and energy.  The first meeting was about teacher cross-visitation and observation and the other was about teacher evaluations.  Both meetings were very well facilitated, with short information/ overview sessions and ample opportunity for collaboration and discussion.  This type of PD is a great step toward empowering teachers as professionals and encouraging individual and collective development. 

Reflective Teacher Network   -   Like the ItAGs, the Reflective Teacher Network is a group of teachers that get together to engage in genuine inquiry.  In this case, the meetings are once a month and they’re focused on reflective practices, something that is absent in too many teachers’ lives.  In small groups of three of four, teachers work together to discuss and address challenges in their individual classrooms.  The focus is on shared experience as well as action through inquiry.  I’ve had a great experience with RTN as it brings a great new perspective to specific issues that I struggle with everyday.  Other teachers helped me work through struggles with truancy, differentiation, and a number of specific student concerns. 


I have gained more from these professional development opportunities in the last 6 months than I did from four years of district-presented PDs that probably cost more and were facilitated by “experts”. There are many aspects of these resources that make them fundamentally different from what I have experienced as PD in the past and maybe things like PhilaSoup and #engchat don’t fit into the traditional PD category, but I think that’s the point.  Why so many schools cling to the “sit and get” model of professional development is beyond me. 

My wonderful and talented fiancé (who teaches 4th grade) and I were talking about the nature of professional development the other night.  She was preparing to lead a PD workshop for her peers the following afternoon and was lamenting the fact that she was required to make a PowerPoint and have a Do Now for her colleagues. “Why can’t we just have a discussion? We’re colleagues and peers, we should just be able to come together and discuss pedagogy,” she bemoaned. 

I couldn’t agree more.  Too much professional development is pitched as “Here’s how you              when it should be “Let’s discuss or collaborate on                  .  This shift isn’t easy, I’ll be the first to admit it.  Workshops where we work together to address a deeper issue or collaborate about pedagogy are much involved and tiring.  There are certainly times when I’ve welcomed the opportunity to sit in a room, turn off my brain and listen to someone else talk for an hour, but just as we know our kids don’t learn much that way, neither do we. 

As professionals, we need to call for and seek out meaningful opportunities to develop and collaborate with one another.  We all know teaching can be isolating and it’s easy to get wrapped up in our own classrooms.  But to do better for our students and keep our own creativity (and sanity) we need to reach out. 


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