The Professional Development We Need (And Deserve)

An amazing thing happened today. I found myself this afternoon standing in the front of my classroom, desks in evenly spaced rows, a big jug of blue hand sanitizer near the door, my laptop projecting on the Promethean board, my iPad under the document camera, a bright yellow mask on my face. Spread out in a mixture of standing or sitting on top of the desks, a group of English teachers laughed, commiserated, and eagerly listened and shared ideas in preparation of our foray into hybrid education that starts Monday.

For the past month, I have been a ball of anxiety. I have come home from work angry and upset just about every day. I’ve started chomping on Smoothie Tums like they’re candy, and I’m in the middle of a two week cycle of Prilosec. Like many districts, mine is getting ready to start phasing students back to face-to-face, meaning that starting Monday, I’ll have students joining me in my actual classroom and students joining me via Cisco Webex from home, all at the same time. To increase the anxiety, we’re transitioning from a half day schedule (two groups of students, one AM and one PM), to a full day, complete with a whole new bell schedule and all new rosters of students. For the past three weeks of virtual learning, I taught eight separate 45-minute classes, but starting Monday, I’ll have three 100-minute block classes. Because why not throw a full schedule change into the middle of stressful pandemic teaching?

I consider myself a good classroom teacher; I strive to do what is best for my students every day and to improve my practice through research-based strategies. And I think I’ve done a good job of teaching virtually for the past three weeks that we’ve been fully online. But the prospect of teaching both at the same time… how will that even work?

But today was a different day. We had the afternoon to work to prepare for Monday, and instead of going into our own classrooms, taking our masks off, and measuring the distance between desks while crying about the impossibility of it all, we all came together. We filled a whiteboard with our plan for the week. We discussed a Choose Your Own Adventure hyperdoc we’re creating that will direct students to activities they can complete any time they finish an assignment early – intervention and enrichment built into the day with a whole heap of student choice. We figured out exactly what materials needed to be created for this week and split up the work of creating them. It was a truly successful collaboration (no PLC documents required).

After that meeting, I invited a few fellow teachers into my room and demonstrated a few educational technology tips and tricks that I’ve learned and that I think will be beneficial to this new “hybrid” model — things like using the projector as a second monitor and sharing that screen to the kids on Webex, so the online kids see the same thing that the face-to-face kids see. (By the way, teaching online without two monitors is ineffective at best and impossible at worst. I heard about this charity today that is trying to get monitors to teachers that need them. Check them out here! I literally would not be able to teach without my second screen.)

With masks on and space between us, we talked about the problems we anticipate and the solutions that might work. It may have at one point even turned into a mini lecture on the SAMR model of technology integration.

The best part of this impromptu professional development was that it is actually a PD that I’ve been wanting to create. One of my very first doctoral classes this fall is literally called “Professional Development,” and we just finished a group virtual book study of The Four O’Clock Faculty: A Rogue Guide to Revolutionizing Professional Development by Rich Czyz. That experience was amazing on its own; a Zoom meeting that we intended to be about 30 minutes turned into over an hour of animated, excited, and insightful discussion. After two such meetings and the creation of a Google Sites “book report,” I decided that I needed to put these ideas into action. As I wrote on the site…

In the final chapter of the book, the Rich Czyz says, “There is only one way to do professional development if you want it done right. Do it yourself” (2017), and I plan to do just that. I am going to organize a jam session so that the teachers on my campus can come together (virtually, of course) and compare problems to find solutions. This will be an opportunity for us to create the professional development that we wish our administrators had provided for us.

Even just reading that again, it’s striking how what formed naturally in my classroom today is exactly the kind of professional development I want to lead on my campus. (Not to mention that it was an indescribable feeling when my colleagues said that they wanted me to lead sessions like this more often.)

I saw this type of jam session done incredibly well over the summer when I briefly served as an instructional design intern for the Training and Leader Development Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The deputy director led a Distance Education Round Table where representatives from every department came together in Microsoft Teams to discuss the problems they were having with transitioning their trainings and webinars to an online format and, this is the important part, find solutions. That virtual meeting was incredible to witness for a couple of important reasons:

  1. It wasn’t a, pardon my French, bitch-fest. I know I’m guilty of it too, but just sitting around complaining doesn’t change anything. (I do believe that a little ranting to a close friend is good for the soul as long as it’s followed by a search for real solutions.)
  2. The deputy director barely spoke. It wasn’t about him mandating what he wanted to see. It was truly about authentic problem-solving and sharing.
  3. Most importantly, everybody had an equal voice. Nobody dominated the discussion. It was truly a round table.

Administrators can pay thousands of dollars to outside consultants, but authentic, meaningful professional development starts from within. One of the many things I learned from The Four O’Clock Faculty is that we are in charge of our own development.

I was nervous about trying to host an effective round table jam session professional development, and it could still go horribly wrong. But as I said this afternoon, the key to integrating technology is simply not being afraid to fail. In fact, it’s all about being prepared to fail because that’s how we learn. Maybe my trick for sharing my iPad screen with online and face-to-face students simultaneously won’t work on Monday, but you can be sure that I will do my best to make it work, and when it doesn’t, I’ll learn from the ways it fails and try again on Tuesday.

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