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Professional Development Methods, Reminders

Jordan Catapano

I used to worry that people in important, you-don’t-want-to-mess-up careers like doctors, lawyers, and teachers called what they did “Practice.” Do I really want my doctor practicing on me? But now, as an educator, I use the word “Practice” with pride. I know “My teaching practice” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as the practice I used to do with piano lessons, but the connotation does have an important truth embedded in it. We cannot consider what we do to be the end-all, be-all perfect way of running a classroom. We have to think of ourselves as perpetual “Practicers” who continually rehearse their skills via professional development and seek for improvement.  How does staff at your school embrace the idea of continual improvement? And how does your school help to encourage and facilitate a culture of growth among staff? Often our professional development for teachers looks like “Just another meeting” or a broad, one-size-fits-all sweep that dismisses individual needs. If you’re look for ideas to help make yourself or your staff better through creative professional development, consider how some of the following ideas might fit with your school.

Professional Development: Look at Video Footage

I’ve said this many times before, but it’s so helpful to see a classroom in action when you’re not teaching. Video footage of a classroom – whether yours or someone else’s – is a powerful reflection tool that helps you see what works and what doesn’t.

Set up a tripod or ask a colleague to help film your class. Watch the video later, maybe multiple times, and reflect on how you see yourself and your students interacting. Schoolwide you can begin a voluntary database of teachers sharing their footage. When you view even portions of colleague’s classes, you may get ideas for how to better impact your own students as you see what works, what doesn’t, and what new ideas you might want to try. It may be difficult to get footage of teachers’ classrooms from broader resources, as individuals who are filmed would need to sign consent to their images and audio being used.

Just like athletes study footage to improve their own game, so too can teachers learn a lot by watching others in action and leveraging those observations to improve their own experience.

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Share Experiences

“Guess what! Our district has spent loads of money bringing in experts to train us … just look around!” This is not a joke. Before we start looking at outside books, consultants, and resources, it might be worth it to get our very own teachers to share their experiences.

Every teacher has at least one idea that works. What’s yours? What’s one rock-solid approach or technique of the colleague across the hall from you?

Sometimes we can get the most practical, applicable ideas simply from facilitating the right format for sharing with one another. Consider how teachers can have an opportunity to share their best ideas with one another. Perhaps as part of a team meeting? Perhaps asking a few teachers to craft a presentation for others? Perhaps asking teachers to open their rooms for peer observations? Perhaps have a regularly published collection of articles written by your teachers for your teachers?

Attend Conferences and Share Out

While staff can find plenty of information right in their own buildings, it’s important to encourage teachers to attend conferences that connect them to the broader world of experts and ideas. Leaders should regularly keep worthwhile conferences on their radar and tap teachers on the shoulder to encourage them to attend.

While teachers who attend the conference will benefit from loads of inspiration, they should also prepare a summary of their biggest takeaways as well. What format does your school or department offer for teachers returning from conferences to spread the good ideas and information they’ve gleaned?

Include Research

It’s not always enough to say, “Do X because it works,” or “Do Y because it worked for me.” While we should certainly spread good ideas around, we should also consciously support our trainings and recommendations with sound research findings. Research-based methods are important for maintaining a high standard, and your trainings should consist of quotations, numbers, and citations from educational research. When you do so, it helps teachers feel like they’re getting more than just a personal recommendation – they’re getting a trustworthy, scientifically proven method to apply to their practice.

Consider using resources like ERIC (Education Resources Information Center), or looking carefully at the citations provided by articles you find on places like ASCD. During your trainings, provide the original research – or at least quotes or links to it – so staff knows where the recommendations are coming from.

Make the Application Practical

While thorough trainings that include loads of context, background, and philosophy considerations can be worthwhile, at the end of the day teachers are wondering, “How does this relate to my classroom?” The more concrete and practical you can be, the better. This way, teachers know exactly what they can do tomorrow and have little room for questioning whether or not they’re applying the principle they’re supposed to. While you might offer a wealth of information in your training, try to at least end it with “Here’s how you can apply it,” or “Here are three practical ways you can make this happen in your classroom.”

Help Teachers Walk in Students’ Shoes

So much of what we see and do is from the teacher perspective, obviously. Consider how you can continually keep student perspectives at the forefront of how you approach education. Ask yourself and your staff, “What would students think of this?” and “If I were a student, what would I want to see happen?”

Consider giving staff the opportunity to follow a student around for a day, seeing what a day in the life of a student is like. One teacher who did this reported that she couldn’t believe how much time students spend sitting down all day, and radically changed her lesson strategy to include more kinesthetic activities.

Encourage the Learning Process

If we believe that teachers “Practice” their craft, then support teachers in the process of trial and error. The real process of learning and improvement often comes with failure in the mix. Let teachers know it’s OK to fail as long as they learn from what went wrong and they continually try to retool their methods to find stronger and stronger approaches. Teachers who are supported in their failures are more likely to experiment with find strong, successful methods.

Use the Tech Tools

How connected are your teachers? Instead of just sharing information with one another or attending conferences or classes, consider how to get more and more staff members plugged into electronic networking resources such as social media, webinars, and blogs. First, just encourage colleagues to use Internet sources to find material that pertains to what they’re interested in. This alone will help to customize the content and timing of professional development. Be a model for others and exemplify to them what a connected educator looks like.

Also, consider how you, your department, or your school could better leverage these tech tools for training and information dissemination. Instead of a meeting, try a webinar. Instead of a discussion, try a twitter chat. Encourage teachers to use tools like Twitter or Curio Learning to develop their own PLN (Personalized Learning Network).


Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.