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Making Professional Development Relevant and Engaging

We want our students to become future-ready and use skills like collaboration, critical thinking, communication and more, but much of what districts provide for us is very “old school” in terms of professional development.


So in the words of the #EduDuctTape podcast, I am about to get on my soapbox.

How many times have you sat at a staff meeting or a professional development session and thought about all the other things you could be doing instead? Walked in and sat down with a stack of papers that you “hoped” you could secretly check? Thought “What else is going to be added to my plate now when I am already so overwhelmed?” If you have had any of these thoughts, you are not alone. I have been there too.

Love to Learn

I often find this ironic. I love to learn – I read every day, participate in Twitter chats regularly, blog and more. But when it comes to a “meeting or PD session,” that all changes. As a tech coach, I work hard to change that, but understand that I often need to work within the confines of what my school and the district provides or mandates. We want our students to become future-ready and use skills like collaboration, critical thinking, communication and more, but much of what districts provide for us is very “old school” in terms of professional development.

“One more thing”- that’s how many educators view professional development, but is that how it should be? We are in the business of helping students learn and grow. In such a role, we need to practice what we preach. If we want our students to take risks, we need to be vulnerable and seek feedback. If we want our students to be reflective, we need to model this. If we want our students to be lifelong learners, we also need to model it by taking advanced classes and continue learning through informal and formal avenues or platforms.

Running on Empty
Running on Empty

We spend so much of our time preaching  “engagement” and “empowerment,” yet most teachers  emphasize compliance. We try to make time for innovative practices within an old school paradigm. Many times that doesn’t seem to work and it ends up backfiring. We try to squeeze in time for engaging and empowering professional development, which is the exact opposite of what we should do.

In his book, The Four O’Clock Faculty, Rich Czyz describes how conversations can lead to true professional development. In my 1/3/2020 post, I shared my takeaways from his book and the idea of going ROGUE – finding a Relevant Organized Group of Underground Educators. He shared many innovative ways that educators can make time for professional learning  from five minutes to much longer periods of time.

Professionally Driven and Four O’Clock Faculty
Professionally Driven and Four O’Clock Faculty

Jarod  is not alone in his ideas of non traditional professional development. In Professionally Driven, Jarod Bormann shares that “we need to create a learning environment for adults where they become thirsty to learn and drive their own learning.”  Jarod talks about the differences between training and learning. Training tends to be predetermined and what we have to know versus learning that  is more self-directed and what we want to know. Professional learning uses an inquiry model, while training is more traditional.

As educators, we need to model being lifelong learners to our students. On page 71 of  “Innovate Inside the Box” by George Couros, he shares, “In a profession where learning is the focus of our job, growth is essential and the target is always moving.”  Some of us “get that.” We are motivated to learn, continually refining our craft and taking risks to do so. But that is not all of us. Yet, in the 21st century, we have amazing tools at our disposal that can take our professional development in a new direction – self direction, empowerment, and the pursuit of lifelong learning. Why not take what engages educators outside of our school buildings and bring it inside?

Innovate Inside The Box

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post called “Being A Saturday Teacher.” In this post, I shared the idea of  a “Saturday Teacher” as an educator who gives both time and money from their own pockets to engage in learning on their “off time.” This post was inspired by a podcast episode of the “Check This Out with Brian and Ryan” podcast. Without a doubt, I am a Saturday Teacher, but in today’s world, being a Saturday Teacher is harder than ever in some ways. In a time when the boundaries between home and school have become so blurred, it is often hard to find “off time” and if you find it, you are too exhausted to do anything else. Teaching in a virtual or hybrid environment is just more work – that’s a fact!

This summer, I was fortunate to create two weeks of professional learning opportunities for my staff. Participation was optional and I loved how engaged my participants were. I was able to model strategies and work with teachers to try new things and take risks. I decided to continue these sessions on Mondays as school started, but quickly noticed that participation dwindled. I understood this – teachers were overwhelmed and didn’t want to do “one more thing.”  The pandemic has certainly exacerbated how tired and busy teachers are.

What is a Saturday Teacher?

