My life is that of a peripatetic teacher trainer and consultant. Fifty-plus flights a year, twelve or fifteen countries, four months in hotels. I lead workshops in schools, colleges and universities as well as speaking at conferences. I meet a lot of teachers.
A year or so ago I had just finished a session in (unnamed country) and was collecting the feedback sheets. One of the questions on the form was:
“What do you think you personally contribute to professional development in your institution?”
One teacher’s answer was “Turn up”.
The funny thing about that comment was that it angered me and made me reflect. In equal measure. So here are my ten thoughts as to how to make the best of your next professional development (PD) session.
1 Find out where the venue is and what time it starts. I know I know but … And if the time or venue doesn’t suit you then put that in your feedback. Oh and make sure you know what the topic of the session is. I’m not being silly about this. Really I’m not.
2 Bring a pen and paper. Again I know I know, but very recent experience tells me….
3 Treat the topic of the PD in the same way that you ask your students to treat a piece of reading. Activate your schemata. What do I know about x? How do I approach it? Could I do it better? That sort of thing.
4 While thinking the topic through, try to extrapolate it to your classroom. I tell teachers to try to see their PD in the context of one particular class or even one particular student. Envisage the ideas in practice with that one class. That level of connection brings PD to life and gives it immediacy and relevance.
5 Try to prepare some questions in advance. I’m not suggesting you pre-empt what the trainer is going to say, but as I mention above, PD is more effective if you are engaged with the topic before you enter the training room.
6 Teachers need to accept that PD by an external trainer will sometimes be a little bit generic. We globetrotting teacher trainers do our best to understand the many local contexts we work in and avoid being too ‘top down’, but do bear with us if we may seem a little too global. That said, please see point 8 after you’ve read point 7.
7 In the session, take the opportunity to engage with and indeed challenge the trainer. We trainers are not ‘right’ or indeed ‘wrong’. Nobody is. That’s the whole point. A good PD session is a debate – a conversation with ideas and concepts (if that doesn’t sound too Californian) – so join in and see where it takes you. As a trainer I am always thrilled to engage with a teacher but please see my next point.
8 PD is about change, sometimes small changes and sometimes big ones. Usually evolution not revolution. And not everybody likes change. If one thing causes me distress as a teacher trainer it’s the plaintive cry from teachers that
“our students are different, this won’t work with them”.
No they’re not.
Yes it will.
L1 interference happens in all contexts, just different interferences. Most teenage classes have some students who struggle with their self-confidence to produce spoken language. Reverting to L1 happens all over the world. Writing always needs to be taught. Adults announcing they “don’t need any grammar, I just want to talk” is pretty much a global universal. And almost nobody gets phrasal verbs.
Of course all students are different but not to the extent that activities that work in Riyadh won’t work in Rio or Rostov on Don, albeit with a little tinkering. “Adoption and adaption” should be the mantra.
9 Personally speaking I am always very happy when teachers contact me after the event to discuss and develop upon the themes. It helps me to tailor future events – feedback from the frontline is very valuable. So do keep in touch with your PD trainers.
10 PD is not (at least I hope it’s not) a wall of theory. If it works, you should be able pick up and try out a version of it in your classroom fairly imminently. If you don’t feel inclined to at least give it a try, then as a teacher trainer I may have failed.
Let’s hope not.