I have been thinking a lot about professional development, and in an attempt at pinning down exactly what “PD” means to me, I’ve written a list of qualities of effective PD (from my perspective) and the reasons one might seek PD experiences. My ideas are my own, but the prompts are from Pursuing Professional Development: The Self as Source by Kathleen M. Bailey, Andy Curtis, and David Nunan.
Ingredients in Professional Development
What factors promote professional development as a lifelong process? What elements are necessary for it to occur?
- Context & teacher-centered topics: Effective professional development (to me) means that the topics being explored are of immediate interest to the teachers involved in the PD and applicable to the immediate educational context in which the teachers find themselves. I sometimes wonder if institution-lead PD events are really effective, as they might not reflect the concerns or interests of the majority of teachers forced to partake in the PD event. We recently had a PD event centered around creating effective assessments. While I found the topic to be of mild interest (I can always have more practice creating truly effective language assessments), I felt as though assessments were not of primary importance to many of the teachers in attendance. However, the topic may be one of those that you do not realize is of primary importance until someone shows you how ineffective your assessments have been. And while theory can be interesting, PD events should involve practical applications and examination of actual teaching and learning within the immediate context in order to be truly meaningful.
- Open and trusting collaboration: Effective professional development must entail a certain level of open-mindedness and trust among the collaborators participating in the event. As a novice teacher, I sometimes feel that there is a power imbalance among teachers of varying levels of experience. Of course the instructor who has been with the institution for ten years has more knowledge than I do! However, I think that for professional learning opportunities to be really effective, everyone must enter the experience with a mind open to learning. Novice and expert teachers alike can learn from the experiences and insights of shared during PD events.
- Goal alignment among collaborators: While this is not necessarily needed for successful professional learning, it seems that teachers would best benefit from learning and PD events that focus on common goals among teachers. With regard to the assessment PD event recently held at my institution, the primary goal of all collaborators was to gauge how effective our assessments were in measuring achievement of our program learning outcomes. While not all the teachers were concerned with their ability to assess language skills, I do think it was beneficial for the whole group to discuss ways in which we have been successful as well as ways in which we have been challenged to assess language skills in relation to program learning outcomes.
Why do it?
Reasons for pursuing professional development.
- to acquire new knowledge (content)
- to acquire new teaching skills (method)
- to build relationships among colleagues
- to adapt to changes in your teaching context
- to stay relevant with regard to teaching techniques and technology
- to gain a better understanding of the field as a whole
- to maintain positive attitudes toward the teaching profession (moral support)
- to empower your voice within the field
With the advent of the Google Reader closure and my impending departure to the TESOL Convention in Dallas, I am wondering what exactly it means to be a connected professional. I suppose the definition varies from field to field, but within the field of education and ESL, more specifically, there are a few things I think define a “connected professional.”
- Engaged in conversation. Whether online via micro-blogging sites like Twitter, or in person with your immediate co-workers, being engaged in conversation seems to be a key part of the definition of a connected professional. With technology in mind, Twitter and other social media tools allow teachers to be engaged in multiple conversations simultaneously without needing to be in the same geographical area. While I’m partial to these tools, the good-old traditional conversation with co-workers should not be overlooked. After all, you are serving the same population of students, and communication is very important to understanding and meeting your population’s unique needs.
- Open to new voices. One of the best facets of utilizing social media with a world-wide learning community is that both experienced/expert teachers and novice teachers can interact and learn from one another. It is my opinion that a truly connected professional is not only open to new voices in the field, but also varying perspectives. All that being said, it can be easy to fall in with an online crowd that agree in perspective (on whatever matter) with yourself. A necessary challenge to being connected and actively participating is to not only expose yourself to new voices, but to engage with them in an amicable and exploratory way.
- Makes connections between conversations and their own practice. Connected professionals may be bombarded with a constant stream of input with a variety of perspectives, but it is their job to take the information and perspectives presented online and implement them appropriately in their own classrooms. If everything goes back to serving our students, an effective connected professional must take some of what she learns from other voices and reflect upon her own practice. While my perspective would state that varying degrees of participation may indeed contribute positively to an educator’s professional identity, there are voices out there that deem any interaction online not taken and implemented in the classroom as meaningless. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on how best to implement what is gathered from learning communities and implemented their practice. I simply propose that students must always be kept in mind.
