This is the first in a summer series on owning your professional learning. I created a sketch video as a preview. If you enjoy the video, would you click the “like” button and consider subscribing to my channel?

Right now, teachers all over the world are meeting in small groups, doing book studies to refine their practice. Without prompting from a district or a principal, they are are taking ownership of their learning. They own their learning.

Go to Twitter at any given moment and you’ll see teachers wrestling with big ideas, engaging in deep discussions about how to transform their practice. Some of these are formal chats. Others are doing it informally. They own their learning. 

Meanwhile, teachers are making things from scratch. They are experimenting with new ideas, diving deep into the maker culture, and building new things. In some cases, they’re not building stuff. They’re building movements and making change. They own their learning.

These teachers are reading books and blog posts. They’re watching YouTube videos to get ideas. They’re listening to podcasts and audiobooks. They own their learning.

Many of these activities don’t count as official “professional development.” They can’t be used to get hours for re-certification. But they are all prime examples of what happens when teachers own their learning.

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We Need a Bigger Definition of Professional Development

Too often, we think of professional development is a workshop or a conference. We often imagine it as a chance to gain new skills that we then use in our classrooms. You see this idea in the Guskey Model, where teachers attend a PD, implement a strategy, and then see how it impacts student learning outcomes. But your professional identity is bigger than a set of skills. It involves values, ideas, and beliefs; which is why professional learning can often include paradigm shifts. Your professional identity includes blueprints and frameworks that you use as you design instruction. It includes your interactions with a larger community. It includes the mindsets you have as you interact with students, colleagues, and the community.

And I’d argue that it also includes things like rest and play and your own personal creative work. All of these contribute to your professional learning because they all impact your students.

There Is No Instruction Manual for Teaching

Often, in working with pre-service teachers, someone will ask about the “right” way to do something. The educational system throws around words like “best practices” and “highly qualified,” but it doesn’t really work that way. There is no guidebook or instruction manual or how-to video for how to be a great teacher, because ultimately teaching is a craft.

The hard part is that it takes years to perfect. The process is often messy and confusing. There are so many moments where, as a teacher, you’ll doubt yourself. You’ll get frustrated. You’ll feel like improvement is slow. It’s harder, still, when you screw up. I still cringe at the moments when I yelled at a class or shamed a student and I’m still amazed at how quickly students forgave when I apologized.

And yet . . .

All of those mistakes were a part of learning the craft.

That’s the beauty of it. There is no instruction manual. There is no codified list of best practices. That means you get to explore like an astronaut. You get to experiment like a scientist. You get to design like an engineer. You get to make like an artist. Like any other craft, it takes a lifetime to perfect.

There’s no point where you “have arrived.” As a creative teacher, you’re always exploring, always experimenting, always innovating. Teaching is all about the overlap between “best practices” and “next practices.” Focusing on “best practices” means you get to geek out on education theory and educational research. You get to build on what has worked for you in the past. Yes, that does mean you can do that same epic project next year that you did this year. It also means you get to share your own expertise with others.

Focusing on “next practices” means you get to explore new ideas and try new strategies. It means you are open-minded to paradigm shifts and you are willing to question the status quo.

If we go with best practices alone, we end up with stagnation. Nothing ever changes. If we go with next practices, we end up with novelty and an endless pursuit of the latest fads. But this overlap recognizes the role of the classic and the vintage and the years of experience that a teacher brings to the table. All of these things are a part of the “best practices.” But this overlap also recognizes the need to experiment and take creative risks and discover knew ideas. These are the elements of “next practice.” However, this overlap requires teachers to be empowered as designers and makers and experimenters and experts in their craft.

Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere

You are the architect of the learning for your classroom. You are the artist creating something new. You are the engineer solving problems. But when it comes to professional learning, you can find inspiration all around you:

I used to think inspiration came spontaneously from within. When you feel inspired, you immediately jump to creative work. But as I’ve moved through my creative journey, I’ve noticed that it’s much more complicated.

Here’s how I thought inspiration worked. And here’s how it actually worked.

Over the last decade, I’ve gotten to interview makers – whether they are chefs or artists, engineers, architects, or writers – and I’ve seen that inspiration is all around us. It is deeply contextual. Inspiration happens when you engage in a community of fellow makers. You borrow ideas and share strategies and even offer critical feedback to one another. Inspiration happens you stay curious and geek out on concepts and information and approaches to your craft.

Here, you curate your favorite ideas or creative works and eventually you mash-up ideas and processes until you have something original. In teaching, this might include books and podcasts that have nothing to do with education. But those key ideas inspire the lessons that you design.

