George Lucas Educational Foundation
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New teachers unfamiliar with professional development might not know that PD can enhance student achievement by as much as 21 percentile points, (PDF) according to a U.S. Department of Education report. But the rewards of these professional learning experiences will be compromised if new teachers don't think and act strategically, as described below.

Don't Expect PD to Have All the Answers

A classroom crowded with interactive fifth grade students is a complex system, just like the weather, the stock market, or (to a lesser degree) chess. In chess, even though each of the 42 pieces is rule-bound, every move and counter move changes the relationships between pieces. Consequently, the number of potential game scenarios is ridiculous -- "so huge that no one will invest the effort to calculate the exact number," writes Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer scientist at the University of Alberta. And just think -- possible classroom interactions are exponentially more complex than chess.

Fortunately, instructors' observations of students provide them with unsurpassed situational awareness of classroom life. It is this very competence that informs two operating principles to adopt during your next PD event.

1. Accept that unpredictability is inherent to classroom life.

No PD consultant can tell you exactly what you need to do in the classroom and how to do it. No strategy or map will tidy up the complex nature of working with students. Therefore, reductively assuming that PD will -- whoosh! -- solve complex classroom problems sets teachers up for disillusionment and frustration.

2. Identify the underlying value of strategies that are presented.

If your PD event presents the jigsaw, don't view this instructional strategy as merely something to plug into a lesson plan in specific cases. At its core, the method leverages cooperation to help students comprehend material through critical thinking and problem solving. Deep understanding of any strategy's function within a discipline enhances your ability to make insightful adaptations when students (predictably) respond unpredictably. Speaking as Captain Obvious: successfully executing an instructional strategy is less important than fulfilling its purpose.

What PD Topics Are Critical in the First Years of Teaching?

If you have a menu of PD topics to select from, sign up for sessions that touch on core concepts, threshold concepts, and bottlenecks. These are defined as follows:

Core Concepts

According to Faculty Focus, "A core concept is a conceptual 'building block' that progresses understanding of the subject." The Common Core State Standards make core concepts easily identifiable.


As explained by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, "A bottleneck is a place in a course where, over and over again, large numbers of students fail to learn." For instance, science students often confuse volume and mass. However, scaffolding instruction during a bottleneck reduces cognitive load and allows students to participate successfully with subsequent content.

Threshold Concepts

As described by education specialists Jan Meyer and Ray Land (PDF), threshold concepts are often difficult for students to master. Unlike core concepts and bottlenecks, they profoundly change students' thinking when mastered. James Atherton, in Doceo: Introduction to Threshold Concepts, identifies reading as an example. Once students learn to read, they cannot unlearn the fact that squiggly lines in a book are packed with meaning. Other examples of threshold concepts include the theory of complex numbers, cultural landscapes, multiculturalism, evolution, the state, and gravity.

Before the PD, prepare pedagogical questions for facilitators that relate to bottlenecks, core concepts, and threshold concepts within your discipline, as the answers will be useful to you early in your career.

Connect With Others

Show up early to the PD session and connect with colleagues who are passionate, positive, and professional. Ask them if they have any projects that they're excited about this semester. Building strong relationships with other teachers enriches your professional life and is very strong PD Kung Fu.

Tackle Your "Push Goal" First

Based on each PD session, list ways that you will change your practice, share the list with colleagues, apply the new approaches systematically, collect data, and make necessary modifications. Even better, identify and complete a push goal -- what motivational guru Chalene Johnson defines as one goal on your list that, if achieved, can make many of the others possible. Here's one: engage in at least one positive personal interaction with each of your students every day. If accomplished, this push goal will help accomplish other aims, like improving classroom management and learners' investment in your subject. Says Johnson, "You'll be amazed by how quickly you knock the other goals off your list when you focus on your push goal first."

What to Do When the PD Is a Snooze-O-Rama

Inevitably, you'll attend a PD session where any obvious benefits from being there will escape you. During those disappointing sessions, take the opportunity to reflect on the craft of teaching. Think of it as a problem-solving challenge: How would you make the session stronger if you were in charge?

Finally, remember that we attend PD for the kids. Any event that bolsters classroom instruction serves students' futures, so make your PD experiences count.

How do you make your professional development experiences count? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY


Did you see this from The New Teacher Project (

Here are some telling results:

"Over two years, we looked closely at teacher development in three large school districts and one charter school network. Here's what we found:

School systems are making a massive and laudable investment in teacher improvement--far larger than most people realize.

Yet most teachers do not appear to improve substantially from year to year, even though many have not yet mastered critical skills.

We found no evidence that any particular kind or amount of professional development consistently helps teachers improve.

School systems are failing to help teachers understand how to improve--or even that they have room to improve at all."

#2 on your list -- identify the underlying value of strategies that are presented -- proves it is about the how, more than the what.

Pete Reilly's picture
Pete Reilly
Author, "A Path with Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery" and "In the Garden of Hearts: Meditations, Consolations, and Blessings for Teachers"

I'm not familiar with Kung Fu but one of the key elements of most martial arts is being 'centered' and 'mindful'. This allows us to be present in the moment, open to possibilities, and connected to the things we care about. Most traditional professional development begins and ends with techniques, and strategies, and rarely focuses on the 'self' of the teacher who is tasked with implementing these strategies.

I'd love to have us expand our definition of great teaching from knowledge of content, pedagogy and students, to include knowledge of 'self'. Ask any teacher what they remember about the great teachers that impacted them when they were students and you'll get a list of personal characteristics: they cared, they listened, they recognized something in me that I didn't see in myself, they were funny, creative, enthusiastic, they challenged me...the list goes on and on.

In my view we need to incorporate more personal development in our professional development.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I agree Pete. As I've learned more and more about the ways that mindfulness intersects with teaching, I'm struck by how I gain when I take the time to be really present with my students. The better I am at knowing myself, the better I become as a teacher. Of course, I'm always trying to learn more about developments in the field- that's what professionals do- but I can relax a bit knowing that any new information I gain will only inform the ways I work with the students in front of me as they currently are. It's a very freeing way to approach my own professional learning!

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