George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Revamping District-Wide PD Days

A differentiated instruction approach, including giving teachers a choice of sessions to attend, can make mandated professional learning more effective.

October 30, 2023
julief514 / iStock

Professional development is essential for educators. Student achievement has been found to increase by up to 21 percent as a result of teacher participation in well-designed professional development, so any steps that administrators can take to make a district-wide professional development day enjoyable for teachers may help invigorate their desire to learn and grow for the benefit of the students. 

Professional development (PD) is best designed with the understanding that K–12 teachers, like their students, benefit from differentiated methods of instruction. It makes sense to approach educating teachers just as teachers approach educating their students—with patience, understanding, and, as much as possible, a more individualized approach.

Ideas for productive PD

Model a culture of positivity toward learning: Provide teachers with consistent encouragement and optimism about the current and future state of the school district, as well as pride for the school community. In addition, administrators and lead teachers alike need to be role models of exemplary enthusiasm for continued professional development and display an eagerness to participate in discussions and share what they’ve learned themselves. 

Allow for choice of sessions: Vary lengths of sessions, topics, and methods of delivery, and encourage presenters to offer differentiated delivery of content: hands-on learning, learning through videos, group work, partner work, individual task work, art, music, physical activity, technology. 

Provide poster sessions, video presentations with Q&A and discussions, demonstrations, mini-sessions, longer sessions. Offer short sessions (20 to 40 minutes) to maintain attention, focus, and interest. This also gives teachers the chance to discover more during the day.

Offer brainstorming and action plan sessions: Give teachers the opportunity to communicate about particular projects and groups of students to consider ways to improve their learning experience and brainstorm how each session is relevant and can be utilized immediately. Allow teachers enough time to write a list of action plans. 

Include wellness sessions: This can include mindfulness, yoga, physical activity, and games that both support learning and promote mental and physical well-being. Discuss ways that such wellness activities can benefit students and educators alike and can be adapted to any classroom. As an article titled “Making Time for Mindfulness” states, research has found that mindfulness can, for example, improve teachers’ “emotional well-being, helping them understand student perspective… freeing them up to be more effective in the classroom.” Although wellness sessions may not be in the interest of all teachers, these types of activities do have their benefits.

Create physical settings that are comfortable, welcoming, inspiring: If classrooms have no comfortable seating (a lounge chair, for example), borrow yoga balls from the physical education department for some sessions. Social media item-exchange forums like Buy Nothing on Facebook are convenient places to get free comfortable furniture for classrooms, like a rocking chair or a sofa. If lamps are allowed by the fire code, they can soften the lighting of the space to make it feel more welcoming. Environmental factors can impact learning and academic achievement. 

Incorporate the arts: Provide markers, crayons, Play-Doh, and clay, and have teachers bring notepads. Play ambient or nature sounds or calming background music. Integrate art into the PD session with discussions on how it benefits the learning environment, improves focus, or puts students at ease.

Integrate student presentations: Invite student volunteers to showcase their schoolwork. This can include dance, music, theater, group projects, or films that they created. Then, give teachers opportunities to brainstorm ways of collaborating across disciplines. 

Show a film of alumni expressing their appreciation for the staff: Here’s an example created by the Business Department at Saugerties High School in New York that offers ideas for creating a video like this. Invite alumni of varying ages and professions to explain how the support they received in school has been influential to their careers and personal lives. This can provide teachers with a positive affirmation that their work impacts the lives of their students. 

Encourage teachers to present: Everyone has creative ideas and skills that they can share at a conference day. This can be in the form of formal presentations or informal 8-to-10-minute sessions in which teachers share ideas about activities they’ve done. This will also encourage peer educators to participate without the pressure of having to prepare a lot of material ahead of time.

Here’s an idea from Assistant Superintendent Gwendolyn Roraback about spark talks. Set up 10 to 12 tables around the perimeter of a cafeteria, or other large space like a gym or library. Teacher and co-teacher pairs of different subject areas and grade levels who have volunteered ahead of time choose one table, set up their materials to share, and talk for eight minutes about a lesson, project, or unit they created. They discuss both successes and failures of their work, outcomes or assessments, and changes they would make in the future. This is followed by a two-to-three-minute Q&A, and then a bell rings and participants choose another table of interest. Presenters repeat their short session to a new group of teachers for five or so rotations. 

Elicit feedback: Allow time both during the professional development sessions and after for attendees to provide feedback—not just an exit ticket for each session. Engage in discussion about topic ideas for upcoming conferences and teaching delivery method ideas for sessions from attendees. 

Well-designed professional development provides an opportunity for teachers to engage with one another, learn new skills, and provide novel and innovative solutions to challenges they might face in the classroom. These are times when teachers can encourage one another into collaboration and creativity that can help them learn better and be better teachers.

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