Professional Development


Earlier this year, some students complained that the way I taught new vocabulary words was overly rigid and scaffolded. “It’s too easy and it takes too long,” one said plainly. I didn’t want to listen. I had created this vocabulary routine over the span of many years and was convinced that it helped students internalize new words. But when I stepped back to consider what my students were telling me, I knew that they were right. Rethinking my lessons gave me an opportunity to create a more efficient vocabulary routine that encouraged students to be independent learners. But to get there, I had to be willing to learn and grow, too.

As a teacher, I know that the best learning happens when I create detailed, thoughtful plans but leave enough space for my students to guide their own learning.

As a teacher, I know that the best learning happens when I create detailed, thoughtful plans but leave enough space for my students to guide their own learning. And when my plans don’t go as planned, I know that the best (and hardest) way forward is to think critically about what I could have done differently to lead to a better outcome.

Too often, though, I forget this when it comes to my own learning.

Let’s be honest: “professional development” gets a bad rap — for a good reason. We hear “PD” and conjure images of endless meetings, PowerPoint slides crammed with so-tiny-as-to-be-practically-illegible fonts, out-of-touch lecturers and nary a connection to our own, actual, daily practice with kids in sight.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Professional development is just learning. It can happen in a staff meeting, but it can — and should — also happen on our own. Just like we want our students to become independent learners who know how to ask questions and find answers, we, too, should drive our own learning.

What I’ve come to realize is that professional development should fit into my life. No one is noting how many hours I spend searching for resources online or tallying up the number of books or articles I read. There is no award for “Most Dedicated Professional Learner.” There’s just me, getting better at my craft.

What I’ve found is that my own professional development often follows the same steps that I use when planning curricula.

For starters, I almost always begin with a good text. This mirrors the way I plan my curriculum: when I want my students to learn something new, I always start by thinking about what they should read. It might be a compelling article that will grab their attention or a novel that will bring the experiences of historical figures to life. It might be a poem or a song or a play. When I find that perfect text, my lesson plans begin to unfold and take shape.

So I start from text with my own learning, too. Grounding my learning in a book or article helps me establish a vocabulary for whatever change I’m considering in my practice.

Last week, I started reading Cornelius Minor’s book, “We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to be Who Our Students Need Us to Be.” I read the book whenever I found time: five minutes while my students were reading their choice books in class, 10 minutes while I cooked dinner. I made it work for me.

Reading the first chapter, my mind was on fire with all of the connections to my own class. I dog-eared pages, tweeted out a quote that resonated with me, and told my colleague in our weekly meeting, “You’ve gotta borrow this book when I’m done; you’ll love it.”

That, too, mirrors my curriculum planning process. After I choose the right text for my students, I think about how I want them to interact — both with the text and with each other. For me, learning is collaborative. When students “talk to the text” by annotating, then talk to each other, they deepen their understanding. In the most productive conversations, they uncover new questions they didn’t know they had and create new meanings by synthesizing their ideas.

My co-teacher and I were on a slow-moving train together last week, so I pulled my copy of “We Got This” out of my bag and flipped to a page that had knocked me over. “Look at this,” I told him. “I think it could help us figure out what’s going wrong in the afternoon class.” He bent over the book, swaying back and forth as the train shuttled along, and we talked about how we might use Minor’s ideas to move forward.

My professional development doesn’t always happen on trains. I’ve been working to curate my own personal professional learning feed on Twitter, where so many great educators go to share ideas. Recently, some of my most useful professional learning has happened during impromptu conversations with colleagues over lunch or in the copy room. 

When we remember that professional development should fit into our lives, we can decide exactly how we want to learn. The professional development we design for ourselves is guaranteed to be personalized, relevant and engaging. We just have to remind ourselves that we are already experts in creating and facilitating powerful learning experiences — and use those skills to design transformative professional learning for ourselves.

Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 National Teacher of the Year and a National Board Certified Teacher, has a passion for helping diverse learners grow through authentic, relevant, interdisciplinary curricula. Chaffee, who currently teaches ninth grade Humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School, earned her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence in 2005 and her M.Ed. from Lesley University in 2007. Chaffee lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Matt; daughter, Zoe; and many, many books.

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