That Wasn’t Professional Development. That Wasn’t Even Training.

Schools are trying to establish a “new normal.” Let’s start with redefining professional development.

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Send an email to teachers telling them there will be a professional development (PD) session, and listen for the collective groan from each classroom. PD is notoriously terrible. If we are to establish a new normal, however, we all need these sessions, but we need them to be productive, engaging, and informative. You know, like how we are supposed to teach our students. Here are some recommendations.

Get Out of the Auditorium and into Conference Rooms or Classrooms

The first rule of training and PD, part A: The participants should be doing most of the work. Therefore a lecture-hall environment is not conducive to adult learning.

Recommendation: Move PD to a classroom or conference room. Add activities that get participants moving and thinking, and watch the participants come to life. Some M&Ms don’t hurt, either.

Tell the Whole Story

The first rule of training and PD, part B: Adult learners need to know explicitly why they are doing something and understand how to apply training or PD to their lives right away. Successful PD sessions tell the whole story, namely what the participants will do at each stage of the session, how they will accomplish their tasks, why these tasks are necessary, and when they can apply the skills and knowledge to their context. You know, like how we are supposed to teach.

Use a Sandbox or Training Environment

The second rule of training and PD: If you are training a software process, always have a sandbox or training environment available, so you aren’t working with real student records. Every participant should have access to the environment, and every PD leader should have practiced several times in the participant’s role as they develop the training. Additionally, there should be several scenarios in place for the training activities.

Engage a Subject-Matter Expert Before the PD/Training

The third rule of training and PD: You can’t lead a session if you really don’t know what you’re talking about. Collaborate with a subject-matter expert (SME) before the training. Let the SME take some time with the lessons planned and provide feedback. Start over if you have to. Just make sure you are thoroughly prepared to assume the role of your participants and successfully complete the process(es).

There is nothing worse, in my opinion than training in the wrong view. For example, trying to teach discipline log entries to teachers while in the administrator’s view is embarrassing and ineffective.

This Does Not Work

Successful PD does not look like this:

  • Everyone gathers in the auditorium.
  • The leader starts the PD by announcing the topic.
  • Pronouncements are handed down. For example, the leader might say, “We have a problem with discipline, so this year we are going to use the SIS to log write-ups and we are going to use a form students will fill out when they need to leave the class and when they sign back in. Did everyone have a chance to practice the form? I sent a link in an email. Oh, and we need you to do a better job with attendance, so we’ll reinforce the rule about taking attendance the first five minutes of class.” Believe me, you’ll hear crickets. New teachers will look to their mentors quizzically.
  • Then, the leader goes on to give a little more information but doesn’t tell the whole story. Sure, we have a problem with discipline. Kids are cutting classes, so we need to do a better job with period attendance, we are told. That’s great, but where is the training? The same for writing up students and using the sign-out/sign-in form.
  • Finally, the leader asks if there are questions. Guess what? One or two people will actually ask questions. Everyone else has checked out. They want to get back to their classrooms, or they want to go to a knowledgeable colleague to figure out what the leader is talking about. “What the *(& is a log entry?” is the question of the day, followed by, “Did you get the email with the link to the form?” and “How are we going to take attendance and write a kid up for cutting class when we can’t see if the kid has been present all day until our class without clicking five times to get to the right page?”
  • Shortly after the call for questions, everyone files out. What a waste of time.

This Works Better

Successful PD looks like this:

  1. An email goes out inviting staff to a PD session on student discipline and telling the staff where each group will meet and asking them to bring their laptops, paper, and a writing instrument.

An agenda is attached to the email listing each topic

  • Attendance procedures
  • Discipline log entries
  • Sign-in / Sign-out form: form link

2. The groups gather in their respective locations. Each leader is prepared with a slide show used to guide the session (not to lecture), handouts, activity sheets, and a whiteboard for parking questions or writing notes. Each leader has a list of logins and passwords for each participant for the training environment; these are distributed to the participants along with the handouts and activity sheets.

3. The session begins with the first item on the agenda. After a brief introduction to the content, the leader asks the group, “Why are we doing this now? What do you think the purpose is?” Responses are recorded on the whiteboard.

4. Next, the group works on how to implement the new process. Telling the whole story here is important. The “I do it, we do it, you do it” model of training still works and I recommend it when doing activities. The leader demonstrates the process from start to finish. Then, a role-play might help the participants figure out how to implement the process. Finally, each person tries on their own.


  1. The leader asks the participants to imagine themselves as students during the first five minutes of class and that they are the teacher. As the students settle and start their bell-ringer, the leader shows the attendance procedure and how to determine if the student is cutting class or legitimately absent.
  2. The leader then asks the participants to take attendance along with them.
  3. Finally, the leader asks the participants to take attendance on their own.
  4. Next, the leader previews what is coming up by announcing how the first topic connects to the second. For example, “After I take questions, we are going to work on log entries, so you can practice writing up the student who cut class.”

5. The leader overcomes objections, just like a salesperson during a sales call. If there are no objections, the leader has a little inner party, then asks for questions. Finally, the leader asks if anyone needs to see the process again. The leader also tells the participants that the handout they have should help them remember the process until it has stuck.

6. Rinse and repeat steps 3–5 until all the topics are covered.

7. Put the processes together. Build a scenario that demonstrates changes to the student discipline procedure. Better yet, ask the participants to imagine a scenario that includes all aspects of the new discipline procedure.

When adult learners are engaged in hands-on activities, they can figure out how to implement a new process within their context. When they know the whole story and why the new process is important, they buy into the idea. The hardest part of this type of PD is the preparation, but success or failure depends on being well-prepared.

Thank you for reading this post and for following Teachers on Fire.

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