What does good professional development look like?

GUEST COLUMN | by Susan Williams

CREDIT Atomic LearningDescribing what good professional development looks like, is like describing good art, good music, or good food. Some people adore modern art, while others just can’t see the appeal. Asparagus may be nutritious, but the taste isn’t for everyone. I say I don’t like rap music, but I still find it running through my head sometimes. The point being that different things appeal to different people.

There’s a fair amount of research about what constitutes good professional development. That research says good professional development must be ongoing (no one-shot wonders), supported over time, connected to local initiatives, relevant to classroom practice, and have buy-in from the building principal, just to name a few qualities (see research by Linda Darling-Hammond and Ann Lieberman, among others). While the lack of these traits may lead to ineffective professional development, their inclusion doesn’t guarantee that it’s good either.

So perhaps the question is not what does good professional development look like, but what does effective professional development look like? At my company, that question is at the heart of everything we do, so here are a few defining characteristics of effective professional development that we stand behind.

Effective professional development is…

Led by an expert. If you’re leading the charge, the audience is going to assume you’re an expert. It’s your job to assure them that this assumption isn’t wrong. But don’t spend too much time talking about your credentials. Remember, expert doesn’t mean you have a degree or publications; it means you have enough experience to know what you’re talking about.

Engaging. If the audience doesn’t want to be there, the whole journey is going to be an uphill battle. If the content isn’t engaging (even if they know it’s important), the presentation better be.

Do-able. Everyone loves pie in the sky dreams, but at the end of the day, the audience needs to believe they can actually do whatever is being proposed. Give them a path to follow and help them break it up into manageable pieces to find success along the way.

Motivating. At the end of a professional development session, your audience should be different, and hopefully better, than they were before. Help them want to be better.

Accurate. If something is based in research, show them (but don’t make it a research report). If you think an idea might work but you aren’t sure, tell them that.

Conversational. Be the expert, but include your audience. Ask relevant questions you really want to know the answer to.

Personal. How does this affect you? Make a connection by telling stories, bringing students to bear witness or telling a joke.

Active. This doesn’t mean “Turn to your neighbor and…” Ask your audience to picture their classrooms, then give them a minute to write down an idea in the context of a particular student. Challenge them to incorporate two ideas next week and have them write those ideas down. And if worse comes to worst, they can talk to their neighbor.

Breaks and Snacks. It sounds simple, but if a session is more than 90 minutes, schedule a break(s) and let them know when it will be. This gives them a chance to digest the information that’s already been shared and prepare for the next part of the session. And who doesn’t like a little treat every now and then?

If the professional development is related to technology, consider:

Context. If you do nothing else I’ve listed, provide context for why this particular technology matters. A cool tool without an explanation of why it is useful, leaves your audience guessing.

Language. Don’t use jargon or technical language. Technology can be intimidating and daunting; the language should help mitigate a participant’s feeling that they are unable to do what is being asked of them, not add to it.

Options. Acknowledge that there are multiple ways to do something, but don’t show all of them (unless that’s the purpose of the training).

Glitches. Don’t be thrown if something goes a little haywire. Use it as an example of what might happen, then as an example of how it can be handled gracefully.

Empathy. Whether it’s through language, modeling, examples, humor or however else you might do it, show empathy.  Everyone likes to be understood.

Patience. No one likes to repeat themselves or answer the same question over and over, but you’re there as the expert. It’s your job to make sure the audience walks out the room with a good understanding of the material you’ve presented. And sometimes that means explaining something more than once, especially when it comes to technology.

It might also be helpful to point out a few things that can lead to ineffective professional development, regardless of the topic:

Lecture. Unless it’s funny and has lots of quotable remarks, they’ll only be pretending to listen.

PowerPoint-less. If you use PowerPoint, or some other presentation tool, keep in mind that your audience can read. Give the high points, but it’s you they came to see.

Bad audio. There are few quicker ways to lose an audience than by making them stop and ask, “What did you say?”

Effective professional development is a critical component of success in any field, and education is no different. Remember that an educator’s time is valuable. Of course some people will be there simply because they need to be, but for the most part, they’re going to be there because they want to be better at what they do.

Susan Williams is an Ed Tech Evangelist at Atomic Learning, where she assists in the development and delivery of quality training for educators. In her role, Susan works with educators worldwide to establish and enhance professional development and technology integration programs. She is a lifelong learner and educator with more than 20 years of education experience as a high school teacher, technology trainer and professional development specialist. For more information, visit: www.atomiclearning.com.