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PD: From epic fail to epic sail

During my years in school administration, I often had mixed feelings about scheduling professional development in-service workshops. On one hand, I recognized their importance in raising and sustaining the professional standard of my teachers. I knew that their busy schedules and professional isolation (not having sufficient opportunity to observe others or collaborate) left them in need of regular exposure to new ideas and pedagogic strategies.

Yet, a lot had to go right for these programs to be a success. First, my admin team had to determine our method of delivery. There were so many options from which to choose, including bringing speakers to our school, outsourcing the learning to a local PD event, national conference or webinar, or providing training internally. When importing a presenter, we needed to settle on a topic. Then we had figure out how to ensure that we got the most out of the session in terms of staff-wide engagement and follow through. Despite the many benefits of offering our staff PD, I often began to wonder if it was worth all of the aggravation, especially when some of the teachers would offer their post-session critiques.

Well, thankfully I can say that over time the process became easier and more rewarding. We became more attuned with our needs and the best ways by which to fill them. The following list of suggested strategies are rules that we followed that I believe can help you deliver the kind of useful and meaningful PD to your teachers that they need and deserve.

  1. Develop a 3-5 year plan. Before you do anything else, you need to know what your PD and growth-related goals are, for the short and medium range. Too often, principals live in the moment and make decisions on what feels right. Worse, they may feel obligated to offer “something” simply because it’s on the calendar. The risks in doing so, however, is that you can fail to deliver what is really needed. By developing a 3-5 year plan of the PD areas that you would like to focus on for your staff, you can approach the topic strategically and start to figure out such important areas as topics, schedule, budget and more. You can also loop back from time to time to reinforce and deepen previous learning, especially now that there’s been meaningful opportunity for them to practice.
  2. Revisit the plan annually (if not sooner). We all know how quickly the winds could blow in the field of education. Yesterday’s “hot” topic can easily be replaced by tomorrow’s latest and greatest. By revisiting your list often, you can start current and see how such changes may or may not impact your thinking.
  3. State and repeat: “One size fits none.” As with classroom instruction, PD also needs to be differentiated. We cannot expect our middle-school language teachers and our primary-grade teachers to benefit equally from the same presentation. Yes, some topics are generic and can be presented to an entire staff. However, there needs to be various examples for different sub-segments of the population to relate to. More about this later.
  4. Think globally and individually. An admin team that is working closely with its teachers will have its finger on the pulse of individual teacher goals as well as collective needs. Seek to create balance in terms of time and budget to ensure that each segment gets the training and support that he/she/it needs in order to flourish and meet expectations.
  5. Don’t skimp on the presenter. Principals make this mistake all the time. They begin with a budget and then see who they can afford. What’s wrong with that? Well, nothing unless that’s what drives your decision making. Look, I am not suggesting that every school, regardless of size and budget, pursue the most expensive presenters. I am saying that there needs to be a premium placed on bringing someone to your school who will provide the kind of message and deliverables that will inspire your team and help drive the change that you seek. And these people are often expensive. Remember, as the instructional leader it is your duty to give your teachers the very best learning that you can. Make sure to budget accordingly.
  6. Make sure that your presenter can deliver. Find out as much as you can from the presenter about his/her topics, their content, recommended audiences, preferred length and more.
  7. Do your homework. Ask for and call references. Get video and/or audio clippings where possible. Better yet, try to see the speaker in action. Make sure that a well-received talk at a national conference will translate properly to your group’s size, experience and cultural composition.
  8. Start with your learning and work backwards. Particularly at the beginning of the year, principals often try to kill multiple birds with one stone. They schedule everything from PD to good and welfare and fire drill instructions for the same block of time. What happens is that there is a whole hodgepodge of things for teachers to focus on and be bogged down by. There is also a lot of competition for time, which often hurts the PD component most. (I cannot tell you how many sessions I have personally delivered at schools where I began 15-30 minutes late because of poor planning, dysfunctional IT equipment and the like.) In order for the learning to go well, it has to be the priority. Everything else should be scheduled around that. If you need more time for other things, then extend the schedule.
  9. Know what your staff appreciates. Before getting things lined up, try to find out more about what your faculty wants from a session. Do they value youth or experience? How often do they want to have learning opportunities? Do they like lots of examples, the ability to work together, deep-dives, etc.? Use surveys and small group conversations to get as much information as you can. As the least, you can then respond to any complaint by saying that you used their feedback to craft the program, which should reduce complaining.
  10. Avoid the “one and done.” Principals often begin the year with some type of PD-related theme. “This will be the year for _________.” Then life (and angry parents) gets in the way and the great vision starts collecting dust much like last year’s did. When planning the first go round ask yourself how you will reinforce and deepen this learning. Identify internal and external resources and put some numbers to it, in terms of dollars as well as frequency (upcoming staff meetings, scheduled mid-year PD days, etc.)
  11. Shoot for the stars, but remain grounded. I once heard an organizational PD coordinator say that even if participants gain one or two things from a session that they can bring to their classrooms and use, the session was successful. While this may seem to be setting a low standard, we have to be realistic with our expectations of what success looks like. Which leads me to my last item.
  12. Get feedback and commitments. Each participant should be asked to give feedback, such as a one minute paper or a survey. Have them tell you what their big takeaways and “aha” moments. Ask them what questions they still have and what they see as impediments to implementation. Have them make commitments based on their learning and do so in actionable terms. Finally, make them accountable to someone (admin, colleague, a third party) with a timetable for completion. The more specific that they can be, the likelier that they will deliver and do so successfully.

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Education.

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