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  • Writer's pictureallisonjolester

Beyond Sit-and-Get: Creating Engaging Professional Development



If there’s one thing we know about teaching, it’s that the best learning experiences are the ones that linger long after the lesson is over. This holds true for ourselves as educators. My professional journey has provided me with invaluable insights into what makes professional development truly transformative. Whether it was supporting and witnessing exceptional professional development at the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute, working with undergraduate and veteran teachers at Breakthrough Cincinnati, or teaching master's courses on practitioner inquiry for K-12 teachers, I've seen firsthand the power of engaging, adaptive learning environments.


So, what does it take to make professional learning experiences for teachers, principals, and district leaders truly stick? Spoiler alert: it’s not about more PowerPoints and lectures. It's about creating an engaging, thought-provoking, and adaptive learning environment.


Moving Beyond Sit-and-Get

The traditional sit-and-get approach to professional development is like trying to teach someone to swim by handing them a textbook. It might look good on paper, but it’s not going to keep anyone afloat. Instead, let’s dive into the deep end with flexible, adaptive sessions that push our thinking and reflect real-world challenges.


Let’s explore how we can achieve this:


Crafting Customized Learning Experiences

Coaching, rehearsals, simulations, role-plays, and mini-lessons are our best friends. Imagine a mini-lesson where principals practice handling a parent-teacher conflict or a role-play that puts teachers in their students’ shoes. The goal is to create scenarios that feel real and relevant, while tailoring to the diverse needs of your team.

Reflective Question: How can I design learning experiences that are both realistic and adaptable to the unique needs of my team?


Encouraging Constructive Discomfort

Learning isn't always comfortable, and that's okay. In fact, it's necessary. We need to provoke discomfort to push boundaries but also provide a safe space to contain it. Think of it as a supportive nudge out of the comfort zone, encouraging growth while being there to catch anyone who stumbles.

Reflective Question: In what ways can I challenge my participants to step out of their comfort zones while ensuring they feel supported and safe?


Building Collaborative Learning Communities

Professional development should not be a solitary experience. Creating opportunities for educators to collaborate, share experiences, and learn from one another is essential. This can be achieved through group discussions, peer observations, and collaborative projects. A supportive community fosters trust and encourages educators to take risks and try new approaches.

Reflective Question: How can I foster a collaborative environment where participants feel valued and are encouraged to share and learn from each other?


Designing Strategic Interventions

Interventions should be like a well-timed assist in a basketball game—strategic and focused. Whether it’s a timely question, a targeted activity, or a reflective prompt, these interventions push thinking and keep the learning momentum going.

Reflective Question: Are my interventions timely and focused enough to push thinking without overwhelming my participants?


Fostering Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Conversations

These conversations are crucial and need to be ongoing. Facilitating discussions about equity and race isn’t a one-time event; it’s a continuous dialogue. Use stories, data, and personal experiences to keep these conversations alive and meaningful.

Reflective Question: How can I ensure that conversations about diversity and equity are ongoing, meaningful, and inclusive?


Integrating Continuous Reflection

Reflection is a powerful tool for learning. Encourage educators to regularly reflect on their practice, the professional development experiences, and the impact on their students. This can be done through journaling, discussion groups, or individual reflections. Continuous reflection helps educators to internalize new learning, adapt it to their context, and plan for future growth.

Reflective Question: How can I incorporate regular reflection opportunities to help participants internalize and apply their learning?


And Finally, My Favorite: Practitioner Inquiry

I know, I know. I sound like a broken record. But I have a big crush on practitioner inquiry because...it works! Practitioner inquiry is at the core of professional learning that sticks. This approach allows educational leaders and teachers to systematically investigate their own practice, identify areas for improvement, and implement changes based on their findings. It fosters a culture of continuous learning and reflection, making professional development deeply relevant and impactful. Let’s dive into this one more.

Reflective Question: How can I integrate practitioner inquiry into our professional development to foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement?


Practitioner inquiry can be used in a variety of contexts:

  • Educational Leaders: Principals and district leaders can engage in inquiry to examine school-wide practices, explore data trends, and develop strategies for school improvement. This process helps leaders make informed decisions and model a commitment to growth and learning.

  • Teachers: Classroom teachers can use practitioner inquiry to delve into specific aspects of their teaching, such as student engagement, instructional strategies, or classroom management. By reflecting on their practice and testing new approaches, teachers can enhance their effectiveness and student outcomes.


Model the Learning You Want to See

If we want our team members to become better teachers, principals, or district leaders, we need to model the kind of learning we want to see in our schools. This transformation starts with how we approach professional development. By embodying the principles of effective learning—engagement, adaptability, and reflection—we set the standard for our teams.


Leading professional learning is more than delivering content; it’s about creating the right conditions for learning to flourish. This involves a few key roles:

  • Curriculum Designer: Craft learning experiences that are engaging and impactful. Think beyond the basics and incorporate activities that challenge and inspire.

  • Facilitator: Guide the learning journey with empathy and insight. Be adaptable, listen actively, and respond to the needs of the group.

  • Student: Embrace the learner’s mindset. Reflect on your own practice, be open to feedback, and continually seek ways to improve.


Reflective Questions for Facilitators

To ensure your professional learning sessions are hitting the mark, ask yourself:

  • How can I tailor my strategies to meet the specific needs of my team?

  • What opportunities am I providing for participants to step out of their comfort zones in a supportive way?

  • Are my interventions timely and focused enough to push thinking without overwhelming?

  • How am I sustaining meaningful conversations about equity and race in my sessions?

  • In what ways does my identity inform my facilitation and decision-making?


Tips for Effective Professional Learning

  1. Be Authentic: Share your own experiences, both successes and challenges. Authenticity builds trust and encourages others to open up.

  2. Encourage Collaboration: Foster a collaborative environment where everyone feels valued and heard. Group activities and discussions can enhance learning and build a sense of community.

  3. Focus on Reflection: Incorporate regular reflection opportunities. Encourage participants to think about what they’ve learned, how it applies to their work, and what steps they’ll take next.

  4. Stay Flexible: Be prepared to adapt your plans based on the needs and dynamics of the group. Flexibility allows you to seize teachable moments and address emerging issues.


Final Thoughts

Leading professional learning that sticks is about more than delivering content; it's about inspiring change and fostering a culture of continuous improvement. By moving away from traditional approaches and embracing adaptive, engaging, and reflective practices, we can support our team members in becoming the best educators they can be. And remember, the journey starts with us.


When we model the kind of learning we want to see in our schools, we set the stage for a transformative educational experience—one engaging, thought-provoking session at a time. Embrace practitioner inquiry, lead by example, and watch as your professional development sessions become catalysts for lasting change.


Until next time, keep exporing, growing, and learning! ✌️

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