Professional development

If I never have to hear “find your 12 o’clock partner” again, I’ll die a happy teacher. 

Teaching is an art. A good teacher is like every other craftsperson. Imagine someone who creates surfboards: she knows the correct materials and dimensions. She knows how to shape the board. New tools may come along that help complete a task a little more efficiently, but there’s nothing a veteran surfboard maker can be told that will revolutionize her creating process.

At professional development (PD) sessions, there may not be a lot of information that will revolutionize a person’s teaching strategies; especially if the teacher is a 10, 20, or 30 year veteran. Teachers don’t need a ton of new tricks doled out, they only need one–maybe two–at each training opportunity.

It’s unfortunate, but PD can go south very quickly. Here’s a way this happens: The PD speaker introduces himself or herself and then for the duration of the session poses questions, allows the participants to talk about those questions, and then asks for answers to be shared in front of the whole group. This sounds like what Socrates did, so you may be wondering why I’m not praising the speaker’s method. The problem is that the audience may not be well-versed in the topic of the presentation and will therefore not have an effective conversation. Collaborating for 5-10 minutes about a subject with which you’re not familiar with someone who’s also not familiar isn’t the most productive use of time. The world in which we live is super-specialized, which means we can’t expect audience conversation to be as valuable as a PD presenters’ sharing of research and best practices. We need data, not opinions.

Which leads me to the crux of the issue: If your presentation can be done via a Google Hangout, don’t hold the PD session. In other words, if the bulk of your presentation involves the participants discussing various questions, have them do this remotely through one of the many Web 2.0 platforms. This will save teachers’  time, school districts’ money, and a whole lot of frustration.

PD for teachers is notorious for being just like an elementary classroom. Find your 3 o’clock partner! Discuss with your neighbor! Who’d like to volunteer! Eyes on me! It’s time to incorporate PD in the field of education that mirrors how other professionals learn together. Here are five ways we can start:

  1. No more childish ways of making people interact.

  2. The presenter must… present. Participants should be given helpful information from an expert in his or her field –information that can’t just be easily googled. Enlightenment on a particular subject should mainly come from the presenter, not a fellow attendee. (Again, if most knowledge comes from the audience, then a Google Hangout or Twitter chat with posed questions are more efficient ways to share information.) I shudder to think how many presenters have participants collaborate because it soaks up time. We’ve got to go until 3:30, so we better do something to waste time… 

  3. Teachers can decide to stop attending conferences that are known for being childish or not presenting helpful information.

  4. Teachers can start PD sessions at their own school sites. This is beneficial because they know how to serve their fellow teachers and can organize workshops that best fit their needs. Also, if teachers want to collaborate, they can do so from the comfort of their own rooms (via Google Hangout or Skype, of course).

  5. Presenters should not use PowerPoint as an outline. Too many words on a slide makes the information overwhelming. I really enjoy using Haiku Deck because I’m forced to limit my words. It’s important to remember that the slideshow is not the presentation; the presentation is what’s delivered.

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Educators are working with a lot of complexity, and PD needs to help them overcome the obstacles they’re facing. Treating educators like elementary students (“Find your 9 o’clock partner!”) and making them collaborate instead of hear insightful information from a specialist are both inefficient practices and must cease being used.

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