Voices in Education

Professional Development: Light in the Dark and a Path to Creativity

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The initials PD (Professional Development) can make almost any educator cringe and consider taking a personal day off.  Many poor experiences with PD stem from the philosophy of one size fits all for the staff. After spending decades in the classroom, I admit many of the PD experiences I have been forced to attend were not time well spent, even when chanting the mantra, “If I get one good idea or insight, this is worth the time.” There were trainings when I was scraping hard to find an idea or insight to add to my arsenal. I admit to spending more time watching my colleagues melt into newspapers in the back of the room or pass notes to each other. This type of PD rarely creates a sense of professional learning as a community.

The purpose of PD should be to assist professionals with new ideas to fill their tool boxes, make connections, provide opportunities for growth, while at the same time providing a break from the day-to-day grind in a classroom. Professional Development should be a light in the dark and a path to creativity. For this to occur, educators must be willing to take the responsibility to explore their personal route to becoming better professionals in the classroom. When individuals accept the responsibility of finding their own PD opportunities, it becomes a vehicle driving personal development and creating satisfaction in one of the best professions in the world: education.

For the first ten years of my career, I spent virtually zero time in any form of PD. I felt I was a dynamic teacher who researched and created what I needed to fulfill the needs of my students without outside help. My colleagues rarely spent any time outside of school developing their craft and most were text-book/worksheet individuals who went lock step through the curriculum as it was mapped. What opened the door to true professional development was an opportunity to spend time at Harvard University in a Summer program exploring the ethics and practices of the media in American Democracy. Once I had sipped from the well of expanded horizons, my thirst for improvement could never be quenched. I found ideas flowed from almost all in attendance. Ideas were there for the asking as well as the taking. My professional learning network expanded from local to global and opportunities for professional expansion abounded. Professional development is what kept me in the classroom for over thirty years – and it is what keeps me in the field of education in retirement.    

As a participant and a facilitator for PBS TeacherLine, I have found the people who are willing to take their time and spend their money investing in themselves and their learners are some of the most professional, unselfish, and passionate educators I have ever met. They are not just looking for re-certification credits; they are looking to build themselves into effective professionals who are changing their classrooms for the better. They are creating tools while sharing ideas which will improve their classrooms in ways they could not have thought possible on their own. They are taking the time to reflect on their practice, developing the ways and means to improve it. They are growing their Professional Learning Network with leaps and bounds which will allow them a support group to further improve their practice. 

In my TeacherLine welcoming letter to my learners, I explain to them that I am not sure who gets more out of the classes; them, or me? It is true. The ideas they share with each other on the forum and the insights they share with me in their journals add vastly to my teaching and educational arsenal. 

These are some final observations from learners in my last class.

“This course will change my teaching practice, which I did not anticipate. I came away with a whole host of things I can do from the library, but also can suggest to classroom teachers who may be looking for ideas.” 

“I took this course wanting to learn more about using digital resources in the classroom and as a way to become more comfortable using the computer. I have succeeded in doing both. I had no idea that there was so many materials to choose from and use with students. My students and I will benefit from using eBooks.”

These transformational changes did not come due to my efforts; they came about because of theirs. My job is to facilitate and encourage exploration as the learners create the opportunities for growth.  Expanding educational horizons through self-directed professional development is the best way to ensure that what you are spending precious time upon is well worth the investment.

In my own experience, I have met people who have enriched my classroom experience and my life. During a PD experience, I met Constitutional Scholar and author, Linda Monk. She is author of the book, “The Words We Live By,” and a sought-after speaker. Since our meeting, she has graced my classroom via Skype to share insight about Brown vs. The Board of Education. Together, we put together an idea for a song which is a parody of the Who’s anthem, “My Generation,” which we titled “My Constitution.” This experience required time in a professional studio, incorporating the vocal talent of former students and the professional skills of a percussionist. It would have never happened without taking a week during the summer to attend a professional development experience. These efforts have opened doors to national and global organizations with learning opportunities I could have never dreamed of.  

Recently, one of my former students replied to a meme I posted on Facebook that said, “If the purpose of learning is to score well on tests, we’ve lost sight of the real reason for learning.” His reply was, “True education is for the betterment of one's self and therefore the betterment of the world. Only through educational understanding of any given field can we hope to prosper and lead a greater life and leave this world that much better than when we entered it.”

I would encourage anyone to take full control of their professional learning and growth. Do it not for the recertification, do it for the love of learning, the fun of camaraderie and the peace it brings to the soul. You will be developing your personal professional learning community in which you direct and support. Take charge and be a role model for your students by showing what it means to be a life long learner. The investment you make in time and money will be returned to you more than ten-fold and the experiences will span your lifetime. 

John Tierney was a classroom teacher for 33 years and has been a PBS TeacherLine facilitator since 2008. In 2016 he was named Nevada State Teacher of the Year.

John Tierney

John Tierney PBS TeacherLine Facilitator

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