I’ll never forget the time I was working with a cohort of five teachers in a humanities program. We were getting ready to break for the summer and I suggested we read something academic to improve our craft as teachers. I envisioned coming back in the fall to a rich discussion whose lessons we would be able to weave into our practice to make us better teachers. I was surprised when one of my colleagues was very hesitant. Her reasoning: Summer was her time and she didn’t want to read anything having to do with school. She wanted to read the newest James Patterson book. I was shocked at this pushback. Especially for a program that required students to engage in summer reading, here was one of the instructors not wanting to do so. The group went back and forth and eventually the compromise was we would read a book, but it had to be a short one. Here we were judging the worth of the book by the number of pages. We were worse than the students.
Teachers by their chosen profession are the ultimate life-long learners. If you go into the teacher business you are essentially signing up for 30-35 more years of school. No matter how knowledgeable you become on the subject you teach, there are always new things to learn whether it be content, the method of delivery, a classroom management system, or a grading practice. If you laminate your lesson plans and teach one year 30 times rather than teaching for 30 years, this will also reflect in the way your students approach their learning. You need to show students that you are a willing learner just like them.
Here are a few pieces of advice on how to approach your own personal professional learning:
1) Try something new
Just as you would expect your students to be willing to learn something new, you too must have this valuable skill. That means being open to new teaching methods and techniques. When I was going through my teacher training over twenty years ago I took a class on how to make sure the image from an overhead projector wasn’t distorted. Now there’s a screen on my chalkboard that I can project and manipulate. You have to keep up with technology or it will become obsolete. Same goes with teaching techniques. When I went to school it was more sit-and-get with my teachers being the distributors of knowledge. Now classrooms have evolved to be more interactive whether that is employing project-based learning, rotating learning stations, or having the students teach the class. If you don’t try something new, you just become old, and this has nothing to do with age. I know lots of old teachers who are 25 as well as young teachers on their 35th year in the profession.
2) Challenge yourself
Part of learning is overcoming challenges. So if you’re not challenging yourself, your personal learning will become stagnant. This is sometimes easier said than done but I have found that by making challenges public, it makes you more likely to overcome them. For instance, each year I would have my students create a personal goal of learning. I would always announce what my personal learning goal was as well so that the kids held me accountable. One year I said I would read the entire Harry Potter series of seven books resulting in students asking me all the time which book I was on and how many more I had to go. This motivated me to complete the series even quicker, finishing before the mid-way point of the year. Another trick I did this last year is I emailed the entire staff of my district and invited them to read a book over the summer which we could talk about once we came back to school in the fall. A few people accepted this challenge which forced me to read the book over the summer because I was the one who put that idea out there. Some may shirk from a challenge because it can be hard but challenging yourself is not meant to be easy.
3) Lead by example
Sometimes teachers overlook the power and influence they have on students. Attitude and work ethic can rub off on students so if you are a hard worker who is constantly wanting to learn new things, your students will see this as a model and follow suit. Your main goal in your classroom is to create an army of students who can learn for themselves. What better way to demonstrate this than by telling them you are learning about something and having them watch you go through the process as you try to use it in class. There will be mistakes which some teachers are not comfortable with making, but that is part of the learning process. When I was first learning how to use project-based learning effectively in my classroom, I warned my students they were the guinea pigs and that we were going to do a lot of learning together. We would have discussions after each project as to how well it worked and what could be changed to make it better. After a few years of doing this the project had been shaped into a recognizable form which I adjusted each year.
4) Be proactive in your professional learning
A lot of times teachers sit back and let their district decide for them what path their professional development will take. Professional learning happens to them rather than something they take on. Be willing to go out there and learn something without someone making you. Some of the most powerful lessons for students do not have any grades associated with them. If they are passionate about it then they will pursue this learning without someone telling them to. The same should go for teachers. Find something you are passionate about and learn more about it. Bring this back to your district and share it with others.
5) Get suggestions from colleagues
There are a lot of professional learning mediums to choose from so follows the question: which ones do you choose? Getting suggestions from colleagues is a good way to vet professional learning so that you know whether it is of high quality or not. This could be someone suggesting a book to read, a workshop to participate in, a webinar to watch, or a conference to attend. Find colleagues that you respect and admire and don’t be shy about asking them what they do for personal professional learning. This should be a two-way street so don’t be afraid to suggest learning opportunities to colleagues. If you see someone struggling with classroom management, suggest a book or a class you took that helped you with this.
In the end, your personal professional learning should be just that: personal. You should tailor it so that it suits your needs and the needs of your students. To not partake in any personal professional learning will cause your teaching to become outdated. Much like a doctor who must keep up on the latest practices for their craft you must do the same.