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3 Ways Experienced Teachers Can Get More Out of Professional Development

Classroom veterans have different needs for PD than novices—focusing on nuances in the material can make these sessions more productive.

April 14, 2021
Teachers in a meeting
SDI Productions / iStock

There comes a point in our career when we struggle to stay engaged in professional learning. After years of workshops, conferences, and staff meetings, we sometimes walk into a professional development (PD) session with a lackluster feeling that what we will be presented with we already know. While this is understandable, there are a few strategies that can support experienced teachers in reengaging in their own learning.

One of the major challenges experienced teachers face is that as we gain experience, our professional needs become more specialized. As a novice, we were conscious that we lacked the skills and knowledge that would be discussed in a PD session. While novice educators may preview material before professional learning, they need their full attention to absorb the big ideas, general practices, and broad next steps during the session.

Experts have more working memory in professional learning sessions and need to spend time analyzing slight changes in recommended practices. However, over years of developing competency, we may struggle to discern the subtle shifts in practice that would be worth our while.

Moreover, where a novice is typically open to all or most ideas, experts need a different level of preparation for professional learning. Experts need to prepare to have their ideas and strategies refined, which requires some initial preparation on handling potential revisions to their long-standing practices and thinking through new insights. There’s more of an emotional struggle with cutting ties to ideas or at least evaluating our current practices. What we need is a way of reengaging in professional learning that celebrates our experience, recognizes our needs, and grows our expertise.

How Veteran Educators Can Get More Out of PD

1. Approach learning as an explorer: Seek nuance, not generalities. There is a high likelihood that any professional learning course or workshop that you attend will have a high level of familiarity to you. One way to focus your mind and sharpen your skills is to find nuance on the topic.

Find subtle differences. Ask specific questions about the professional learning you are about to undertake, such as the following:

  • What nuances can I find that will push my thinking and/or my practice?
  • What evidence would refine my current thinking or prove my current thinking wrong?
  • What is unknown? What are people still trying to figure out? Where can I add value to this practice?

Rely less on the presenter to figure out how the work applies in your setting. Do the work of applying ideas to your practice. Inevitably, the examples provided will not fit exactly into your context. Try to work out how the recommendations could be transferred into your own context. Another approach is to temporarily consider accepting the ideas of others and determining how you would make the idea better and more accessible to you and others like you, and how it would work in your context.

2. Approach learning as a writer. Find an editor, and check what you know or think you know. One of the best ways to determine our level of competency is to write out what we know and have an editor give us feedback on our clarity and depth. While some of us may not have the time to write everything down, we can still think like a writer.

Start with an outline. Tell someone (or write down) three things you already know about the topic and three things you should do to implement the practice. Next, share what has changed in the research in the past five years. After going to the PD, share out the similarities and differences between what the presenter laid out and your prior knowledge. Next, evaluate whether your outline matched the presenter’s.

Think next draft, not first draft. You’re not going to your next PD conference or workshop with a blank slate. You’re carrying a wealth of knowledge and skills and need to be prepared to celebrate what you already know and do, refine your knowledge and skills in some areas, and let go of practices that may be less than ideal. To prepare for this next draft in your work, have a conversation with yourself about what it will feel like to write the next draft. When you do this, change your internal monologue from “I” to “you” statements. There’s a better chance you will value your past experience and be open to new learning if you can step out of your internal “I” chatter.

3. Approach learning as a photographer: Look through the eyes of students. Take a snapshot of student evidence of success. Mark down the degree to which your students are actually implementing the actions being described or shown in the workshop. There’s a good chance that the level of implementation is not an either/or proposition. That is, your students are likely doing some of what is described. Where are they succeeding? Who is succeeding? Why are they succeeding? This will be useful in your determination of next steps in your own learning.

Create a portfolio of snapshots. Professional learning is about continuing to refine and develop rather than certify and obtain. The more we think of professional learning as a process rather than an outcome, the better able we are to stay open to new learning. Therefore, creating a vocabulary associated with exploration and experience rather than description or prescription will move us toward enhancement of our own learning and practice. Using words like better practice rather than best practice, refinement rather than new practice, prototype rather than required practice, enables us to seek growth opportunities.

Finally, rethink your angle. If we aren’t in the right mental space heading into the session, we may spend our mental energy finding flaws in others’ arguments but ignore our own. This is a time to seek out experts that we disagree with and weigh the strengths and weaknesses of logic and evidence.

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