Trying to choose the perfect workshop? Thinking of taking a tech seminar? Or maybe you’re looking for a graduate course on classroom management?

As a teacher, you’re bombarded with professional learning options. TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) estimates that teachers spend about 19 full school days a year training. On average, districts shell out almost $18,000 per teacher, per year on development efforts.

Despite this massive investment, a recent TNTP survey of more than 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders found most educators did not improve as a result of these efforts, as measured by their evaluation ratings. When teachers were judged to be doing a better job in the classroom, researchers could not link their growth to any particular development strategy.

What's a teacher to do? We spoke with six educators who shared dynamic learning experiences that shaped their professional lives and helped them hone their craft. We hope their stories inspire you to find the next big opportunity that’s right for you.

Refresh the Old-School Book Club

Amanda Faubion, a self-described “professional development enthusiast” and special education teacher at James Randolph Elementary School in Katy, Texas, found a novel way to think about how to teach reading. She was eager to read Jennifer Serravallo’s Teaching Reading in Small Groups, so when her campus instructional coach invited her and several others to join a club to discuss the book, she jumped at the opportunity.

Participants read a new chapter each week and posted their reflections on a Google Drive doc so they could see one another’s comments and respond. In the end, the group met over breakfast to discuss incorporating the concepts into their classrooms. 

Faubion says it was empowering to get feedback from her principal and reassuring to realize rookie and veteran teachers were all still learning.

Her advice on making a club effective: Invite a select few teachers to participate, choosing those you think will initiate interesting discussions.

Or categorize the book club for reading teachers or team leaders. Other books that would work well for a club? Faubion suggests The Next Step in Guided Reading, by Jan Richardson, and What Connected Educators Do Differently, by Todd Whitaker et al.

Head to Edcamp

What Summer Haury, a first-grade teacher from Ashland Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia, likes about Edcamps is that she can just show up, jot down what she wants to learn, and start swapping ideas with other teachers.

What is Edcamp? Local educators and school leaders independently organize camps, which usually take place on Saturdays and are always free. Billed as “unconferences,” Edcamps have no predetermined workshops. Instead, topics arise organically when attendees propose ideas for presentations on the morning of the event.

Haury has received tips on guided math instruction, learned how to teach coding, and discovered how to integrate iMovies into classroom projects. She says she leaves Edcamps with specific, actionable ideas, which is not always the case with conferences.

“What’s really great is there is not one person facilitating the discussion,” Haury says. “People are encouraged to come with ideas to share, but you aren’t obligated to be an expert.”

Ready to pack your bags? Check out a full list of upcoming camps at Edcamp Foundation.

Tap Into Virtual Expertise

For 20 years, Jenny Hart has been teaching fourth grade in Ouray, Colorado, a rural town with only 200 students in its school district. She also helps train new teachers as part of an alternative licensure program. But her remote location limits professional development opportunities.

So Hart has embraced massive open online courses, or MOOCs. She recently completed two Coursera classes, one of which focused on how to coach new teachers. When working with these teachers, Hart has learned to do several things: keep it simple, address one issue at a time, measure the teachers’ development, and give feedback. “Be intentional and focused about your work rather than shotgun with 35 ideas,” she says.

The five-week Coursera class involved up to four hours of work a week, including watching videos and reading. Online discussions were rich, Hart says, and the material was organized and inspiring.

Before you sign up for an online course, do your homework. Hart suggests looking at a synopsis of the content to make sure it matches your learning goals, as well as the time commitment. Word-of-mouth referrals are the most honest reviews you’ll receive, so touch base with other teachers in your local and online professional learning networks for feedback about courses they’ve taken.

Grow in Grad School

Last summer, Amanda Redalen spent every weekday for four weeks writing, reading, and reflecting with fellow teachers, surrounded by waterfalls and wildflowers at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin. And she earned six graduate school credits in the process!

Going into the Greater Madison Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute, Redalen had been feeling burned out and uncertain about her future. But the third-grade teacher says the experience made her more confident as a writer and enthusiastic about her career.

Every morning started with a prompt and personal writing time. The 16 teachers took turns leading workshops and discussing topics ranging from how to motivate boys to the pros and cons of using templates. “I learned to see myself as a real writer,” Redalen says. Plus, she has gained a newfound respect for students who struggle with writing. She hopes to create a space where students can write and not feel judged as they find their voices.

Redalen heard about the institute through a colleague and was struck by the slogan: “Teachers at the center, students at the heart.” To find a writing project nearby, visit the National Writing Project website.

Catch Yourself on Candid Camera

“Nobody likes to be critiqued, but it helps us grow,” says Lori Hill, a Spanish teacher and ESL coordinator at Midland Academy Charter School in Texas. For the past three years, Hill has been observed, and videotaped, as part of her school’s professional development through the Success for All Foundation’s GREATER coaching model. Trainers conduct PD sessions with the teachers at Midland in the summer and visit classrooms twice during the school year to watch, record, and give feedback to teachers.

Hill acknowledges that being filmed makes her nervous, but she’s found this personalized form of professional learning helps her reflect and improve. In one case, coaching helped her realize that the struggling fourth graders who came from Spanish-speaking families didn’t have the background knowledge to understand what she was reading to them. “It made me stop and look at it through the eyes of the kids,” she says.

Camera-shy? Consider this: “It teaches you to go back and rephrase things — to give more than one way to look at something so the kids understand best,” says Hill. If you’re not comfortable having a colleague film your lesson, set up a camera, and then view it on your own later.

Invite Outside Experts In

There is power in bringing in an outside voice to jazz things up and unite the community. That was the case when two teachers at East Side Elementary School in Marietta, Georgia, invited math guru and popular author Greg Tang (The Grapes of Math) to visit their school. (They had attended one of his workshops.)

Tang provided professional learning for the teachers, assemblies for each grade level of students, and an evening workshop for parents. The parent aspect was particularly important for Danny Carlson, a third-grade teacher at East Side. “It helped to address some of the parent issues and the buy-in, which trickles down to the students,” says Carlson, who notes that it can be difficult to get kids to learn math in new ways when their parents are passing along their old methods.

The training also allowed teachers with varying levels of experience to get on the same page and focus on deeper learning in math. Tang equipped teachers with tools to give students a solid math foundation to build upon as they progress from year to year.

Ready to propose an outside presenter to your principal? Start by making the case for how the experience would further the goals of the school’s stakeholders, Carlson suggests.

Another important factor to consider: Will the presenter provide tools that can be used in a timely manner? The longer it takes to implement new ideas, the less likely teachers are to really use what they have learned. Plus, being able to show results from the teacher training will make it easier to procure funds for similar opportunities in the future!

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Photo: Jan Von Holleben/Trunk Archive