A Critical Review & Reflection of Professional Development

The Jennings Foundation Workshop Series 2022 – A Critical Review & Reflection of Professional Development

Undoubtedly, continued efforts to develop oneself as an educator benefit many – students, colleagues, and the overall professional cadre of teachers who staff classrooms all around the nation.

Several researchers have found that “sustained and intensive professional development is more likely to have an impact” (Garet et al., 2001, p. 935) than a scattershot approach.

While many teachers engage within their districts in mandated sessions, professional learning communities, or quick snippets in staff meetings, others venture towards other sources of deep learning and refinement, often on their own time.

It can be challenging to design effective sessions of professional development for a wide variety of teachers in a school district (Garet et al., 2008) and reach optimal performance across all grade levels and schools. Districts may choose to adopt various models for how to train and develop their teachers continuously.

Traditional models of professional development are often top-down and look for ways to close gaps (Diaz-Maggioli, 2004), or fill content needs where deficiencies are either apparent or assumed by the district’s central office or building leadership.

In many cases, professional development is required by state law or board policy as a measure for continued improvement in the district (or across some geographical boundary like a state) (Pritchard & Marshall, 2002). Still, programs are only loosely connected to initiatives to increase student performance in a specific area.

Many of these mandates are connected to licensure, contract language, or requirements set by a district’s central office.

In some cases, the professional development offerings by a district or school building are not enough for educators seeking to improve themselves, so they go looking for opportunities and “solutions wherever they can” (Rebore, 2012, p. 141) in order to better themselves, build skill, gain new content knowledge, and partner with colleagues, real-world professionals, or higher education or university faculty.

Rebore (2012), in his seminal work on human resources management, argues that it is a challenge for any district to identify and recognize what effective teaching is, much less how to prepare professional development around those challenges.

Thus, a reliance on the educator’s professionalism to keep up with any and all initiatives, best practices, and current research can be an Achilles heel at best for many districts.

My own desire to stay up-to-date on best practices in education led me to the 2022 Jennings Educators Institute, hosted by the Jennings Foundation and the Office of Professional Development & Outreach (PDO) at Kent State University, and here I share some of the takeaways, critique, findings, and reflections.

The Institute ran in the fall semester of 2022 in Kent State University’s new DI Hub and was filled with educators primarily from Northeast Ohio who had sought out the program after learning of it from PDO. Altogether, we attended three Saturday morning sessions of a few hours each which were led by various professionals, educators, or facilitators.

First, I will review the format of the Institute itself, the setup, the space, and the methods. Next, a few of the activities we took part in, and finally, some reflections on growth, the value of professional development for me as an educator, and for those that follow.

The 2022 Jennings Educators Institute was designed around “deep learning, purposeful teaching, and thinking that matters” and challenged participants to “acquire strategies to cultivate creativity, critical thinking, trauma-informed approaches, and targeted capacities of thinking” (2022 Jennings Educators Institute | Kent State University, n.d.) in a series of workshop-style sessions.

Most of the participants were classroom teachers from across grade levels, along with school psychologists, intervention specialists, and school district personnel or central office staff like me.

All chose to show up early on Saturday mornings to continue the life-long work of getting better at what we do as educators, regardless of role, and sought to learn, grow, and connect with other like-minded professionals.

Prior to the Institute’s first session, resource materials were distributed electronically, along with suggested and required pre-reading materials to better prepare for the day. While this was helpful, I found some of the readings difficult to connect with in the first session as they mainly pertained to classroom teaching and practice, which is no longer my role.

I made the active choice to pivot most of my thinking to staff development instead, swapping students / kids for adults / colleagues. My frame of mind and perception now lies in educating staff and growing teams, more so than K-12 students, and while the content may differ, many methods carry over successfully regardless of who the learner is.

I prepared a binder for all materials containing the readings, handouts, drawings, eventual materials to organize and keep handy, along with notepaper and blank filler pages. This is a bit of an executive functioning hack I have used over the years to assist with my own learning that helps me to better prepare myself in my journey, and I am always willing to share with students and colleagues alike when asked.

The Institute took place in the DI Hub at Kent State – a new area for design innovation, connected growth, and flexible learning spaces. With a group size of about 50 educators, we were hosted in the Hub’s main rectangular room designed for multiple setup options, and as a nice surprise, we were offered breakfast and coffee for each session.

The seating was mixed on purpose and forced us to make new friends around a table, and while it would have been helpful for networking to continue to mix it up over the workshop series, most of us sat with the same familiar team from day one.

