My first presentation at a teacher conference was in 2012. My state foreign language teachers conference. I shared technology and teaching strategies I was using in my classroom. People paid attention. Clapped at the end. Told me what I had shared would help them.
I was hooked.
Since then, professional development has been a passion of mine. I LOVE helping teachers find new ways of teaching. Ways to improve their practice and engage their students.
In the years since, I’ve made lots of mistakes and learned lots of lessons.
After hundreds and hundreds of conference sessions, full-day workshops, keynote speeches and more, here’s a brain dump of some of what I’ve learned about facilitating professional development:
Ask yourself, “What are the problems these educators face? What’s the problem that this solves?” Then, use that as guide. Show them how your ideas solve that problem for them.
This is a common saying in sales, and it works for professional development, too. Educators in professional development already have a narrative, an inner monologue about what we’re saying. Use whatever clues you can to figure out what that conversation is so you can join it. In the moment, use body language and facial expressions of your participants. Before you start, ask them questions. In the days leading up, pull any clues you can from discussions on social media. Afterward, ask participants questions so you better know about that conversation for the future.
This isn’t always possible, but when I’ve been able to do it, it has paid dividends. It’s pretty easy to create a Google Forms survey ahead of time. Ask them what they’re interested in. Ask them about their struggles. Give them the opportunity to choose from topics you can facilitate. When they are part of the process, they’re more likely to feel invested.
What is causing your participants pain? Focus your solutions towards eliminating that pain. For me, I have found that one of the biggest barriers for my participants is time. That’s why so many of the solutions in my professional development are geared toward helping them to start make a change right away. If, after participating in my workshop, they feel prepared to start something the next day, then I think my job has been successful.
For many teachers, professional development is a drag. It makes them feel inadequate. They might feel like the person leading PD doesn’t understand them and their situation. I take every opportunity to make them feel welcome. Appreciated. Capable. I smile a LOT. If someone struggles, I help them feel like the struggle is easily fixed. If they make a mistake, I help them to feel that it’s no big deal. If something goes wrong and it’s not their fault, I make sure they know it’s not their fault and they did everything as they were supposed to. Anxiety negatively affects our neurologically-based skills. Anything we can do to reduce anxiety — in adults and in children! — helps.
When we have meatloaf for dinner, my kids know what they are getting. They like the way meatloaf tastes. However, if my wife and I want to make the meatloaf a little more nutritious, we may grind up broccoli or cauliflower and sneak it into the mix. That way, they are getting the taste they want but also a little extra nutrition. Professional development should be the same way. If I’m talking about a teaching strategy or digital tool, I love to model it in a fun way. When I demonstrate Flipgrid, I ask teachers to record me videos of where I should eat dinner that evening. They learn the tool without even realizing they’ve learned it. The task can be fun and also teach them something. It’s kind of like mixing cauliflower into meatloaf.
Hopefully, this one is a given. Teachers feel much more empowered to start trying a new idea when they have practice at successfully on their own. Don’t just show. Don’t just tell. Let them try.
If you’re doing technology professional development, it’s always helpful for teachers to see the student side of a tool as well as the teacher side. If they can see how the initial setup works, that’s even better.
When I do a full-day workshop or a conference breakout session, I know teachers aren’t there for a big long inspirational speech. They want practical, concrete ideas. However, you can squeeze in a small dose of inspiration — a success story, a graphical illustration, an important point. Help them to see the big picture, the “why”, the end result of the change. This can touch on the emotional side of things and may help to convince some.
Large-group professional development can be impersonal. There are small ways we can help teachers personalize it. Ask them to think about a student or a moment in their classroom. Suggest that they turn and talk to somebody else about their experiences. Offer a set of steps or framework to work through. Encourage them to design a lesson together or brainstorm with sticky notes or an online document.
When demonstrating something new, I always try to include possible applications to different content areas and age levels. Even if I can’t give them step by step on how it can be used, at very least mentioning some ideas can be huge.
“60 apps in 60 minutes.” I’ve attended these sessions at conferences. I’ve delivered them! Many times, I think they’re “edu-tainment” more than actual professional development. It just creates a passing familiarity with lots of apps rather than actual implementation and change. I love to go deep — learn a new strategy or tool, practice it, discuss implementation — rather than wide. Sticking on one or two impactful ideas is powerful. It can empower teachers to be ready to start using a new idea when they leave rather than just knowing about it.
I try to avoid a tool-centric approach in tech PD. “Look at this app! Here are all the features.” Instead, I love to show teachers how it can be used for solid teaching and learning. I’ve learned a lot about Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, Universal Design for Learning, Understanding by Design and other pedagogical frameworks and strategies. I’m not an expert on any of them. But they do help me offer more research-based teaching strategies.
So many teachers secretly think that sprinkling some technology fairy dust on their existing lesson plans will make change. They think tech will make them innovative and, in and of itself, help. In reality, we can’t just insert technology. We have to change the way that we teach. We can find technology that supports and amplifies what teachers want to do instead of finding technology that simply replaces their old activities with new techy versions of the same thing.
