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If your professional development doesn’t feel like this, you might be doing it wrong.

For the past two weeks, I’ve had the honor of working as a facilitator for the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project at their Invitational Summer Institute. I love working with the Writing Project, because it is absolutely outstanding professional development. If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it magic.

It also makes me wonder whether or not this magic is replicable, because (as all teachers know) professional development can be both the best thing or the worst thing about being an educator, depending on what, where, how, and through whom it happens.

What if professional development could always be good? What should districts look for in their pursuit of quality professional development for teachers–workshops that leave staff feeling inspired and legitimately empowered to change their practices for the better?

As a teacher who has actively pursued (and facilitated) professional development to enhance my teaching practice over the last decade, I’ve noticed some patterns in what good teacher PD really means, which I’ll  share here in list form. It’s my hope that this list will be helpful to professional development committees and administrators when considering PD offerings for teachers. I’m focusing specifically on aspects that will leave teacher participants feeling empowered, because that’s a key in creating positive change in schools. It’s not an all-encompassing list, but it’s enough to start some important conversations.

Recommendations for Professional Development that Empowers Teachers

#1 Presenters of professional development for teachers should also be current teachers themselves. I understand that there are people out there who have well-researched and innovative ideas about what teachers should be doing. However, if those people are not current teachers themselves in some capacity, their ability to truly understand the day-to-day classroom implications of their findings is compromised. A presenter must be able to answer the question “How does this work in your classroom?” in order to get complete buy-in from an audience of practicing teachers.

#2 The topic of professional development should directly correlate with an area of need identified by the participating teachers. Teachers have a lot to do. They also want to learn. But if they are sacrificing their time, they want to learn about what’s important to their own practice right now. The best professional development addresses the specific needs of its audience. All teachers have questions about certain strategies or situations within their classrooms. Professional development topics should ideally correlate with those questions to make the process authentic. This is best accomplished when the presenters have a working knowledge of the participants’ context–what is it like to teach in this school? Who are the students? To what level have the participants already implemented the strategy in question? What kinds of expertise are the participants bringing in with them? A presenter must know what his or her audience truly needs most, to make sure the offerings are valuable.

#3 Participants should be assisted in creating or adapting resources for their classrooms during the professional development. Teachers don’t want to be given something and simply told to use it–they are creative, ingenious people. Professional development that assists teachers in creating something tailor-made for their own classes and students taps into this immense potential. Students benefit immediately from new resources being applied by the experts who created them–their teachers! Hands-on, active learning is the kind of meaning-making that we know works well in education at all levels. Teachers, like students, should be provided opportunities to apply and experiment with their growing knowledge to create new applications.

# 4 Participants should be given the support they need to become future leaders by sharing and building knowledge in their professional communities. The goal of teacher professional development should not be to “bring in the experts.” Teachers are the experts when it comes to teaching (see #1). Districts gain more value when they invest in professional development that in turn makes teacher-leaders out of participants, who can then present their developing knowledge to others in their district. This shows a trust and investment in teachers as professionals. It also builds a school culture where teachers grow their own learning by sharing expertise with colleagues–a sure way to strengthen community and foster leadership among staff.

#5 Participants should have the chance to build supportive relationships and connect as human beings. Teaching is primarily about working with people. Teachers will participate more enthusiastically, feel more valued, have more fun, work far harder, and respond far more positively when they are able to connect meaningfully with each other during their time together. Sharing stories and feelings around what they are teaching, the joys and heartbreaks and frustrations… these opportunities to connect, relate, vent, joke, and collaborate are crucial. Giving teachers time to discuss what is most important in their own lives may seem like it’s a distraction from the purpose of professional development, but it is not. Rather, it’s a catalyst. Caring about people fuels teachers. When they care about each other, they can do incredible things as a team.

Any one of these five criteria can make professional development more empowering for teachers. It may not always be possible to hit all five at once, but when it is–that’s when the magic will happen. 

Of course, I can speak only from my own personal experience. But as someone who just can’t stay away from the National Writing Project after eight years, I’m currently looking at another summer institute with new colleagues who have become family that I don’t want to say goodbye to. I’m feeling a propulsive momentum for learning about my profession that I don’t want to end. I’m feeling like a leader who wants to work hard. If all professional development felt like that, well… I can only imagine the resulting magic.

For an at-a-glance version of the list in this post, scroll through the infographic below!   Download the PDF version here.