Each table was supplied with materials for each session, often containing scissors, paper, various building materials, permanent markers, highlighters, and such.

This made the sessions better as each required engaged thinking, critical application of concepts, and a renewed sense of being a student – sitting in the learner’s seat, charged with a challenge to create, revise, discuss, and grow.

Modeling is one of the better ways to learn a new task – as in, show me what you’d like me to do with my students – (Willink, 2020) in a classroom-like environment.

I always enjoy participating in these kinds of workshops for two reasons. One, it allows me to learn something new. And two, it forces me into a new perspective – the perspective of the kid in the classroom, or the learner in a workshop, or the adult in a meeting learning something new for the first time.

If not forced, sometimes I remain outside the learning activity itself, often studying the methods, the resources, and the actions, all with the intent of taking it back to my own practice to refine then re-deploy it with my own team, instead of actively participating.

The Jennings facilitators did a good job of making sure everyone was truly engaged. However, it can be hard to face a challenge like “build something you’d like to see in the future” prompt using only popsicle sticks, coffee filters, and paper clips.

But we endured, designed, created, and shared our successes with those around us, and learning was facilitated regardless.

This method of learning suits me, and while it is a bit unorthodox, it beats the “sit-n-get” method so many professional development sessions end up being.

I often take back inspirations to my team of operations professionals and throw at them the wildest of ideas or new learning, often to their surprise, methodologically at least.

Still, we always learn something new – either about what we do, who we are, or how we react to various challenges.

Leadership in professional development is key to long-term success (Waters & Marzano, 2006), and I don’t ever want to run out of ideas for how to develop and grow my teams.

Professional development, too, needs to be systematic and productive (Skrla et al., 2009) to matter much. During the sessions at Kent, I kept thinking about how to approach the coming months back at work, and how I could re-energize those I work with using some of the simple methods from the Jennings sessions.

Being asked to solve a problem with scissors is often a good opener to something more complex. Starting off a session with what typically would be classified as “child’s play” certainly opens the door for more critical work once everyone’s a bit more relaxed.

Technology was a large part of the Institute, and all presenters used some form of slide deck to convey their message, keep the session on track, or to show or highlight resources to the group. The room was equipped with three free-standing monitors that displayed the content from the presenter’s laptop.

Due to frequent interruptions of the connected signal (displays seemed to be wireless) this setup resulted in more of an interruption than an overall benefit.

In one session, the presenter became so flustered by this tech issue that they veered off track and had to spend considerable time fixing their laptop, the connection cords, and the wireless displays. Each session ended up with technical support personnel in the room trying to troubleshoot the displays.

From a pedagogical perspective, this probably impacted our learning. From a realistic perspective, however, it only reinforced reality – nothing will work according to plan (Willink & Babin, 2017), so you’d better have a backup!

This offered up a good conversation (around our table, at least) on classroom management techniques, how to deal with technology that doesn’t work, and horror stories of technology gone wrong.

I am always the first one to defend technology use, and bristle at folks who by default lead with “oh, it must be the technology again… maybe the WiFi isn’t working” when they clearly didn’t prepare enough for their presentation.

In this case, the combined efforts of the technology staff at KSU and the presenters’ ability to remain calm, cool, and collected, and our professionalism at the tables, kept us moving forward. In the future, I would take steps to avoid that distraction again.

One of the sessions focused on taking care of ourselves as educators. Teacher burnout is a real thing (Chang, 2009; Farber, 2000).

Examining what some of the vectors and variables are in burning out, losing control, and ultimately leaving the profession is a helpful exercise for anyone working within the system – not just teachers.

Our pre-reading for that session came from Aguilar (2018a) and her work on cultivating resilience in educators. The section was a copy from the book, and I had to hunt for the source before finding it, ultimately adding it to my cart online for immediate shipping.

Her book, Onward, examines practical advice on how to build resistance to irritants, the pressure of work, and unexpected events so that we as educators, can fulfill our own desires that initially drove us to the profession in the first place.

Aguilar uses a conceptual framework to explore who we are, where we are, what we do, and how we are. There’s a workbook (Aguilar, 2018b) too that allows teams or individuals to grow and learn together, and once I have fully absorbed her material, I plan to implement a few things with those I lead.

The section of her book that was shared in the workshop came from chapter 6, which focused on taking care of yourself and started by identifying why we don’t.

Aguilar (2018) suggests that there are four reasons – we’re missing information, we don’t know how, we don’t think we need to take care of ourselves, and we don’t feel we deserve it (p. 150).

