professional development · writing workshop

Taming the Clutter: Bringing Focus to Professional Learning

I have a confession to make: I can’t attend a professional conference that lasts longer than a day and a half. 

It’s not because I’m closed off to learning; rather, it’s the opposite. I’m so open to ideas that by the middle of day two, I’m anxious to assimilate it all. I’m so antsy to take my discoveries for a spin that it’s almost physically impossible for me to sit through more workshops and lectures.

I also find August equally challenging. It’s a new start. I’m eager and ready to polish my craft, to bring energy to my practice. This year in particular, I feel it even more deeply. Perhaps it’s because I’m leading my district through a writing initiative. Perhaps my colleagues, students and I are excited for a year that feels at once strange and familiar. Either way, I am overwhelmed with the amount of new learning about writing that I wish to incorporate.

All these ideas swirling around my brain have become mental clutter. And just like the physical clutter in my life, I need a way to structure and make sense of it all. 

“If everything is important, then nothing is.”

Patrick M. Lencione

In speaking with colleagues, I’ve come to realize I’m not alone. I’m not the only person with more resources and ideas than they know what to do with, and I‘m not the only one who risks inertia because I don’t know where to start. If that’s also you, or someone you know and love, I’ll be sharing my process for how I work my way to more clarity and focus.

I start with a “brain dump” of all the new learning I’ve had lately. Call it an inventory, if you will. Over the course of five minutes, I brainstorm all of the books and articles I’ve read and thought about. Every one of these sources has me saying, “YES! This is an idea I need to incorporate into my own practice, or talk about with my colleagues. YES! I want to do something with this!” 

This doesn’t even include the podcasts I could use in my instruction…

I look at this list and I wonder how I can possibly expect myself to seamlessly integrate it into my practice. No wonder I’ve been feeling overwhelmed! Certainly, it’s all good stuff. Certainly, all of these resources are loaded with important ideas. But of course, as Patrick M. Lencione says, “If everything is important, then nothing is.”

If any of this new knowledge is going to enhance my teaching, I need a way to assimilate and synthesize my learning. So, just like I might organize a drawer or countertop or closet, I set about organizing sources of information to make this vast array of ideas more manageable.

When it comes to professional development resources, there are patterns in what I might do:

  • Share these ideas with certain colleagues;
  • Work strategies into my own lessons and units;
  • Take time to learn and more deeply explore;
  • Put this resource on the backburner until I find it useful.

For me, the last category is the most difficult. There’s a reason why I save articles, why I buy or borrow books. They are worth my time and consideration in the first place. But I also know my limits, and I know I’m not ready to use all of these concepts meaningfully all at once.

My “brain dump” list, re-organized into categories

To go a step further, I want to make these resources useful. Just like the clutter on my desk, I need a place for everything, and everything in its place. For me, it isn’t enough to simply develop categories. If I want to share an article, I’ll say exactly who goes on that “to” list. If something merits consideration for my plan book, I want to know which grade level and unit I’m going to try it out on. That way, a range of ideas which once seemed overwhelming now seems manageable and achievable. 

This. This, I can maybe manage.

I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to utilize every strategy I’m learning. I can’t promise I’ll implement every teaching suggestion to its fullest. But I have given myself a system that highlights the scope of resources available to me, allows me to incorporate ideas in a way that suits my student’s needs, and holds me accountable for putting them into practice.

And you? What are your challenges – or solutions! – to professional development overload? What are some tried-and-true strategies or systems that YOU have for making sense of the wealth of learning that surrounds you? Leave a comment below, and let the community know!

2 thoughts on “Taming the Clutter: Bringing Focus to Professional Learning

  1. This is sooooo helpful! Thank you for sharing this nugget of wisdom and a concrete next step as I reflect in my summer PD. I just moved into a smaller classroom and have been getting rid of a lot of materials. Love the analogy you provided that everything one keeps, needs a place.

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  2. Love the insight into your process. It’s so interesting how everyone creates their own organization to the chaos! Thanks for including the pics to make it easy to visualize a working idea flow and action categories.

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