By Anna Muessig
Who in the world has the clearest understanding of what you need in order to grow as a professional? Who knows best what you are the most curious about and what you want to learn about at this very moment? Hint: it’s probably not a central office administrator with whom you meet once a year for a maximum of 15 minutes.
Additionally, we continue to grow as lifelong learners when we remain curious and invest in ourselves on our own terms. These are two of many reasons why it’s so important to take charge of your own professional development.
Here are three scenarios that might describe your current experience with PD and some ideas about how to take charge of your PD in each of them.
Scenario 1: You live in PD perfection. Your professional development provided by your district is always relevant and intentionally designed for professional adults. All professional development is well planned in terms of the time of the school year in which it is implemented, and each session has appropriate pacing including time for application and reflection. Additionally, all professional development has sustained follow-up and support.
So now what? How could you possibly need to take charge of your own PD when everything is working perfectly? If you are experiencing perfect PD, consider challenging yourself and considering ways to use your voice. PD may be perfect for you, but are your colleagues having the same experience? What about any colleagues whose PD needs aren’t always considered, such music, art, and health and physical education teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses, educational support professionals, and many other staff members? Consider looking beyond your own PD experiences to determine how you can develop your leadership and advocacy skills to support high quality PD for all.
Scenario 2: You can see that your district is trying to prioritize PD, and sometimes PD is useful, but coherence, coordination, timing, resources, or ongoing support are a challenge.
Now what? It may be tempting to sit back, cross your arms, and complain, but this situation may be a great opportunity to speak up, get involved, and to advocate for necessary follow-through and support. If there are official pathways to get involved—a leadership team in your district or building, openings on your school improvement panel (ScIP), association committees where you can get involved to advocate for your colleagues—consider investing in these opportunities to improve PD for yourself and your colleagues.
And if those formal pathways don’t exist or aren’t accessible to you, consider how you can connect with and share with your colleagues to support each other. Can you plan a weekly lunch and learn where you reflect on your instructional strategies together? Can you connect to an online community of educators? Can you explore PD offered by NJEA at conferences, regional workshops and county workshops?
Scenario 3: You can see that PD isn’t a priority in your district for any number of reasons. Maybe PD is poorly timed, or staff are assigned to PD that isn’t relevant to them, or support and follow-through are inconsistent or nonexistent.
Now what? Taking charge of your own PD may be the most important in this situation, because that may be your only authentic opportunity for growth. First, when you are required to participate in PD that isn’t what you need, consider what you would want your students to do if they are experiencing a lesson that doesn’t seem relevant to them. Sure, you can “check out” and grade papers, but if you stay engaged, there is likely something that you can learn from the experience, even if it isn’t the intended objective of the session.
I can still remember the worst PD I’d ever experienced, even though it was nearly 20 years ago. While the content has faded from my memory, any time I have delivered PD since, I have not read from text filled slides for two hours while attendees sat on uncomfortable benches in a crowded cafeteria. I have always planned to make the environment as comfortable as possible, have sought to break the content into manageable chunks, and have looked to open space for attendees to actively engage with the content and each other rather than to passively receive information. I’m sure that wasn’t the intended purpose of that long-ago PD session, but I was able to learn and subsequently apply that learning.
So if the PD your district provides does not meet your needs, consider what you can learn while you are in the moment, and then look for opportunities to continue to grow as an educational professional.
Some ways take charge
Whatever your PD experience is, here are some ideas to help you take charge of your own PD:
- Reflective journaling: Whether a paper journal or a digital document, set aside five minutes a day (or even once a week) to regularly reflect on your instruction. Over time, go back and review your reflections to notice trends about what you may want to learn and ways you have grown.
- Reading and researching: Read educational research in books, articles, professional journals, or online through tools such as Google Scholar. One great, free resource for keeping current in educational research is What Works Clearinghouse, which you can find at ies.ed.gov/ncee/WWC.
- Regularly engage in professional conversations with colleagues. This might look like a weekly lunch and learn, developing a professional learning community, online networking, or at EdCamps. (Upcoming EdCamps can be found at digitalpromise.org/edcamp/attend. Don’t see an EdCamp near you? Gather some colleagues and consider organizing one!)
- Consider ways to look beyond your own classroom. Can you partner with a trusted colleague to watch each other teach, reflect together and learn together?
- Ask for what you want—ask to go to a workshop, ask your local president to utilize NJEA resources.
- Take a graduate course.
- Tap into NJEA resources—the NJEA Convention, conferences, county and local workshops.
- Join professional organizations related to your content area. Many such organizations maintain an affiliation with NJEA. Visit njea.org/affiliated-groups.
- Apply to the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy. This professional development and personal growth experience has been transformative for those who have completed it so far. For more information about this program, visit njea.org/tla.