Powerful words and eye-opening for me and others at my table and among our whole group. She shares the reasons, too, behind us not acting to save ourselves, and all of them hit home for me.

I work hard and often put everything else on the back burner, including family, hobbies, or downtime.

I kept churning with this material in the session itself, have since shared some of the takeaways with others in discussions on self-care, and have made plans to fix a few things for myself.

As a side note here, this behavior is what I think effective professional development should accomplish – review and exploration of something new, different, and perhaps effective.

I mostly ended up with more questions (not a bad thing, I think) about what steps I could take to better care for myself in the future.

What am I missing? Is there information about self-care I don’t have? I want to do better, but do I know how? Aguilar (2018) stresses that “self-care is learned” (p. 150) and achievable. Do I want to, then? Do I have the will to help myself improve by becoming more relaxed, less stressed, and ultimately a better version of myself?

I have explored just this topic before (Johansson, 2022a), and just recently have begun to re-examine my youth and how that made me who I am today – both as an educator and as a person.

The most important question of the four – whether we deserve to take care of ourselves – is the hardest one to come to terms with.

The answer, objectively, should be ‘of course,’ but many educators put others first, along with all the other things in their lives, until one day, there’s no more energy for self. And that’s a bad plan.

But is there a plan to make it all work, or is it just a bunch of hard work? And if so, who wants to do that? Who will tell me what to do to get it right? What’s the best source for self-care? Is it a manual of sorts, or will it be a life-long journey?

Here are some of my thoughts from earlier this year (Johansson, 2022b), when I explored just that topic:

I’ve been doing what I do now, at work, for well over ten years. I still do things every day I’ve never done before. There’s no manual in sight, and if there is, I haven’t found it. So, how do I survive, and get stuff done? Experience?

Most of us (in my field) spend some time in school after high school in college coursework, then some professional development, then another degree, then some more conferences, sessions, workshops, then another degree… and nowhere is there a document that shares “what to do when…” Self-care is no different.

You have to write your own manual of care. Your instruction manual, perhaps? You have to document what works, and what doesn’t. You have to keep a running log of how to keep the wheels turning, and when those wheels need maintained, replaced, or improved… Who will tell you to do all of this? No one.

But here’s a hint when it’s time to write some of that stuff down: Are others asking you for advice, for what works, for how to do what you do, for answers to questions you’ve dealt with already? Yes? That’s when it’s time. But why share with others in the first place? Imagine how well they’ll perform when they know what you know.

I appreciate all the work by Aguilar. Her work has already set me on a path toward improvement, and what started with a workshop session at Kent State has now led to weekly appointments with a mental health professional.

I feel much better already.

So, over the three sessions, about 12 hours in total plus the pre-reading, the post-session reflections, and discussions with colleagues as a result, did I grow as a professional and educator? You bet!

And best of all, I was able to learn on my terms and apply the new and novel to my own journey in my own way.

There was no pressure to perform, which allowed me to embrace activities and invitations for conversation fully, and I felt safe among my fellow educators.

The presenter and facilitators, too, were open, honest, and were able to connect with us in a way that really ‘left a mark’ whether we discussed art, classroom management strategies, or team growth exercises.

Over the three sessions, we came together as one, everyone felt comfortable in their learning journey – at least in my observation – where collective participation grew tremendously from session one to session three.

Professional development is all about building capacity (Schmoker, 2013) for school personnel and those who serve students or staff to do something more than what they are already doing.

Whether that means some silly activities to get your team going in a meeting or complex content knowledge to better help in learning design creation, so be it.

Professional development should be a constant in our schools, but perhaps it’s time to reflect on the format, the methods, and the delivery vehicles.

Professional development that is mandated is often not effective. Professional development that comes with vague expectations is not helpful. If we build in “token days” (Kozol, 2005, p. 18), hoping time spent together will automatically increase performance, we’re probably on the wrong track.

We as educators need to continue the push together for open discussions (Skrla et al., 2009) about what school is, could be, and should be.

Professional development plays a big role in how we perform, how we think about improvement, and what we find important.

Top-down is one approach. Finding what works is another. Being willing to look for alternatives is paramount.

Professional development will only ever be effective if all of us commit to a sustained model of improvement (Nystrand & Gamoran, 1987), where all educators, and all those who support other school functions, work to drive progress forward in whatever format works best for them.

If some of that happens to take place on Saturday mornings (and breakfast is served), it’s probably going to work out just fine.

This paper was edited and reworked to fit on this webpage, which includes extra paragraphs and whitespace for ease of reading, hyperlinks, blockquotes, etc.


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