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Professional Development: Following Your Own Lead

Voice of ExperienceAs schools move full-tilt towards a professional development model more attuned to collegial school-wide goals, educator Brenda Dyck explores the need to balance that model with one that recognizes the professional goals of individual teachers. Included: Links to resources that support teacher reflection and individual goal setting.



Have you ever noticed how educators tend to think in extremes? When it comes to reform initiatives, we seem inclined to throw ourselves behind one approach or another. We are for whole language, or we're not. We ascribe to experiential learning, or we don't. This isn't just my opinion. John Dewey, the man many call the father of educational philosophy, thought so too:



"Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities."

Could it be that our tendency to flit from one reform initiative to another is because many initiatives are the chosen plans of districts and "experts" instead of the teachers who must implement them? What might happen if the teachers had a say in their personal path of professional improvement?

One current trend holds promise for recognizing that all teachers are not cut from the same cloth. This new professional development model, one more attuned to teachers, has been a long time coming. Following the model, no longer is every teacher expected to conform to the district-set -- either-or -- parameters of professional development. The new model recognizes each individual teacher's strengths and interests and then frees teachers to follow their own paths.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offers an explanation for what makes a self-led action of improvement so powerful. It's all about the power of choice -- how freeing teachers to chose their own improvement direction unleashes what Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow," a state of concentration so focused that people feel "strong, alert, in effortless control, and at the peak of their abilities." Self-led professional development employs flow to fuel profound improvements in teaching and learning.


For too many years, professional development in education was created for us or, perhaps more accurately, done to us. In the NEA Foundation article Teachers Take Charge of Their Learning, it was observed that "teachers have sometimes stood aside while others have spoken at and for them, thus allowing those who do not teach to control teachers' professional growth."

More Voices of Experience!

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks? There you will find many more essays by Brenda Dyck, including
--- Education Conferences: Goin' It Alone
--- Log On to a Blog
--- Tackling Big Projects: No Wonder Students Get Frustrated
--- Downshifting: Teaching (for Understanding) in a Lower Gear
--- Where Have All the Staff Rooms Gone?
--- Teacher -- Alias Telementor

Thankfully, teacher advocates around the country now are looking for ways to involve educators in identifying the most appropriate professional development initiatives for themselves. This is professional development grounded in collegiality and practicality. It is a model that doesn't forget where most of us come from -- the single teacher going about his or her work on his or her own.

Often, our tendency toward polarized thinking causes us to view the "lone ranger" teacher with disdain. Once again, Mr. Dewy comes to our rescue by pointing out the need for educators to step aside and reflect on their personal teaching practices and to use those reflections to improve their programs. Other researchers have gone so far as to say that unless teachers get down and personal, they will become the change agents of others. It is vital to make way for teacher autonomy within a school's professional development initiatives. It is imperative that teachers be allowed, no encouraged, to go off on their own to explore such questions as

  • What interests me?
  • What learning/teaching gaps do I see in my classroom?
  • What action research would I like to collect?
  • What outside resources do I want to connect to and how do I want to access them?

Asking questions such as those has freed me to create a personal improvement plan that is unique to my own needs. How empowering! In a responsive way, the learning gained during self-study enriches my schools' learning community by creating a middle ground of professional discussion that benefits both individual teachers and the larger learning community.


I recently returned from an education institute in New Hampshire. There, I spent five days with a group of like-minded educators who were learning how to implement a problem-based, experiential learning cycle in our classrooms. Each participant was there on his or her own initiative. Each was searching for ways to improve his or her teaching practices, even if it meant taking a week of summer vacation to do so. Each teacher experienced professional development at its best -- professional development grounded in both autonomy and collegiality.

All the teachers at that institute now are headed back to their classrooms. There, they will pioneer the EBD model. Whether they are aware of it or not, their summertime experience can exert a powerful influence on their schools' professional development. As they model and experiment with the new approach, they will be contributing to learning reform already in process at their school. They will serve as change agents from which new ideas are launched; their efforts, their knowledge, and their enthusiasm will empower others to experiment and learn.

At the very least, they will serve as models of the benefits and power of self-led professional development.


The Japanese have an old saying that goes like this:

"If a man has not been seen for three days, his friends should take a look at him to see what changes have befallen him."

To me, that saying seems to reflect why self-led professional development should be recognized and supported in the overall PD cycle of a school. Who knows? Could it really be possible that grassroots learning initiatives begun in isolation by inquiring teachers might end up being the catalyst to drive a schools' learning goals to new heights?


Learning to Learn: Thinking and Learning Skills
Learn what your teaching style is and how it can impact students' learning.

Planning for Professional Growth
This site from 2Learn has an abundance of online tools to help you organize your goals and plans.

Tapped In
Do you find yourself in a school that seems out of sync with your professional goals? Tapped In will link you to an international online community of education professionals who share your goals and interests.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade social studies, Brenda works with her staff and leads technology integration workshops in the United States and Canada. Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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