So with that in mind, I sat down to think about what makes the learning I do as a “Saturday Teacher” more engaging? To begin with, I have the choice to attend it or not and the choices of which sessions to attend. It also isn’t just about the sessions, but about the people connection. Some of the best learning happens in the hallways between sessions, building on conversations that turn into on-the-fly PD sessions. Colleagues are made and PLNs are built.

In a pre-COVID world, EdCamps are a great option for this type of learning. Imagine if schools capitalized on the expertise inside their walls and held edcamp sessions during a PD day. Additionally and alternatively, there are many conferences that have low or little cost associated with them. This year, the Florida Education Technology Conference was free, as was the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. Wouldn’t it be great if PD time was provided to allow educators to attend these conferences without having to give up personal leave.

Consider EdCamps
Consider EdCamps

Conferences are another forum for great PD, but in a COVID world, in-person conferences are not an option. Thankfully, many innovative educators have risen to the challenge. They have given us amazing models for our own professional growth. Many educators have started streaming on multiple social media platforms during the week. Rachelle Dene Poth and Melanie McAllister have Thrive at Five sessions twice a week at 5 PM EST and invite inspiring guests. Tim Cavey of Teachers on Fire has a weekly roundtable on Saturdays at 11 AM EST where he invites featured guests to discuss a specific topic. Dave Burgess Consulting also has a weekly PD session on Thursday nights at 7:30 PM that they stream for free. All of these sessions are synchronous but also recorded so that they can be watched when convenient. Yet, the sad reality is that these sessions are not considered PD by most school systems. I find that really disheartening because educators learn so much during these sessions. Imagine if sessions like this could be part of a choice board for professional growth or if districts could use a similar idea to provide professional development for their staff. The proverbial PD sky’s the limit!

Consider Facebook Groups

Facebook groups have become an increasingly great place for educators to gather. For my district, we have a Facebook group dedicated to questions about reopening. Other Facebook groups offer support for like-minded educators, like “Teachers on Fire”, “Teach Better Team”  and “Thrive in EDU.” In these forums, teachers share resources, ideas and more. Some of these communities have hundreds of educators in them. This allows for open collaboration and communication anywhere and anytime. These groups empower the idea of working smarter and “better together.” Educators should not need to learn in isolation and they need to see that a staff meeting or training is not the only way to learn. Imagine if school districts used this power for professional development – videos and modules could be shared, discussion could take place and more.

Consider Twitter Chats
Consider Twitter Chats

Twitter chats are not a new thing, but allow for both synchronous and asynchronous learning to take place.  Twitter chats allow participants to explore an idea, issue, or sometimes even a book. They happen synchronously, but can also be reviewed after the fact by searching a hashtag. In fact, with sites such as TweetDeck, you can even pre-schedule your tweets. Twitter chats take you out of your school bubble and allow you to hear other voices. In a world where we want to promote culturally responsive teaching, we need to “listen” and be exposed to other voices. I am proud to share that my district has begun to embrace this type of PD. A couple of times a year, we get PD credit for participating in Twitter chats on Wednesday nights in the #NoVaEdChat. Usually these sessions focus on equity or professional learning communities, but I honestly believe that all Twitter chats provide worthwhile PD. Imagine if schools, regions, or districts used this power as a way to empower learning more.

What if we looked at some of these new and innovative practices to engage educators? We often talk about a double track agenda – using strategies with educators that they can turn around and use with students.

Dream Big
Dream Big

What if we looked at the idea of using an edcamp style professional learning session? The benefits would be astounding; great pedagogy, collaboration, teachers leading and new connections.

What if we create PD groups and chats on social media for school staff to learn? We could stream PD from the comfort of your home or offer it asynchronously. We could partner with other schools, systems, to provide choice and voice to our staff? If we want our students to be engaged and lifelong learners, why wouldn’t we offer educators the same experience as our students?

Okay, I’m stepping down from my  soapbox! Thanks for listening/reading!

Debbie Tannenbaum is an Elementary School Technology Specialist in Fairfax County, Virgina. An educator with over twenty years of experience, Debbie just completed her second year in this role, where she supports both staff and students to integrate technology tools into instruction through both co-teaching sessions and weekly technology classes.


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