It seems clear that simply having a Twitter account or subscribing to an educator’s blog does not make one a “connected professional.” While online, social media tools may be invaluable to a teacher’s self-directed professional development, they are ultimately just tools to be used by the professional. How we use them is what really matters.
When exploring the vast pool of online tools and resources, it becomes clear that there are various types of tools available for any purpose. With the purpose of self-directed professional development and language education in mind, there are a few categories of tools that I have come to appreciate. I write this with a novice language teacher in mind, but much of the following information may be applicable to learners and social media as well.
Social media and online tools could be organized by how engaged the user must be with the platform and how the content is experienced by both the user and the support network (learning community). Every social media platform seems to fall along a plane that ranges from totally receptive to totally productive on one axis and collaborative to individual on the other axis. It might look something like this:
In reality, the classifications of social media tools may not be so simplistic. Each tool has the potential to be used in a variety of ways depending on the context and purpose. Where Twitter seems to be a fairly collaborative and productive tool (users create content and often share from and interact with other users), it could be a more individual, receptive tool if a user simply collected information others shared via Twitter. Information can be transferred, moved around, edited, and conveyed again using Twitter, but each user will engage with the tool in the way that works best for their purposes.
In the coming months, I hope to explore a few different social media tools in relation to my own continuing education and professional development. I hope to share my findings here and ultimately in my MA degree qualifying paper.
Self-directed professional development may mean finding topics of interest and reading articles written by professionals. It may mean implementing suggestions in your classroom and reflecting on those experiences. It may mean seeking the advice of your peers and coworkers with regard to specific classroom management techniques or lesson plans. Self-directed professional development may be self-driven and take on many different appearances, but it does not mean learning alone.
I have come to realize that building an online community of peers and fellow learners is invaluable to my professional development. Through tools like Twitter and Google Reader, I am able to stay connected to the field, provide my feedback to pragmatic suggestions (lesson plans and activity ideas), and receive feedback on my own ideas. While I am the master of the direction my learning takes, and I may be physically sitting at my laptop alone, I am not learning alone. With the assistance of online communication tools, my learning community has widened to include people from all over the world. There is something really exciting about brainstorming lesson ideas with people from around the world. Perspective is something gained over time and experience, and I’m not sure I can put a value on the availability of the wide variety of perspectives present online.
I’m thankful for online communities and the support I find within these communities.
I have begun my examination of novice teachers and their personal learning networks by reading a study published in TESOL Quarterly (2012) called Novice ESOL teachers’ perceptions of social support networks. I find it inspiring and informative with regard to my own research related to social support and ESL professionals.
The article (Brannan, D. 2012) describes three main sources of support reported by participants in the study: mentors, coworkers, and family. Of those three sources, only family was viewed as providing the affective support necessary to foster overall well-being and health in the novice teacher participants with relation to their perceived efficacy. That being said, the support from family did not seem to provide adequate pragmatic and technical support for the novice teachers. Both branches of support were deemed necessary for overall effective teacher development and success (perceived efficacy in the study).
With regard to this study, I aim to extend the social support network into the digital realm. Professional teachers and novice teachers currently participate in PLNs (personal/professional learning networks) mediated by online tools like Twitter, RSS feeds, Diigo, and other social media tools. I wonder how participants in the Brannan study would have responded with regard to these sources of social support. It seems that a novice teacher would be able to receive ample pragmatic and technical support via social media and other online tools (whether actively or passively). It also seems probable that a novice teacher might receive affective support via social media and other online tools from both their personal and professional online networks.
I’m excited to explore this topic further as my research continues.
Brannan, D., & Bleistein, T. (2012). Novice ESOL teachers’ perceptions of social support networks. TESOL Quarterly, 46(3), 519-541. doi: 10.1002/tesq.40