Sometimes inspiration happens when you play and goof off. But sometimes it happens when you rest and go on walks or visit spend time in nature or even get really bored. In these moments of rest, your mind makes connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and you are inspired to think outside the box.

Inspiration can happen when you see a problem you care deeply about or when you build empathy with a group and work toward creating solutions in a way that is horizontal and democratic. Here, you might find inspiration outside of education as you explore issues raised by leaders in social justice circles.

Inspiration happens when you experiment and learn from mistakes. And it can actually grow stronger when you face that toxic fear that prevents you from finding your creative voice and taking creative risks.

Inspiration is your big “why” that sets the course for all of your creative work. It exists even when you don’t feel inspired. There are some days in teaching when you don’t feel inspired. You can start doubting yourself when a lesson tanks or students seem disengaged. There are days when you’re simply tired and you don’t feel like showing up. It happens. But it’s important that we remember that feeling uninspired is not the same thing as losing inspiration. Being inspired is much deeper and more permanent.

Owning Your Professional Learning

The following are a few ways that you can own your professional learning journey as an educator:

  1. Book Studies / Book Clubs: This enables people to make sense out of idea in-depth, over time, in both an individual and group setting. You could also do a podcast club where you listen to a podcast ahead of time. Book clubs can work well in a hybrid format, where people not only meet in person but also meet in a private Facebook group or on Voxer. But you can also do fully online book clubs, either synchronously (meeting up via video conferencing) or asynchronously (using a discussion feature in an LMS or using social media).
  2. Mastermind Groups: A mastermind group is a close-knit closed group of 4-6 people where each person has equal status. In other words, there is no leader. Typically, the member are all working on their own projects and they meet together as a form of mutual accountability. Often, they share their goals, their progress, their needs, and their ideas. It’s a chance to share success stories but also share mistakes and frustrations. However, the group is solutions-focused, meaning you are actively seeking feedback and input. While some mastermind groups are unstructured, many use a specific “hot seat” structure to facilitate discussions. Mastermind groups are a great way to own your professional learning by engaging in self-directed problem-solving with a group of fellow educators. You can share lesson ideas, curriculum ideas, or strategies you have been using in your classroom.
  3. Personal Genius Hour: Genius Hour or 20% Time comes from Google’s use of providing 20% of their employee time for personal passion projects. This might include learning a new skill, geeking out on some curious interest, or engaging in a creative work. The key thing is that it cannot be part of a classroom project. In other words, you can’t use this time to create lesson plans or classroom materials. Instead, by engaging in curiosity and creativity, you build empathy with your students. As you feel the creative struggle firsthand, it helps you relate to your students. It’s also a way for you to discover creative processes and strategies on your own that you can integrate into the PBL units you design for your students.
  4. Advocacy: We don’t always think of advocacy as professional development. However, when you actively engage in advocacy, you are changing the system of education. This advocacy work will give you firsthand knowledge of the education policies, structures, and systems. It can help you grow as a systems thinker while also allowing you to grow professionally as an advocate. Education is not socially neutral and advocacy work can help you pay attention to injustices within the system. As a white man, my advocacy work has involved hard conversations about race and white supremacy, so that I can work toward being more anti-racist. It involves listening with intention. Honestly, it has involved a lot of mistakes. But it’s a critical part of my professional learning as an educator because it shapes my entire approach to teaching.
  5. Online Courses and Webinars: There are many different options for online courses. They might be scheduled or self-paced. They might be synchronous (meeting via a video chat) or asynchronous. You might also do shorter webinars that give you a quick overview off a topic. Another option is a fully online full-day conference.
  6. Rest and Play: It’s easy to forget this but rest and self-care are a form of professional development. When you go on walks or take a nap, your mind is actually super active and you end up making connections between unrelated ideas. This can lead to improved divergent thinking and creative breakthroughs. Ultimately, this helps you professionally as you design creative lessons and units. Self-care also allows you to be calmer and more patient as a teacher. It also you to recharge so you can be fully present and energized as a teacher. It’s easy for educators to feel guilty about downtime but it actually helps you grow professionally.
  7. Sharing Your Voice: This is similar to advocacy but this is more about sharing your stories, your journey, and your resources. If advocacy is about fighting for justice and centering on students, this is the idea of sharing your own experience as a professional educator. You might have a podcast, create a blog, or do a video series. You might want to write articles or create your own professional development. When this happens, you are not only more reflective (a key part of professional growth) but you also think more deeply about your own craft. We know that teaching something can be one of the best ways to master a subject. The same is true of teaching. As you teach others, you get to know those concepts and strategies at a deeper level.
