Reflecting on Professional Development Days

In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown writes that leaders “must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour.” With that in mind, I started my PD Day opening up a can of worms, (complete with a stock graphic of said can of worms projected on the screen behind me). As a new principal, I knew there were burning issues that my staff wanted to discuss. Some were operational, others more controversial. Protocols needed clarification. Decisions needed explanation. It could get ugly. However, in order to proceed with the deep thinking, collaboration, and honest work of the day’s true focus, I opened up the floor: bring on the concerns. Let’s talk about them. Let’s have a real courageous conversation. The hour it took to have that conversation was worth its weight in gold. This, I believe, is how trust is developed. That intentional time cleared the air about so many things. I was honest, I was vulnerable, but when it was done, I think we all felt better.

Sometimes, opening up the can of worms is absolutely important

Professional Development days are an interesting thing. On one hand, educators all want to do better; they most definitely want to positively impact student achievement and well-being. They want to learn better practices, inform their knowledge, and better reach kids. However, on the other hand, there’s so often a dark cloud over PD Days. Educators comment about how “they’d rather be in the classroom,” that they “have so much to do,” or that sticky notes and elbow partners are a waste of time. Why do PD Days have such a bad reputation? What were these professionals, (or professionals in schools across the world) subjected to that tarnished their ability to bring people together to do better for students? It is with that question in mind – and the modelling of people like Sandra Herbst – that influenced how I designed my first PD Day at Marathon High School.

Engaging in the Co-Construction of Success Criteria – Important Work!

I believe that PD Days are a great opportunity to pump people’s tires, to do really good work, to share ideas, and to share ideas and resources with colleagues that they can bring back to their classrooms. The focus for this day was our School Learning Plan for Student Achievement and Well-Being (SLP), a goal-oriented, data-driven cycle that influences measurable student improvements. To seize this great opportunity, I followed my core values of leadership: inclusive voice, creating a positive learning environment, and leading by listening. I also thought carefully about my vision for the SLP. I couldn’t talk at the staff about the most urgent need for the school because I’ve only been here for five weeks. I couldn’t engage them with graphs charting school test scores run against provincial averages, and I most definitely couldn’t dictate “thou shalt blindly follow my vision with minimal input!” I don’t work that way. Instead, I thought about ways that I could get people talking about the things that mattered to them – things that might be an area of focus for the year – and things that connect to ways we can move students forward. We co-constructed success criteria. We engaged in amazing conversations about critical thinking and “thinking classrooms”, (a term from the Critical Thinking Consortium). We talked about our own classrooms and learning spaces, and we ensured there was time to process the complex ideas and discussions from the day, (including over ice cream because snacks are also an important part of PD days!)

At the end of the day, did we change the world? Of course not. But we did engage in some organic, challenging, thoughtful, critical, friendly, collaborative, supportive discourse – and I certainly couldn’t have asked for more. I feel like my staff left with a sense of purpose for the year, a sense of ownership over the School Learning Plan’s direction, and an appreciation for being active parts of the day’s work. Did I change people’s opinions on Professional Development Days? Maybe – maybe just even a little bit – but I’ll take that as a win and I am already excited about how that win can make good things happen at our school.

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