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I’m sitting at a barbecue joint putting finishing touches on a social studies pedagogy course I’m teaching this summer. While I try to focus, I can’t help but notice the passion and excitement at the table across from me.

“Screw going on a cruise. I get to audit any class I want. I’m taking pottery, gender studies, history of film, and improv. Next semester, it’s ornithology and rec sports,” the woman says. She then shares key insights she’s gathering from class. Some are conceptual. Others skill-based.

“I can’t believe your version of retirement is more school,” her friend says.

“Not really. There are no grades. No formal program. It’s perfect,” she says.

“Sounds to me like you’re doing the freshman undeclared route decades too late,” another friends says.

She laughs and then says, “It’s never too late. I’m getting a degree in whatever in Whatever the Hell I Feel Like Learning and my CV will read, ‘She never stopped learning until they put her in the grave.'”

This woman is my role model. This is how I want to spend my retirement some day. But the truth is, I don’t want to wait for retirement. I can own my learning right now. While she’s choosing the more structured option of auditing classes (something I someday want to do), this is what happens when we engage in creative work, when we launch book studies, when we explore new locations, and when we listen to podcasts. We can choose the mantra of “never stop learning.”

When we think of professional development, it’s easy to imagine a conference or a workshop. However, professional development occurs any time we, as educators, continue to learn. We might not always get formal certificates or official credits for recertification. But every time you learn something new, you get the chance to broaden your worldview in ways that will help them connect with students (even if it’s as simple as providing a new example). You grow more empathetic with the productive struggle that students experience each time you work on a creative project. You learn unrelated skills that transfer into your teaching practice. Even when when you choose to rest and find restoration in connecting with loved ones or seeking out nature, your students benefit. After all, teacher care is student care. Rest is a form of professional development.

Choosing to "recharge" isn't a selfishing act. Self-care inevitably benefits your students.For this reason, I want to start with this idea of rest before getting into professional development models.

What Do You Need Right Now?

This year has been a marathon for teachers. For so many educators, this was supposed to be the year when things moved back to normal. Instead, they faced angry school board meetings and upset community members accusing them of indoctrination. They experienced challenging behaviors. Back in October, I asked a group of teachers to share some of the challenges they’ve faced. Here’s what they shared:

  • Lack of soft skills in students
  • Lack of engagement and participation among students
  • Lack of substitute teachers
  • Additional administrative tasks that they didn’t have in the past
  • Challenging student behaviors
  • Demanding parents
  • Too many new initiatives
  • An increase in emails

Indeed, teaching has been a marathon. However, at the end of this marathon, there are different levels of tired. Some people are simply exhausted. They have crossed the finish line and they are placing their hands over their head with a mix of gratitude that it’s over and a sense of pride over facing a huge challenge. These teachers are worn out and need rest. But other teachers are injured. These teachers have finished the marathon but they’re hurting. They have experienced is genuine injustice and it has shaken them to core. Many have faced trauma. These teachers need more than just rest. They need healing.

I made this continuum for myself to think through whether I’m tired or actually injured. This isn’t scientific or research-based. It’s just a tool I made for myself years ago and I thought I’d share it. You can see it in the video below:

It’s important that we recognize where we are in this continuum but that we also recognize where our colleagues are as well. We all need the permission to be in our own place in the journey of rest and recovery after a hard year. If you are in a space where you need rest, you might be ready and even excited about professional learning. Over the last few weeks, I have done keynotes and workshops all over the country. Some are urban. Some rural. Some are in-person. Others are virtual. Some are deep-dive, two-day workshops and others are short sessions where you can glean ideas. I’m noticing that teachers are tired but some of them feel energized by this professional learning.

On the other hand, if you’re in a place where you need restoration or rehabilitation, you might choose not to engage in professional development and focus on self-care. If you are hurting and need rehabilitation, you might just need some time away from all things school-related and you might need to reconnect with friends and family. You might need to spend some time in therapy talking to a professional counselor. In this moment, you don’t need a course or a conference or a workshop.

Every person is in a different place. But if you are wanting to own your professional learning, here are a few ideas.

How to Own Your Professional Learning

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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16 Ways to Own Your Professional Learning

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.

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 an 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 members 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: I’ve written before about how the summer is a great opportunity to make something awesome and Genius Hour or 20% Time  is a great model. The concept comes from Google’s use of providing 20% of their employee time for personal passion projects (though it actually began with 3M decades before Google ever adopted it). 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.
  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 is 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. I didn’t include workshops and conferences, which are both excellent ways to network and gain new ideas.

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.

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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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