  8. Un-conferences: An unconference is a fully democratic, unstructured conference. Exemplified by the EdCamp model, unconferences have no planned speakers and no keynotes. Instead, people vote on topics and they discuss topics in a circle that tends to resemble a Socratic Seminar. Participants are encouraged to “vote with their feet,” meaning you can leave the conversation if it’s not relevant to you. Digital unconferences typically work with video chats. However, I’ve seen teachers use apps like Marco Polo or Voxer to facilitate discussions.
  9. Action Research: Teachers begin by exploring their own practice and asking a question. They often take a dive into the research by reading journal articles or books. Next, they test out a strategy and collect data to see if it works. Some teachers take a more experimental role by using a control group. Others use a strategy with their class and compare it to previous performance. The data can be either quantitative or qualitative. Unlike traditional research, you are both a participant and a researcher. Ultimately, you are able to determine what works in your context, which means the professional learning is tied closely to your teaching practice.
  10. Community: We grow professionally when we interact with fellow educators. It might be informally over a pint or it might involve a membership in a teacher organization. You might hang out in person or you might join a private Facebook Group or engage in a Twitter chat. Your focus in the community can vary. You might geek out on teaching strategies or you might debate about approaches. This can lead to larger paradigm shifts. My early days in Twitter radically changed my view on grading and discipline but it also led to some important hard conversation about racism and inequities in our system. In some cases, you might have a more personal approach with the community. Teaching can be isolating and you might just need a space where you can share your struggles and feel known. When this happens, I think it’s important that you set ground rules for yourself so that it doesn’t devolve into a barrage of negativity. I’ve had to set a rule for myself that I am fine with sharing challenges I’m experiencing but I never want to engage in criticizing students or parents.
  11. Being a curator: Curation happens when you geek out on different topics, ideas, or strategies. I know many teachers who use Pinterest as a curation tool where they find classroom resources or look for inspiration for their own creative work as a teacher. Curation involves that overlap between having a critical eye while also celebrating what you love. Curators know how to explore great resources, select the best components, organize the ideas, and ultimately share those strategies with others.
  12. Listening to podcasts and audiobooks: I love podcasts and audiobooks because they provide professional development on the go. You can listen to a podcast in your car or while your going on a run. While I love education podcasts, I also think there’s a real value in listening to podcasts in other domains. This can inspire new ideas and provide new perspectives that shape your approach as a teacher.
  13. Classroom Walk-Throughs: Some of the best professional development in down the hall. It’s what happens when you observe others at work and take notes. This gives you a chance to observe the teaching craft firsthand and actually see specific strategies modeled for you. As a new teacher, I visited certain classes to learn how to improve my classroom management. I picked up on specific, tangible strategies they used to prevent behavioral problems from occurring rather than reacting after the fact. Another variation of this is the lesson study, which involves observation, reflection, and modification to lessons. Here teachers tweak their approaches through an iterative process.
  14. Curriculum Design: Sometimes the best way to learn is by doing. You understand media and information when you engage in journalism. You become a better consumer of sports when you learn to play a sport. The same is true of art and music and food. As teachers, we develop a deeper understanding of the skills and concepts we teach, as well as the craft of teaching, when we engage in curriculum design. This might be an individual endeavor or it might happen collaboratively. But it’s the idea of growing in your professional learning by creating units, lessons, assessments, and classroom materials.
  15. Mentoring: This is perhaps the most challenging to coordinate because of the time commitment from both the mentor and the mentee. However, mentoring is one of the most powerful methods for professional learning. It might include goal-setting, reflection, coaching, observing, sharing strategies, and even co-teaching.
  16. Goal-Setting: I’m not talking about school-mandated SMART Goals based on student achievement. Rather, I’m thinking about specific goals you set as a teacher that you can measure based on data you collect. For example, when I knew that my students were confused by my course organization, I used UX Design as a framework for course design. I also created student surveys and set a personal goal for the growth I wanted to see in the survey scores. Notice that there was no accountability built into this. There were no punishments or rewards. My goals were simply a way to focus my attention on a key area and monitor my progress.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I have likely omitted some great strategies you can use as you take ownership of your professional learning. Notice, too, that many of these ideas overlap. You might advocate along with a community and your approach to advocacy might include creating a blog or a podcast. You might design curriculum and form a mastermind group with other teachers where you meet up and share your ideas. You might also set goals connected to your curriculum and share your progress with your mastermind group or with a mentor.

Ultimately, professional learning is inherently personal and idiosyncratic. Each person’s journey is different. And that’s okay. The key thing is that we expand our idea of what professional learning can look like when we own the process.

For the next few months, I’ll be taking a deeper dive into these various approaches to professional learning. I hope you’ll join me!

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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