After 11 years of enduring professional development (PD) of all stripes—and listening to colleagues complain about most of that PD—I started designing and conducting workshops and courses for teachers. Reflecting on all my experiences, both as a learner and as a facilitator, the most powerful learning experiences—the light bulb moments—that stuck with me were always with peers. Below I share my tips to ease into and maximize peer-to-peer PD for teachers, instructional coaches, district PD designers, or administrators looking to refresh PD plans.
Step 1: Ensure relevance
Seems simple enough, but unfortunately, in my experience as a teacher, PD relevance is not a given. While most professional development seems relevant to those planning it—and maybe it was, six months ago when it was planned—how do we tap into the actual needs of teachers? The needs of students?
One of the greatest benefits of peer-to-peer PD is that it enables the design of rapid responses to the needs, concerns, and challenges that teachers have right now. Better still, colleagues going through the same issues with the same students can share and model what’s already working for them.
In addition to disseminating possible solutions to tangible problems, peer-to-peer PD helps celebrate and model great teaching. Remind staff and colleagues that they are experts and treat them as such. Help them see their own awesomeness by turning the spotlight on their ideas, methods, and strategies.
Before starting to plan any peer-to-peer PD sessions, answer these questions:
- What would make teaching and learning easier, more joyful, more effective? What are people complaining about? What do they need or want? Use this Needs Tool to help identify the most pressing issues.
- Is there any in-house expertise to highlight? Is someone doing something innovative, collaborative, or fun? How can that idea—if only its essence—be scaled, shared, and adapted for others?
- When can people attend and be most attentive, receptive, and focused?
- Is it possible to build off district mandates? How does what the PD offers help teachers do what they’re supposed to do anyway—“two birds with one stone” PD?
- What’s the value add for each teacher? Is there continuing education credit and/or pay (for any time spent outside contract hours)? Are they getting help with accomplishing something they have to do anyway?
Step 2: Provide Options for Engagement
The mere act of making something mandatory can make it ineffective. (How many times did my English language arts colleagues and I add a book that students loved for independent reading, only for that same book to be met with apathy once it was mandatory reading?) Given the wide needs of teachers, coupled with the various demands and schedules of coaching, parenting, partnering, and just living, the best peer-to-peer PD provides many modes and depths of participation.
Rather than a stand-alone, separate thing that takes place on special days, sprinkle professional learning opportunities throughout the week, month, and year. Create lots of learning options: in-person and virtual, one-off and sustained engagements, how-to tips and deep dives. Consider the following, and create the PD “menu” that works best for everyone.
- Posters: Place on bathroom stalls and break room bulletin boards to quickly share a tip, tool, and teaching treat (think joke, pick-me-up, shout-out).
- Staff Flip library: Create a learning library on Flip. Empower staff to share or demo something that’s worked well for them—a new tool, strategy, or resource, or anything that’s sparked their imagination. Sharers get credit hours for creating a post, and staff can watch peer videos for inspiration.
- Weekly gratitude shout-out: Highlight something awesome that a staffer is doing to support learners, grow relationships, or enhance the learning space.
- Weekly newsletter: Whether the focus of the newsletter is on a theme for the year or to capture snippets of all the PD offers, this is a chance to keep everyone on the same page, provide resource links, and model best practices.
- Article review: Create voluntary small groups. Weekly or biweekly, a group member finds an article, blog, book chapter, or video for the group to consume. Meet to discuss how to apply the concepts.
- Book study: Pick a book and read it together. Meet once a month to discuss and apply the books’ ideas.
- Learning walks: Visit other teachers. Watch and learn. There are ample learning walk protocols, but the main focus is creating the time and the culture to simply enjoy learning by watching the nearby experts.
- Edcamps: Rather than planning breakout sessions, Edcamp the next PD day. As staff gather, ask them to share what they’d like to learn or discuss that day, and create the breakout sessions on the spot.
- Innovation sprints: Introduce a new concept or tool, then sprint to design as many applications, lessons, or activities as possible using that concept or tool. Share out what’s created, and leave with a dozen ideas.
- Implementation labs: Tackle a bigger challenge by researching and brainstorming solutions. Work in teams to design possible solutions, and then test those solutions. Report results, and share out the best pieces of each idea.
Step 3: Ensure implementation, reflection, and collaboration
So now that PD is open and flexible, how do you track the work and ensure that staff are doing the PD they’re required to do? The key here is to recognize and honor not only the learning but the implementation of new ideas, strategies, and technology. By providing credit for implementation, teachers have an incentive to try the tool they saw on a poster; they might do a learning walk to see a colleague in action after reading a staff shout-out. It’s the application of new learning that helps it stick, so emphasize and encourage teachers to try new things.
Establish clear implementation time and support: Establish how much time is expected, and provide an overview of when PD is embedded into the staff calendar. Help staff design a learning goal and create a system to track hours and growth. Perhaps they earn badges for different tasks or simply complete a learning log. Technology like Schoology, Google Classroom, Edpuzzle, or other content management systems can help track hours and ensure that staff are meeting basic requirements. Award continuing education or recertification credit for reading, playing with tools, and—most important—for implementing PD inspiration.
Reflection: As staff implement their learning, embed a reflection piece. This can be a fist-to-five-style reflection, perhaps adding to a staff Flip learning community or submitting their learning log. Again, this reflection must count toward PD hours.
Next steps: Now that they’ve tried it, what will the teacher do next? Revise? Ditch? Expand? Provide opportunities for staff to share what they learned by repurposing staff meetings into staff show-and-tell sessions. Even “failures” are great opportunities to model innovation and dynamic thinking. If we want learners to try new things and take risks, we must ensure that teachers can do the same.
And here’s my last tip, the hardest one of all:
Step 4: Don’t take it personally
The power of peer-to-peer PD cannot be overstated, but even great peer-to-peer PD will not satisfy everyone. Some will dive in, some will resist, and some will flat-out refuse. Be clear, be consistent, be open.
There are entire books and master classes on the subject, but this is my simple framework to get started.