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OMG Becky. PD is Getting So Much Better!!


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I literally can’t even wrap my head around all this stuff. Just a few days ago, I popped onto Twitter and asked people to share their ideas for alternative PD structures.

Holy cow.

As I put this together, the responses are still trickling in. I started down this path thinking that lots of districts were still stuck in a one-size-fits-all, sit-and-get, whole-school PD model, where the entire staff is herded into one room to listen to one expert talk. I’ve been the person on that stage, and even in the best of circumstances, I still get that uncomfortable feeling when I look out over the crowd and see the folded arms, the faces turned down to screens, the bouncing, bored feet. It sucks to be the presenter in those situations.

But evidently, that model is disappearing. Because person after person told me about all the innovative ways their schools and districts are reinventing professional learning for teachers. I’ve done my best to curate a good list of those ideas here, but honestly, it was like trying to drink from a fire hose. After a while, I just told myself I was going to have to stop collecting and just get the big ideas out there. If you really want to do a deep dive on any one of these, go to that Twitter thread and follow up with some of the people who shared their practices. (And if you haven’t joined Twitter yet, read this.)

What I have for you is a list of 9 alternative models for teacher professional learning. All of these are being tried in different schools, some informally, and some are really well-developed at this point. Many schools are using a combination of them. It’s just incredible. A feast, really. I’m so excited and encouraged to see so many schools willing to personalize learning for their teachers. Lately it has seemed that this is a really sucky time to be a teacher, but I’ll tell you, if there’s one thing that is actually getting better about teaching, I’m pleasantly surprised to say that thing is professional development.

1. Unconferences

How They Work

You might know these as EdCamps or TeachMeets, but the principle is the same: An unconference is a grassroots conference where the content is provided by the attendees themselves—not outside experts. It used to be that these were organized primarily as separate events from “official” school PD, but now administrators are bringing the model in-house to BE the actual PD.

Although there are variations, unconferences basically work this way:

  1. A time and day are chosen, along with a venue (probably your school), where available rooms for sessions are identified.
  2. Using a spreadsheet (a Google Sheet is ideal), the day is divided into short blocks of time. Sometimes these are just 20 minutes long, other times they may be up to an hour.
  3. People volunteer to run sessions based on their areas of expertise or things they have learned: teaching methods, tech tools, etc.


2. Intentional PLCs

How They Work

The concept of the professional learning community (PLC) has had wide interpretations, but in many places it has defaulted to a grade-level or content-based team. In some schools, however, teachers join PLCs with more deliberate intentions. When PLCs are chosen by teachers based on a shared interest or a mutual commitment to growth they get much better results.


3. Choice Boards

How They Work

Teachers are given a menu of PD options to choose from. Depending on their district, they may be required to complete a certain number of options within a certain period of time.


4. Personal Action Plans

How they Work

In this model, individual teachers set their own personal learning goals, along with a specific plan for reaching them. Often, there is also a plan for making their results public with colleagues.


5. Voluntary Piloting

How it Works

Rather than requiring a whole school to adopt some new initiative, a small group of committed, interested teachers volunteers to take on the task of trying out the new approach.


Krista Taylor and her colleagues at James N. Gamble Montessori High School in Cincinnati, OH, launched a voluntary piloting program to get better at differentiation strategies. In this post, she explains how the process worked and how much everyone involved benefitted from it: “Those of us in that original pilot group have achieved our original vision of classrooms where differentiation has become a norm,” Taylor writes. “Meanwhile, other members of our faculty have followed our lead, and differentiation strategies are being implemented at different levels throughout our building.”

6. Peer Observation

How it Works

Teachers take advantage of the best source of free professional development available: each other. By watching their own colleagues teach during classroom visits, teachers learn things they can immediately apply in their own work. If they have follow-up questions, the experts are right down the hall.


7. Microcredentials

How They Work

Teachers earn “badges” or microcredentials for completing challenges or learning pathways that have been created ahead of time, usually online.


8. Blended Learning

How It Works

Taking advantage of all the great learning management systems available, some schools are offering some of their PD online. Teachers can do the required modules on their own time, then submit some sort of evidence of completion to get credit for the work. Staff may meet in person to debrief or they may be excused entirely from face-to-face meetings, depending on the requirements.


Lynn Cashell, a teacher in Garnet Valley, PA, describes how her school uses a blended model using Schoology: “There are two courses posted in Schoology. As teachers complete the courses, we upload lessons or other required elements. Admin reviews (and grades) the work.” If teachers choose not to do the course on their own time, they can also take it in person on the scheduled inservice day. This flexibility allows teachers to choose what works for them. “This allows us to come in late or leave early on District Inservice days as long as we have met the requirements,” Cashell explains.

9. Lab Classrooms

How They Work

A host teacher demonstrates a strategy in his or her own classroom, with students,  while visiting teachers observe. The process typically includes some pre-observation work, co-teaching with an instructional coach, and a debriefing after the observation. This article from ASCD’s Educational Leadership explains how it works in more detail.


A Final Thought: Start Somewhere

If you are in a district that is stuck in a PD rut and you feel like there’s no chance they’d ever be willing to try something new, I want to encourage you to have hope. Pass this along to the people in charge. And let them know that a complete overhaul is not necessary: Even trying one or two of these ideas on a small scale would be a great start.

If no one bites, try something yourself. Yes, you’ll still have to sit through PD that feels irrelevant, but no one’s stopping you from getting your own PD on top of what you’re required to do. Find a small group of enthusiastic colleagues, pick an option, and just try it. If you get good results, share them with your staff. Sometimes all it takes is one brave person to stand up and say, Look everyone, I tried this, and it was good.

