6 Questions To Guide You In Choosing Your Next Professional Development Conference

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Broadly speaking, there are two types of professional development (or “PD”): formal and informal.

The latter is a new breed of PD, characterized by teachers interacting, collaborating, and improving via technology. Social media platforms like twitter, facebook (and increasingly Google+), and also blogs and social bookmarking platforms like pinterest give teachers what-they-want, when-they-want-it access to an incredible diversity of resources. This approach also naturally expands teacher networks for iterative, long-term improvement as teachers continue to model, share, and grow.

But in 2013, there is still room for face-to-face, in-person PD. For years, this model has been the face of teacher improvement–educators attending school and district-sponsored trainings in huge masses to address the latest and greatest push from the top down. Topics ranging from curriculum and assessment, to literacy and instruction, classroom management or new technology are covered here, often during summer or holiday break, or PD/conference days in a school media center, computer lab, or cafeteria.

On a larger scale, there is similar type of PD sponsored by larger teacher improvement organizations. These companies sponsor huge teacher conferences that are hosted in hotels and convention centers, featuring sometimes hundreds of sessions, keynote speakers, and even pre-conference institutions.

Of course, the above are only the beginning. There are also webinars, eLearning courses, and direct consulting to improve an educator’s craft, in addition to books, eBooks, and the local professional learning community.

And the best part? Many of these resources are free, and can used based on a teacher’s–ahem–supply of free time.

Primary Catalysts for Teacher Improvement
The primary catalysts for teacher improvement are resources and reflection.

If teachers have access to quality resources that make sense for their classroom, having the time, framework, collaboration, and even data to meaningfully reflect on the performance of those resources is the critical next step. So when it’s time to pick, what kinds of questions should you consider to get the most out of your investment?

1. What’s Most Important?
Priority is critical; you can’t do it all.

Spending your finite time wisely means everything if you want to move from “minimum PD hours required” to “doing the best that I can possible can with my life’s craft.”

The first step to choosing a professional development conference then is prioritizing. This occurs first by knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and how those strengths and weaknesses compare to locally available resources.

One tip to help you find what’s most important is to identify the keystones of teaching–those middle anchors that everything else depends on (usually curriculum or instructional design). Like power standards in Common Core, identifying those “power skills” in education are equally important as they can set the foundation for all of your other training.

Once you’ve done this macro-overview, you know where to start.

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2. What can I get for free?
PD isn’t cheap–not high-quality, relevant, in-person PD anyway.

Once you’ve prioritized your needs, smart decision-making then becomes a matter of finances. Rather than spend money on training that you can get free, find out what is available locally (and digitally) for no cost. This can further help you pare down your choices.

3. What have I attended in the past?
At this point you’ve narrowed your professional development options from everything in the know PD universe to the “power skills” that I can’t get for free.

Then you can survey the development you’ve had in the past–any development at all, from formal professional development to informal self-directed improvement. If you’ve attended a pre-conference session on Instructional Strategies in the recent past, while it seems tempting to move in another direction completely, choosing something involving classroom management or iPad integration, it might make sense to instead deepen your existing training–for example, a move from Instructional Strategies to Using Data to Modify Instruction, or Differentiation Via Mobile Learning.

4. What are my strengths?
Knowing thyself–and know thy strengths.

Teacher professional growth plans are often built around weaknesses, with evaluations pointing out your shortcomings so you can improve. But there is something to be said for building on your strengths instead–knowing where you’re naturally “good” and staying in that sweet spot as much as possible, not out of timidity, but logic.

If you’re incredible with grouping and differentiation, use that. Find PDs that further those skills so that you can get the most out of them to support areas where you’re not so incredible.

Every teacher is good at something. Know what you’re good at, and grow from there.

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5. What are the most important local initiatives?
Another important element of choosing a PD is knowing what others are doing and what they need from you.

As a teacher, you’re a single gear in a huge machine that depends on you to be great. That doesn’t mean you leap at the first available training that explores something administrators have been screaming for, but once you’ve narrowed down your choices to this point, it now makes sense to support the educators around you.

Send some emails. Make some phone calls. Find out where the “district is going” next year and beyond, and identify training that overlaps between your needs and theirs.

6. Has my professional experience been diverse enough?
While it makes perfect sense to prioritize, build on your strengths, and know what’s available for free, you also need to be willing to step out of your comfort zone. Diversity is a key for growth, and knowing yourself as a professional–where you’re overdeveloped and where you might be the opposite–is important.

So ask other teachers. Ping your digital professional learning network on twitter. Read your favorite blog for trends. Stick with what got you there, but don’t be afraid to try new things. Just because you attend a training doesn’t mean it all has to end up in your classroom.

But it might.

Conclusion
Getting the most out of professional development is really an exercise in deduction and common sense.

The right idea or support system at the right time can make all the difference in your career. For new teachers, it can be a chance to get the lay of the land, find out what others are doing, and form a strategy for self-improvement that can help you achieve all of your professional goals.

For veteran teachers, there’s always more to learn, and you never know when you’re going to find that new wrinkle, trend, or technology that will transform the learning of your students, or rekindle your enthusiasm for your craft.

5 Ideas For Choosing Your Next Professional Development Conference by Terry Heick was first published in Edudemic Magazine; image attribution flickr users usdepartmentofeducation and torres21

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