Why I Love Professional Development

Let me begin this post by discussing what is not professional development. If you follow any blogs on teaching, you may have already seen this video – in a way, it has gone viral among progressive educators fighting against this kind of mindless “teaching.” (Training might be a more appropriate term for what is happening here.) Without further ado, here is the video:

Evidently, this is what passes as professional development for some teachers in Chicago. Let me repeat, unless you had any doubts: this is not professional development.

I recently had the pleasure of going through a similarly mind-numbing training session. It wasn’t much different from plenty of training sessions that I have attended as a teacher. Powerpoint slides reminiscent of something sterile and hospital-like, a droning voice explaining inane testing procedures in detail, and teachers in various states between disengaged and near-comatose. However, the only thing different from the usual was that instead of being talked at by some poor person hired to visit our district, we were watching a training video from PARCC related to the field testing of their new assessments. What is surprising is that we (the teachers) hardly noticed the difference between the droning computer speakers and a droning live speaker.

My experience in the PARCC session, the Chicago teachers’ experience in the video, and similar training sessions pass for “professional development” in many schools and districts around the nation. Professional development is conceived as a passive experience – teachers sit and listen, “experts” dispense knowledge. How, then, are we expected to stop lecturing to our students and start involving them in hands-on learning? My teacher friends and I have shared quiet laughs in the past as experts who have been out of the classroom for decades beat us over the head with PowerPoint slides explaining how our students should be more involved in their learning.

So, what is professional development? Let’s break apart the term – first, professional. This implies that teachers are treated as other professionals would be treated. Professionals are given the opportunity to pursue their own topics of interest. Professionals collaborate with other professionals. Professionals are trusted to want to learn. Second – development. Development implies growing, evolving, learning. Not being talked at.

In case you haven’t been fortunate enough to be involved in real professional development, let me explain just a couple of my experiences and why I love it.

In the fall, I had the opportunity to attend an edCamp session at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. I chose to attend on my own after hearing about edCamp online. My wife traveled with me to Conway early one Saturday before the sun came up, and by the time we got to UCA, I was tired. However, my energy was soon revived as I engaged in conversations about technology, maintaining momentum, and new the teacher evaluation system in our state. However, none of these discussions or sessions were predetermined for us – we made them up that day, and we were free to come and go from conversations as we pleased and to adjust our own discussions and learning as we wanted. I learned more by talked to my colleagues around the state that day than I had in weeks of other teacher training sessions. Simply put, it was a liberating experience. That was professional development.

Recently, I finished reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. I read it in just a few sittings – I soaked it in. I had been thinking deeply about sustained, free-choice reading in my classroom for the past two school years. I had been trying to implement some kind of workshop format in my ELA classes for a while. Donalyn’s book gave me the inspiration to get started. I couldn’t read fast enough to start incorporating classroom routines I loved and experimenting with new lesson plans. And, after I finished, I couldn’t get enough – I immediately ordered her newest book, Reading in the Wild(It’s just as amazing, in case you were wondering.) As I read professional books like these, I am learning how to be a better teacher, sometimes without even realizing it. That is professional development.

This kind of self-directed, inquiry professional development is what I love. I love getting to learn about topics that interest me, try out what I’ve learned in my classroom, and reflect on my own experiences in my teaching journal (yes, I really have one of those). This is really professional development, and this life-long learning and pursuit of knowledge is exactly what I want to instill in my students every single day.