I am often called on to do full-day workshops. By the time lunch is over, teachers are starting to check out. If their attention is elsewhere, how effective is my workshop at that point? I ask myself, “Can I bring them back by illustrating a point with a fun activity? Can I change things up with a quick game? Will a short funny video pull them back in?” When learning is enjoyable, superior learning takes place, according to research. That goes for adults and children.
The impact of professional development you lead can be exponential. If you can encourage one teacher to make one positive change, that affects dozens or even hundreds of students. You affect all of the teachers in the room, you may have an impact on hundreds or thousands of students. When teachers are gathered together in one room, there is a potential for enormous change in classrooms. Enormous change in classrooms leads to changed communities. Change a community and you change a state, which changes a country, which changes the world. Every impact that we make nudges the world in the right direction, even if in a small way. Keep the impact of your work in mind as you plan and conduct professional development.
Just because you have presented it multiple times doesn’t mean you have to change it for every new audience. If you have a new group of teachers or the same group of teachers that haven’t seen that material for a while, don’t be afraid to reuse old ideas if they are still useful and successful.
If we want teachers to try new ideas, it makes us more authentic if we are able to take a risk and try something new ourselves. Even if something is outside of your comfort zone, be willing to try a new approach, a new technique, some new content. You may find that this new idea is one of your best ones for the future. And if you didn’t try it, you would never know that.
They thrive on personal interaction. They like to hear from others, even if it’s people from within their own district. A quick think-pair-share can do wonders.
I like using this in professional development to get teachers talking to each other. Have teachers form two circles: a large circle on the outside facing a circle on the inside. Everyone pairs off and gets a question. One person responds to the question (I’ll give them 30 seconds to 1 minute) and then the other person responds for the same amount of time. When they’ve both responded that question, I’ll ask the inner circle to rotate, moving two or three or four people to the right to respond to another question. This gives them the opportunity to hear ideas from lots of people around the room and even meet new people.
I have a hesitance sometimes to do the speed dating activity above. (It’s not for a good reason, though.) I have this deep-seated belief that I’ve been brought in to present and that they need to hear from me. However, the best professional development induces a change inside of every participant. It’s not focused on me as the presenter. Do whatever you can to make that change happen. That might mean handing the microphone to someone else or highlighting someone else’s idea. That might mean scrapping part of your well designed plan for the day to go along something spontaneous that’s really effective.
For more than 5 years, I have been creating digital handouts for participants in my workshops. Often, it’s just a page on my website. They can access that page with info and links to everything I’ve talked about. My goal with those pages is to give them what they need to get started and additional resources so they can dig more deeply into any topic. That can be in the form of articles or blog posts or podcasts or anything you find on the web.
The best professional development you do may be in the face-to-face conversation you have with someone. Make yourself available for questions. Stay at the front of the room at the end until everyone has left. Share your email for later. That may have a much greater impact on a teacher than things that you say from the front of the room.
If you have a skill or a talent, look for ways that it can enhance your professional development. If you can sing or play an instrument, creating a custom song for what they are learning could be very memorable. If you can draw — or are at least willing to try — sketchnoting your session as it is being presented can be a fun, visual way to engage. If you have a knack for making videos, make some of your own custom videos to include in your presentation.
I do lots of workshops where I’m there for one day and then I leave. But when I am able to stay in touch with teachers, that makes the biggest impact on me and on them. I get to see the results of their work. They get to follow up with me and work together with me to improve their lessons in their practice. It’s easy to walk away and forget about one day, but when it becomes a recurring conversation or even a habit, that’s when things change.
If you have ideas that can help a group of educators on one day, why not share them with a bigger audience? Share them in small bites on social media like Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Record yourself during your professional development presentation. Record yourself afterwards by recreating parts of it straight into a camera. (Remember that audio is the most crucial factor in videos like these. Anyone who watches your videos will forgive spotty video but they won’t forgive incomprehensible audio.) Create an email newsletter with a tool like Mailchimp and send them to anyone that wants them. (Be sure to have them sign up or give you permission before you start sending them!) Your ideas are important. There’s no reason you should keep them bottled up to just your in-person audiences if you can serve people globally and make a bigger impact.
Just because other people do presentations on a similar topic doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Why? Because your experiences are unique. Your perspective is unique. Your suggestions and tips and takes on the topic are unique. No two people will do the exact same presentation. Plus, your own personality and strengths will shine through. The topic may be similar, but the experience your participants have will be totally different.
It’s a cycle. As you learn more and get better, I think we have a moral imperative to share and help others too get better. I was influenced greatly by bloggers and authors and presenters in my early teaching career. As I learned more, I felt like it was my duty to share what I was learning and the new ideas I was trying. You are no different.
What are your best suggestions for professional development? Share them to the #DitchBook hashtag on social media, and be sure to tag me (Twitter: @jmattmiller / Instagram: @ditchthattextbook)!
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