Tag Archives: Learning

Professional Development

Every time I’ve interviewed for a teaching job, we’ve discussed the question of professional development: What does professional development look like at the school? What is provided for and expected of teachers? What PD opportunities have had an impact on my practice and what can I bring to the school from these opportunities?

Professional development, or PD in the alphabet soup of education, is how teachers get better at teaching. It’s how we learn about new research and best practices, look outside of what our own schools are doing, make connections with other schools and teachers, and grow as professionals. I can think of a professional development opportunity that fundamentally changed the way I approach my students as learners, and a second that changed my approach to teaching content. I have been a better teacher since and my students have benefitted from my opportunities to learn.

Unfortunately, a comment I hear often on PD days is, “Well, I didn’t learn anything, but it was nice to have the time to work.”

Let me start by saying that it is absolutely nice to have the time to work. Teachers are increasingly (and often overwhelmingly) expected to do more big-picture collaboration work with colleagues across departments that simply do not fit into the school day. The rare time that teachers have together during the day, when it exists, is usually spent on much more pressing concerns, like a plan for the next unit, editing an assessment task, or going over a recent student work. Having the time to work with colleagues with whom we do not otherwise have a chance to work is critical for the cohesive educational programs that we know help students learn. Additionally, there is often work for school evaluation visits that requires collecting materials, filling out questionnaires, and documenting school programs. Collaborative work time is necessary for all of this to take place, and I have never been in a school where teachers have enough time. So yes, we need the time to work.

However, collaborative work time is not professional development. Collaborative work time might stem from PD (we are always looking for new ideas) or benefit from PD (trying to integrate better technology in the classroom might require teachers to be trained on said technology, for example), but it is not the same as PD.

Although I am as grateful for work time as anyone else (and we really are!) I also want to learn. I want the professional development days on the calendar to be about professional development, to help me get better at my job, which is helping students learn. If I walk away from a PD session with one idea that I can try with one student tomorrow, that is a good day. If I walk away from one of our scheduled PD days without having had the opportunity to learn something new, I’m disappointed.

Of course, professional development can come in many forms. I once taught at a school in which a different teacher at each faculty meeting was invited to share something that they were trying in class. Often, these ideas came from working with the curriculum coordinator or attending PD trainings outside of school. Teachers were asked in advance, presentations took no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and we walked away from those meetings with new ideas.

If we want teachers to be independent, creative professionals, we need to give them opportunities to learn and opportunities to put into practice what they have learned. A PD day on a calendar should mean professional development; if the intention is for collaborative work, it should be called as such. The frustration is when collaborative work is confused for PD, and teachers who have been promised PD do not receive it. We cannot expect teachers to more effectively work with students if they do not have the opportunities to learn how to do so.

Yoga auf Deutsch

I’ve been living in Germany for slightly over a year and it seems like my language skills are slowly improving. A friend asked recently how long I’ve been learning German (about a year and a half) and complemented my fluidity when speaking, which I think was a generous remark. It certainly doesn’t feel fluid and I often only catch the grammar mistakes after I’ve made them, assuming I catch them at all. But I am starting to get a sense for the language and I can make more meaning out of what I read and hear without knowing all of the words, which suggests a gradual improvement.

One thing I’ve been trying to do is hear as much German as possible, for example, on the radio, in films or TV shows, and eavesdropping closely when the opportunity arises. It is for this reason that I started following a German yoga instructor on YouTube. I’ve done YouTube yoga for well over ten years and it seemed like a natural progression in language learning. The idea is immersion, after all.

It helps that I am intimately familiar with yoga after years of practice and it helps that Sanskrit is used for many postures. It helps that yoga sequences are deliberately repetitive and that all yoga teachers talk (slowly and calmly) about breath, stillness, movement, and stretching. They use imperative language, which is not always obvious in daily life, and speak as explicitly as possible without simplifying, which is otherwise hard to find. I hadn’t realized all of this when I first began looking for yoga videos in German and perhaps it wouldn’t have taken me so long if I had.

Brand new when I began practicing yoga auf Deutsch were some anatomy words and the German translations for names of postures that I’m used to hearing in English. These are the things one doesn’t typically learn out of textbooks, but also the things that make the difference between living in German (when I try to do that) and learning German. And if experience is the best teacher and language learning requires repetition, yoga is a beautiful way to practice.

A benefit I did not expect is that doing yoga in German requires me to focus in a way that a yoga class in English does not. I’ve done plenty of yoga sequences with my mind accidentally elsewhere the whole time, breathing automatically rather than intentionally following the breath. After such a practice, the body feels better but the mind remains in a whirl. But when the instruction is in German, my whole attention is on listening because I cannot passively absorb language the way I do in English. As a result, I am more engaged when practicing and recognize immediately when my mind has wandered because I lose track of the sequence and literally cannot continue. At the conclusion of practice, my body and mind are very much aligned.

Naturally, there are things that I miss in these videos, perhaps elements of philosophy that go beyond my current vocabulary. But the benefits, both for language learning and for yoga practice itself, are far greater than that, and far greater than I anticipated. The biggest reminder here, I think, is that it is always worth trying something new because you really never know what you’re going to find.

