The Importance of Meaningful, Purposeful Professional Development

Having just returned from two days of professional development at an out of state conference, I thought it would be appropriate to devote this week’s post to just that. Professional development is super important for teachers, but it is not always super worthwhile.

My experience this week was a good one.  I left the event feeling like I had some new tools to utilize and new information to dispense to colleagues.  I also took advantage of the group of educators around me and asked all sorts of questions about their experiences.  That is really half the benefit of attending education conferences.  You meet people who experience the same challenges you do, but might approach them differently.  Of course the other half depends entirely on the quality and relevance of the professional development workshops.  

I am lucky to have attended a number of such conferences since I have been teaching.  The second month of my very first teaching job had me off to Sugarloaf to attend a conference of Maine middle school educators, and I immediately saw the benefit of heading off to a fun location to network with other teachers and learn from each other.  I also learned what it is like to attend a session that is a complete waste of everyone’s time.  We’ve all been there– ten minutes into the session, the laptops open (not to take notes), the cell phones come out, folks slip out for bathroom visits and never come back.  We learn to try to sit near the door for a stealthy exit in the event the session appears to not be all that life changing, and head for another.  I like to grab any handouts first, in case there are some resources or links that might be useful.  The risk, of course, is now the sessions have already started and you’re off to find another, which might involve an awkward late entrance, or a standing room only situation if the session is popular. 

I’ve been to general educator conferences, Common Core conferences, assessment conferences, and many math conferences.  On the whole, they’re usually quite interesting, these gatherings, and while at any two or three day conference there are often one or two sessions that turn out to be duds, they are almost never a complete bust.  And when the sessions end, the evenings are free to explore the host city. I’ve attended conferences in Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and other places. Did you know that Baltimore has a lovely Italian section of town, with some amazing restaurants?  Or how incredibly beautiful Chicago is at night time?  I am still hoping I will be sent to New Orleans one of these days.

I get reimbursed when I go to conferences.  Typically, I put the hotel bill on my credit card, and I keep all my travel and food receipts.  I am bad about timing; I usually end up submitting my reimbursement forms and receipts about a day before the deadline, typically 60 days after I attended.  But I have never been denied reimbursement.  It can be expensive, too!  Flying to and from a destination, two or three nights at a nice hotel, and a handful of meals out, plus parking, commuting to and from the airport.  These events can easily exceed a thousand dollars for one person.  

A thousand dollars is a lot of money for just one person.  Is it worth it?

That’s a good question, and a slightly loaded one.   So a teacher flies to a city somewhere out of state in the middle of the summer to attend a conference.  It’s a great conference.  The teacher takes a lot of notes, writes down a few book titles, meets some interesting people, learns a few new tricks, and flies back home.  Then the teacher carries on with summer.  A wedding here, a family gathering there, a beach getaway, weeks peppered with visits to the classroom to set things up for September.  School starts, and how much is retained from that expensive trip to that out of state destination?  Will that trip revolutionize the teacher’s practice?  Will that teacher dispense his or her revelations to colleagues?  

Sometimes the impact from a trip to a conference is great.  I might suggest that conferences held during the school year, despite the extra expenses of hiring substitute teachers, probably yield more direct impact, as teachers can apply what they learned immediately upon their return, and also share all that fresh new learning with colleagues.  But other times the takeaways from a two or three day conference are less vivid, or even less profound.  Whether or not an educator is truly changed for the better from such experiences, or encouraged, or inspired, is debatable.  

My personal opinion is these events are indeed worth the risk, and the money.  It is a priceless opportunity for educators to be able to network with other educators from around the country, especially in a face-to-face setting.  This is true regardless of whether or not the actual theme and content of the conference is earth-shattering. Sometimes colleagues come back from these things claiming the experience was, “amazing,” but even when it wasn’t amazing, how often do you get to sit in a room with 20, 40, or 200 other people who do exactly what you do, in locations all across the country?  

Budgets are complicated things, but veteran school and district administrators tend to become experts at making the most important things happen.  No doubt, in difficult times out of state conferences often get yanked out of the annual budget as a lower priority than say, curriculum materials or teacher salaries.  It only makes sense.  

When budgets are tight and moratoriums on new purchases are in place, professional development tends to be designed in-house.  Again, it only makes sense.  There are often underutilized resources in every school building, whether it is that teacher who consistently runs a stupendously managed classroom, or that team that consistently yields the highest test scores, or a pair of teachers who want to pilot an exciting new idea.  

Both types of professional development opportunities should be available to professional educators.  Folks can share their new learnings with colleagues in-house, and those colleagues can share with others, and so on.   Professional development also means bringing in outside experts when possible, to breathe new life into instructional techniques and curriculum delivery.  

What is more important with in-house professional development than off-campus events, however, is the relevance of what is being put forth.  A lame session at an out-of-state conference might be a bummer to have to sit through, but it has a less negative impact than a lame session scheduled during contracted hours set in a local school building.  Part of my job is to deliver professional development, and I feel a tremendous amount of weight upon my shoulders when I stand in front of a group of teachers, because I know how precious that time is (see mostly all previous posts in The Unrealized Maine Classroom).  The very last thing I want any one of them to be thinking is, “Oh my, what a waste of my time this is… I could be working/ teaching/ grading/ planning in my classroom right now.”  

For many teachers, the school year starts with a couple days set aside for professional development.  In Maine, it’s usually the last couple days of August, just before Labor Day and the first week of school.  Everybody is full of both nervous and eager energy.  What will this year be like?  How will I adjust to being back in school? I have a blank slate– this year I am going to be more effective than ever before.  I am really, really going to miss working in my garden…  The start of the school year brings with it a lot of emotions for teachers, just like it does for students.

The first professional development days are so important for this reason.  It is a time to really get things started right, with content that is 100% geared toward launching the first weeks of school on the right note.  It is not a time to drone on about the importance of data.  It is not a time to drone on about anything.  

The best education-oriented professional development is captivating, not because it is meticulously presented, or makes teachers feel good, but because it is directly relevant to what they are going to do in the classroom the next day.  The other day, sitting in a workshop surrounded by New England educators, the presenter had us all look at a visual display that presented a great deal of useful information pertaining to curriculum work we all had in common.  Heads perked up.  You could literally hear oohs (“ooh..”) and ohs (“oh!”) all around the room.  It was just a simple chart, but it was exactly what we all wanted to see.  Everyone was entirely attentive, and I thought to myself, “I can use this… Sure am glad I am here to see this.”

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.