Let’s play a little game of word association. When you think of the phrase ‘professional development’, what word instantly comes to mind? No censoring! Maybe your word is exciting, productive or collaborative because you find professional development a privilege and joy to plan for. But maybe your word is time-consuming, frustrating or tiring because planning PD is challenging work. And here’s the thing: there’s likely more than one word that comes to mind, a duality of feelings toward creating professional development for teachers, and those feelings likely change over time.
A while back, the first word that would spring to my mind was this: nemesis. Planning and facilitating professional development was my LEAST favorite aspect of coaching. I’d take hours to plan for a single session, a session that could work beautifully with one group of teachers and then fail miserably with another. One day I’d feel like a rock star and another day, I’d feel like a rock that I just wanted to crawl under. Can you relate?

Planning professional learning sessions for teachers is challenging work. Coaches need to understand the principles of adult learning, create single sessions that will meet the needs of multiple teachers, walk a fine line between content and application and hopefully, make the entire experience a positive one full of connection and collaboration that inspires teachers to bring their new learning to the classroom. That’s a tall order!

And even though I labeled professional development as my nemesis, the truth was, my entire position was exactly that! I had to change the way I thought about professional development and become the superhero of my own story. And fast.

So I turned to design thinking. Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving with a human-centered core that encourages organizations to focus on the people they're creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes. As a coach, this meant I needed to completely flip what I knew about creating professional development with teachers. Rather than choosing topics on my own, creating presentations that were based on best practices alone and planning for what I would have wanted as a learner, I learned how to get my inspiration from the teachers themselves that took into account the varied ways teachers learn and their needs, interests and desires for doing so.

So, I want to share two of my best tools for gathering PD inspiration from the very teachers who will participate in it: surveys and sticky notes. Because after all, the key to making professional development engaging and effective is to make it relevant.

Let’s start with the Google Survey. This is the easiest way to gather targeted information from a large group of teachers quickly and easily. Create simplistic, short surveys that target what you need to plan professional development with the teachers in mind:
  • What goals do they have?
  • What content do they want to explore?
  • What challenges are they facing?
  • What do they need next?
  • How do they learn best?
Send the survey to teachers and sweeten the pot with a small prize or two (think sticky notes, stickers and chocolate). The next time you meet, pull up the results so beautifully created by Google and show teachers how you are planning your vision for professional learning based on THEIR feedback. This is an essential step of the process: show teachers you care about their opinions and that they have a voice.

Another way to gain feedback for teachers is through a sticky note sorting activity or online Jamboard session. Stock the tables with PLENTY of sticky notes of all shapes, sizes and colors. Invite teachers to reflect on their vision/hope for student learning and write each element they need to reach that vision on a sticky note. Combine all of the sticky notes on a shared wall and sort them into categories: What seems to matter most? Based on what’s present on the wall, choose collective priority goals to guide your PD planning.

Either way you choose, starting with your teachers in mind is the best way to transform professional development and ensure it meets the needs of your teachers. And either way you choose, it’s a game-changer.

But design thinking doesn’t stop there. It’s a 6-step design thinking process that starts with gathering inspiration from teachers, moves to generating ideas based on that inspiration and ends with trying, tinkering and learning from each experience. I worked through each stage of the process in my notebook and ultimately created this very blog you’re reading based on what I’ve learned over time and continue to learn. So stay tuned for more posts on how to use design thinking to transform your professional learning for teachers all year long.

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