You live a new life for every language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once. – Czech proverb

Big School, Small School

Almost ten years ago (where has the time gone?) I wrote my Master’s thesis on the school where I worked at the time, an all-girls school in the town where I grew up. I had had myriad stereotypes about the place as a student in the area, and I couldn’t have been more wrong about it. This interested me enough to conduct a case study to answer the question of why different stakeholders choose all-girls education. (Short answer: It depends. Long answer: Contained in aforementioned thesis.)

As part of regular practice, I’ve been conducting informal research throughout my time as a teacher. What happens if I refer to this as a “task” rather than “assignment”? What happens if the “rough draft” becomes the “initial submission”? If I want to encourage dialogue in class, should students sit with their friends or not? How does the environment change when the tables are in a U shape, rows of three, groups of four? How does the environment change when student-led discussions are an assessed part of the course?*

I have learned to be a teacher not only through deliberate training, observation, and practice, but also through a lot of trial and error. What works in one environment or for one group may or may not work for another, and there is a significant level of adaptability and flexibility that is required to help students learn. (Insert home-based learning here.) This is why some teachers argue that every class is a different prep, even if the class is a second section of the same subject – two grade 9 Individuals and Societies classes, for example. I don’t usually go this far; the plan and materials remain the same, though the approach might differ. The conversation will surely be different with different groups, and the response should follow naturally from the conversation. The environment matters.

A significant way in which environment matters is in terms of school size. If I were looking for another Master’s research project, I’d be interested in exploring the relationship between school size and culture. I deliberately moved from a school of around 3,000 students to one of around 300, both of which serve students in nursery school through grade 12. The larger school had more course offerings, activities, facilities, and resources. It had more options for students, professional growth opportunities for teachers, and the possibility of just about anything for a project or event. At the same time, it could be slow, bureaucratic, and frustrating to work within that system. With so many projects running at once, it sometimes seemed like nothing was ever thought through before execution, leading to problems that individuals had anticipated and wanted to address, but the meeting to discuss the idea was likely never held because something else took priority.

This is not to say that a small school is the answer to the above dilemma. In a small school, everyone goes above and beyond because the school’s daily functioning depends on teachers acting as support staff where needed. Due to budget concerns, there’s an awareness of cost when organizing large projects, but the projects themselves are easy to pull off in a relatively short time because the scale is so manageable. A limited number of adults also means no middle-management, which gives students and teachers immediate access to the school administration when it comes to presenting ideas or addressing problems. This proximity also contributes to visibility. Students are known by most teachers and teachers are known by most students; everyone is around and relatively easy to find, making for casual rather than formal interactions. While small staff size makes for relaxed meetings and easy dissemination of information, the opportunities for teacher growth and development are minimal.

At the moment, I’m curious about school culture and how the different issues faced by schools of different sizes contribute to the development of a learning environment. On the one hand, I truly miss the closeness of colleagues and friends of the large school and the community that we built among ourselves because the sheer size of the place could be overwhelming. The small school functions more as a collection of individuals who happen to work in the same place; people are comfortable enough that they don’t need a community.

But in the small school, I’ve been able to work with a group of students who come up with school-wide ideas and carry them out without too much interference. The small school also has fewer rules and procedures because individual students are easier to catch and redirect. But I miss having an overview of a process before it begins and clear steps of what to do in different situations, which was the case at the large school. That being said, I don’t miss the time it took to go through processes just so that all relevant parties would have the time to participate. It is easier to get things done in the small school because fewer people are involved, but I miss the teamwork in the large school. I miss having people around who know what I’m doing, but I’m glad to have the freedom to do what I think is right.

As for the students, it seems to me that there’s less academic pressure in the small school but perhaps more social pressure. A smaller number of students means less competition, which may or may not be a good thing, but fewer social opportunities for those who might actually find “their people” in a large environment. When there’s a social problem, everyone is affected, everyone knows, and there’s nowhere to hide. But there are perhaps fewer social problems because the students are closer to one another than they would be in a larger environment. By the time they graduate, many of these students have been together as a class for the majority of their lives, which means they function like a family. There may be some frustration and disfunctionality, but they grit their teeth and get along.

The flip side is that the sadness and apprehension palpable in grade 12 is far greater than anything I’ve seen before. The students understand the school because they have grown up in it, and being in such a small, safe environment with constant supervision has preserved their innocence. Again, this may or may not be a good thing. In a large school, perhaps some students would have been pushed by their peers to be more academically successful, or perhaps they would have been offered courses better suited to their needs. With peers less tolerant of immature behaviours, perhaps some students would have been forced to act differently. As before, this may or may not be a good thing.

I look around and ask these questions because it all comes down to the most significant question: How can I be the most effective teacher for this group of students in this environment?

Step one: Ask the questions.
Step two: Watch carefully.
Step three: Try something. And then try something else.
Step Four: Repeat.


*The last question was actually my first action research project as part of my Master’s program and what I learned from it fundamentally shaped my approach to teaching and learning.