Getting the Most Out of Any Professional Development: P.D. Possibilities

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Over the past month, the co-authors of Two Writing Teachers have been thinking and sharing on the topic of professional development.
Today, I write about how you can the most out of any professional development session, no matter the time, the topic, or the format.
When I had my own classroom, there were times I so looked forward to professional development days. I welcomed the chance to connect with my fellow teachers, to be a learner, to reflect on my practices. I left the PD feeling recharged and excited for the work ahead.
Are you ready for full disclosure? There were also times that I had these reactions to professional development:
  • Oh no, that’s today? I’m way behind on____, ____, and ____. And now I have to make time for this?
  • Ugh, that topic sounds totally boring.
  • I don’t need someone to come in here and tell me what to do. I’m doing just fine.
  • Why is the administration forcing us to do this? Did we do something wrong?
If you are like me, and have had some of the latter reactions to PD, I don’t think we are alone. Professional development can feel inconvenient or inappropriate for our needs and interests. Admitting to yourself that PD doesn’t always feel great means you can study the reasons why this is so. And while you most often cannot change the fact that the PD is happening, you can change your response to it, and thus get the most you possibly can from it, no matter what.

Here are a few steps you can take to get the most from professional development.

Before the Session 

Study your resistance. When an upcoming PD session sounds about as fun as cleaning out the kitty litter, do a bit of writing and reflection to figure out why. Is it because you are up to your ears in other work? It is really difficult to concentrate on something that doesn’t seem immediately dire if you are feeling overwhelmed. If this is the case, it doesn’t hurt to ask for help with the work or reprieve from deadlines. If you clear out some space in your schedule, perhaps you might also clear out some mental space as well. Even if you can’t push deadlines, simply recognizing that you are feeling overwhelmed can help diffuse your frustration at having to join a PD session.

Or, are you feeling resistant to the PD because the topic doesn’t grab you at first? Keep in mind this might be how our students sometimes (or often) feel. Learners don’t always get to choose their topics of study. You can use the PD as a chance to study how you approach a topic that seems uninteresting or irrelevant to you, how you push through your initial struggle with the topic, and how you grab some jewels of information regardless. Then, you can teach your students how to do these things in their work. Or, you might approach the PD on the lookout for tidbits you can share with others who might be interested. Seeing yourself as a conduit for helpful information for others might help you to get more out of the session.

Adopt an open mindset. It’s likely by now you’ve at least heard about if not read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In it, Dweck shares the differences between adopting a fixed or a growth mindset. When one has a fixed mindset, they believe that their potential is fixed. They don’t welcome change or learning as readily because they are predisposed to believe they will always have a certain level of intelligence or ability. When one has a growth mindset, they believe that they can always learn, grow, and change. They believe that their true potential is still untapped, and with passion and work they can begin to uncover it. It really that simple. You can approach professional development feeling as if you have nothing to learn, or you can approach the session feeling as if there is always something new to discover. What you get out of the session will grow tenfold just by making this shift in your thinking.

During the Session 

Have a dialogue. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to bring up issues. We teach our students to do the same. In this way, you tailor the PD to your own needs. Also, don’t be afraid to be truthful. Talk about what’s bothering you, what you’d like to work on. I’ve often been amazed at the transformation in a PD session when someone is brave enough to admit what’s hard.

In particular, don’t be afraid to talk back to parts that don’t make sense to you. Working through differing approaches and viewpoints is a surefire way to arrive at deeper understanding. For everyone, sometimes even the presenter.

After the Session 

Write about it. Recording your observations and realizations in writing is the number one way to best store, distill and interpret the information you learn. In order to push your thinking further and try techniques you might teach your students, you might try a new note-taking format or two. For example, you might leave blank spaces or pages in your notebook as you take notes during the session. Later, after the session, re-read your notes, and when you come to a blank space, use it to distill your thinking about the content in your notes. Especially because PD can be rapid pace, it can be hard to capture both the content and your response to it in real time. Leaving physical space for reflection allows you to marinate a bit on the topics and write deeper.

For more ideas on note-taking, see here and here.

Teach it. I came across this saying once (on a teabag, I admit), and it has stuck with me. “To learn, read. To understand, write. To master, teach.” In order to truly master the content you learn, teach it to someone else. Don’t be afraid to insert your own interpretations as you share what you learned. When you teach your learning, you not only come to understand the information more deeply yourself, you have the bonus of contributing your knowledge to a larger community. For great examples of posts that share learning from professional development, see Tara’s post about a session with Ralph Fletcher and Fran’s post about a session with Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts.

To conclude, any professional development session is nothing without those who participate in it, no matter how fascinating or innovative. That is, a PD session on its own is meaningless. It is you, the participant, who makes the meaning. You make the PD yours. I wish you only the best professional development, always.