Do’s and Don’ts: How to engage teachers in online PD

To set yourself and teacher attendees up for success, the next time you’re facilitating professional development for educators, here are some important do’s and don’ts to consider
By: | September 23, 2020
Photo by Chris Montgomery via Unsplash.

Jami Witherell teaches second grade at Newton School, a public elementary school in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Okay administrators and facilitators, on our very best day, we know teacher professional development can leave something to be desired. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Facilitators and school system leaders play an integral role in the success of professional development— even in the new world of remote learning.

Today, more than ever, we find ourselves online, where the ability to stay focused is a huge challenge. Just think of all the distractions: partners, children, parents, and cell phones, just to name a few. So, to set yourself and teacher attendees up for success, the next time you’re facilitating professional development for educators, here are some important do’s and don’ts to consider.

DO:
Set a clear and attainable purpose for your session/lesson. This seems obvious, right? Yet all too often, goals are presented on slides that get clicked through rather than really setting the stage for the knowledge you hope to impart. There is a tremendous sense of power in purpose. Much like stating the essential question for the work you’ll do together in a reading lesson with students, for example, explicitly stating the purpose for your virtual session drives the work you’ll do with teachers.

DO NOT:
Force communication. Providing wait time is important, but cold calling can create anxiety. Instead, try “warm calling” to warn that you’re about to call for volunteers. “I’d love to hear from someone teaching second grade on this one, and if not someone from second, perhaps someone who has taught an earlier grade?” You’re valuing your speaker, but at the same time, acknowledging that coming on video or mic might not be the best for all of our learners. That said, if your group is excitedly participating in the chat function, work with that, and consider forgoing the on-camera option or mic altogether.


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DO:
Connect with your audience. Adult and student learners alike like to know you care. Leverage the first 10-15 minutes of your virtual opening by getting to know the “room,” even when it’s a series of screens. Your audience, especially virtually, needs something and someone to connect to. Hopefully, it’s you.

DO NOT:
Read your screen word for word. It may be tempting to read from the screen if you’re nervous about virtual professional development. Please don’t. Your ability to teach the content and connect with your audience is reduced when you’re reading. The information on a slide, whether in person or on a screen, is meant to help guide your presentation, not be a script. Trust your extensive knowledge and preparation to convey the material effectively and authentically.

DO:
Pace yourself. Pace is the key to winning a virtual PD race. Scheduled breaks ensure that your voice isn’t on the mic for too long. I’d say 8-10 minutes for adults is an absolute max. It’s okay, and even encouraged, to normalize check-ins: “How are we doing?” “Do we have enough gas for the next two slides before we take a break?” Acknowledge that six hours in front of a screen is not ideal, but that you’re open to shifting your pacing as needed to meet the needs of those in your session.

Finally, DO:
Have fun. I know I can’t Zoom all my favorite facilitators into your home offices, but from the sessions I’ve attended, they seem to be having fun—and so am I. I want to participate in their PD. They are giving it everything they have, and that makes me want to do the same. I’ve sat in on virtual PD sessions that haven’t been perfect but have still been fun. Maybe there were a few too many slides read or uncomfortable pauses, but, as a whole, the facilitator kept our attention and even got in some good jokes or inspiring classroom stories. In that environment, I hardly noticed the misses. Remember, we’re all still human, even in this new virtual world, so focus on the importance of what you’re doing and try to find the fun in it.

Jami Witherell teaches second grade at Newton School, a public elementary school in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She also is a Wit & Wisdom Fellow, a program offered by Great Minds® in which educators provide professional development to fellow teachers around the country. As a 10-year teaching veteran, Jami has attended numerous professional development sessions from various platforms and organizations.