Today, everyone talks of instilling a spirit of lifelong learning in students, introducing new and innovative ways to engage in the classroom, and taking education to the next level with technology. Well, these are all amazing goals! But, how does one navigate the waters of guiding an entire team to the finish line?

We sat down with Chalk’s very own Professional Development Expert, Lisa Vander Weide. With more than 10 years of experience in learning and development, we had a few burning questions we wanted to know about professional development (PD) in education. What better place is there to get some of the answers?

Q: Why should schools and educators focus on effective professional development?

A: Providing educators with innovative tools and supporting them to develop their skills to use them effectively will have a direct impact on student achievement. When teachers feel empowered and confident in bringing something new to their instruction, they can reach students they may not have been able to with traditional teaching methods. Innovative technology and teaching tools in the classroom can allow for diverse and interesting lessons that will engage students in new ways. However, these tools and their impact on student achievement can only be as effective as the professional development provided to the educators using them.

Q: What are some things to be considered before any PD with teachers takes place?

A: It’s a good idea to collect some information about your audience prior to the training. Asking a few simple questions in a survey will allow you to tailor your PD to the technical capabilities and specific needs of the audience, and you will be able to develop activities and materials that are relevant to their individual classroom experiences. This will lead to a more meaningful experience for your audience.

Some things that you may want to know prior to organizing professional development for teachers may include:

  • Subject area or grade levels so that activities and training materials can include relevant examples
  • Level of comfort using technology to help you decipher where to begin your training, whether it be at a beginner level or intermediate level
  • What would they like to know more about so that you can create a session they are going to be interested in

It’s good practice to have a detailed plan for not just the PD, but also how the PD fits into the strategy for implementing the new technology. Having a plan for managing the transition and anxiety teachers may feel while adapting to a new way of doing things, and planning for more than one training and skills development session will strengthen any training you deliver.

Q: What is your advice on making sure your audience really learns something during the PD session?

A: I would recommend differentiating your instruction, much like you would for students in a classroom.  Your audience will have varying levels of technical abilities and understanding, and being prepared to address this diversity of skills and confidence levels will have a significant impact on your participants’ experience.  You should also allow time for them to apply the knowledge of what they’ve learned. Try to structure the training sessions into multiple segments of “show, then do”. Meaning, first spend some time showing the audience how then allow time for them to apply that skill. This can be especially effective if they are able to work on a project they can actually take away from the training and use in the classroom. They’ll feel much more invested in learning that skill. Plus, using a “real-world” model like this can really help to develop your audience’s understanding of exactly how this new tool will be used inside the classroom.

Lastly, I would recommend focusing on incremental goals within the professional development plan, meaning, begin with a basic lesson or goal, and build on it slowly to work towards perfecting the skill. Whether you’re holding a single PD session, or several, built into the training should be opportunities to first create and use something with the new tool, and then providing opportunities to gather feedback and directions to build further and improve their knowledge and skills. This model is sometimes less overwhelming, offers the opportunity for hands-on learning, and allows the instructor to deliver knowledge in bite-sized chunks.

Q: What are some things I can do after the professional development takes place to ensure successful adoption of the new tool?

A: Many adult learners need more than one opportunity to learn a new skill. You will want to provide follow up sessions after the initial training for teachers to learn the information again, and to collaborate with their colleagues. You’ll really start to see innovation and creativity when you empower teachers to work together, and they’ll likely come up with ways to use the tool you hadn’t initially imagined. You should also consider who on your staff will be responsible for ensuring teachers are able to effectively incorporate the new tool into their classroom instruction. This individual or team should be providing feedback and support to the teachers throughout the school year. Perhaps this person becomes the lead, or the coach, where individuals can come to ask questions or be the one responsible for coordinating appropriate resources when teachers need help. The idea here is that at the very least, teachers feel confident that they are supported.  Lastly, if your school or district does not have a Professional Learning Community (PLC), consider creating one. An effective PLC will ensure everyone receives and can offer, ongoing support to/from colleagues. Just as it is important to offer fresh and relevant content to students, adult learners often require the same support. Empowering and enabling creative collaboration for a team is crucial for long-term retaining of skills. 

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes when it comes to planning effective PD for educators?

A: There are so many things that can become obstacles to supporting educators with learning new tools. Some are unavoidable, and others can potentially be mitigated by thoroughly planning. One of the most common errors I see in the field that can often stand in the way of successful adoption of a new tech tool is having multiple new initiatives going on at the same time. Teachers are often juggling competing priorities, and adding several new tech tools to the mix all at once can be overwhelming and create resistance to the new tools, instead of adoption. Carefully prioritizing new initiatives and offering ongoing support and professional development for each will lead to higher adoption rates by teachers,  and ultimately more effective integration into their classrooms.

I also find that often times the amount of time and energy it takes to get educators up and running with a new tool is underestimated. The reality is, there just isn’t enough time and money available for schools to pull their teachers out of the classroom for multiple ongoing training sessions. However, this can be a significant hindrance to the learning process. All learners need multiple opportunities to learn and apply a new skill, and so dedicating as much time to this as possible is key. Whether it’s formal training sessions, or rotating ‘office hours’ for teachers to come and ask questions, or collaboration during prep periods, it’s really important that multiple and diverse learning opportunities are inherent to the training plan.

Lastly, many people overlook the importance of allowing opportunities for end-users to provide feedback. Incorporating a continuous two-way feedback loop will help to provide insights into what the teachers may be struggling with, and give you the opportunity to communicate how you will address the knowledge gaps. Without this critical feedback, it’s not always possible to know how things are going, and you may not know you have any problems with a new technology implementation until it is too late. When teachers feel as though their concerns and questions are not addressed, or that they are not adequately supported in learning the skills necessary to use the new tool, they may not see the value in your investment and choose not to use it. This is very difficult to turn around once you get to that place, and can be avoided by giving the end-users of the new technology a voice.

Next Stop? Lifelong Learning!

While it may seem like a daunting task to organize professional development, don’t back down from the rewarding challenge! We encourage students to take things one step at a time, and PD for educators is no different. With a positive attitude and the knowledge that you are assisting educators in demonstrating the very skills schools aim to instill in students you will not be disappointed.

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