You can be that person. Go try something. ♦

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  1. Wow! I love these PD frameworks – so creative. My dissertation project on Scaffolding Regulation Skills attempts blended learning and can be incorporated into larger PD efforts:

  2. All of these would be GREAT starts, but most end up being a one-and-done autonomous event unfortunately. The Professionally Driven model looks to build sustainable autonomy while allowing intrinsic motivation to drive an active process of developing our educator growth mindset ->

    • Sue Simmons says:

      Jarod has a good point – PD is best when it is ongoing rather than a once and done. And learning from each other is helpful, but learning from professional trainers who are experts, not relative experts, is so much better.

  3. Thank you for this summary, Jennifer. I would like to suggest #10. Coteaching – When classroom teachers and school librarians (for example) coplan, coimplement, and coassess learning outcomes and their instruction, they learn with and from each other. Both educators are actively involved with students (thereby lowering the student to educator ratio at the point of need). This form of job-embedded professional development is not one-size-fits-all and leads to repeat opportunities to codevelop instructional expertise with actual students and available resources based on the taught curriculum and with the supports and constraints of the school schedule.

  4. Beckie Zullo says:

    I enjoyed every minute of this podcast and having taken notes. Love all of the creative strategies and your concise descriptions. Thank you so much for your work on this topic. I am also now following you on Twitter!

  5. Carrie says:

    My school did cohort PD this year and while it could use a little tweaking (first-timers!) it was wonderful. A dozen different topics were chosen by the admin and we were able to join whichever group interested us most. Then it was up to us to direct our group, bring in experts if we wished, then share what we’d learned (and actually done with our new-found knowledge) with the rest of the school at our last PD day for the year.

    Having a choice, being invested in the topic, and directing all our own learning (things we want for our students, too) was the BEST!

  6. Nicole Gabany says:

    Nicole Gabany (DIY PD BINGO) here, just listened to the podcast and 16:12 wanted to drop a line and say YES!!! You are saying my name right! 😉 Thanks for all the GREAT resources!

  7. Rod Carnill says:

    I will be sharing these with the instructional technology coaches in our district to inform and shape our plans for PD in the coming school year.
    Variety and choice seem to be what teachers in our district are asking for and with these recommendations I am hopeful that we will be able to deliver.

  8. Hi Jennifer! My school (Klein Cain HS) is mentioned in this post for our PD Carnival idea. Thank you so much for sharing ours and so many others. We were inspired by so many!

    Because we were so inspired, we borrowed a few more ideas from that post and created a new form of PD for a final 9 weeks challenge, called the Cain PPL (Personalized Professional Learning) Bingo Challenge. You can read all about it and see pictures and resources in the article I’ve linked below. I thought I would share it with you since I was inspired by you and others to implement it. Hope you like it, and feel free to share!

  9. Unfortunately, the powers that be do not trust teachers to be left to their own devices. Thus, forced PD. I am working to make Microcredentials part of our PD framework in our state. Scary as it may be, teachers get to choose their PD and practice it in their classroom! Wow!

  10. Amy Mullen says:

    Thank you very much for compiling and sharing these ideas about new structures for PD. My district is trying an Unconference this August and we are very excited about the learning possibilities for this new approach. I will also share these ideas with my curriculum team and my graduate students. Thank you, thank you!

  11. Miriam Brown says:

    I am the Gifted and Talented Facilitator and part of my job is to provide PD for helping teachers differentiate in their classrooms. I had a lot of teachers signing up for my Book Studies and Differentiation classes. We had a lot of great discussions and it felt like it was useful, but when I worked in their classrooms I saw that not a whole lot was changing about the way they taught. I was pretty discouraged until I found Lesson Study

    The teachers who are doing lesson study are really implementing the strategies that we work on. It’s awesome. I will never go back to regular PD.

    • Eric Wenninger says:

      Thanks for sharing Miriam. Lesson study seems like a kind of collaborative action research. I’ve worked with English teachers in Southeast Asia, helping them to take ownership of their professional development as teachers through conducting action research. While our teachers went through this process in their individual classes and shared the results with their teaching community, I like how lesson study incorporates the teaching community from the very beginning of the process. Very cool!

      • Rebecca Phifer says:

        I’m so glad you mentioned Lesson Study. In Texas, we are taking it statewide. It’s an amazing form of job-embedded, teacher-driven, ongoing form of professional development. I’ve heard it called PLC on steroids. It’s the most empowering form of PD I’ve ever experienced. I hope others can get connected with Lesson Study and experience this amazing transformation of true PD that focus on student learning outcomes as evidence of success. Teachers begin to see learning through the eyes of children. Focus moves from “What am I teaching?” to “What are students learning”. Such a simple shift, with powerful results.

    • Alex Pfeifer says:

      Thank you for sharing about Lesson Study and for posting the article. This looks like another great PD structure and I am glad to see it has worked effectively for you.

  12. Alex Pfeifer says:

    I stumbled across this post as I was doing an assignment for a leadership course I am taking at Walden University and…wow! I loved looking at each of these PD models and thinking about how I could incorporate that into my school. As part of various teams at my school, we are always looking for new ways to structure professional development instead of just the boring “expert at the front”. As I am planning to do another PD session in March, I will definitely be trying out one of these structures!

  13. Sheri Biel says:

    This post on PD has opened my eyes to something. My district is doing so many of these great things. The challenge is that we haven’t let go of the other PD type events. We can’t do it all! Seeing peer observations, EdCamp participation, etc should be considered options to the development of an experienced teacher. New teachers may have fewer options because of all they need to be familiarized with. I’m looking forward to having some conversations that allow for choice.

  14. Sarah says:

    Does anyone have resources they can share on Intentional PLCs? I’d love to share this with my school!

  15. I am glad to see that you think professional development is getting better. A ton of people have told me that professional development is not necessary. But I agree with you and think they’re wrong, especially because of how it is improving.

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