There was a time when I didn’t even know teacher workshops existed. I certainly didn’t know they were worthwhile.
Maybe my teaching journey is different than most, but I’m not sure the experience is. I came back to teaching after a long hiatus of motherhood to my four kids. During the second year of my return to teaching, I shared with my administrator that I always, always feel the drive to be a better teacher. I just don’t always know how to go about it. He suggested I attend an upcoming KATE (Kansas Association of Teachers of English) conference.
“A conference for English teachers.”
“That’s a thing?” I had no idea. Maybe they were a thing during my first teaching stint, too. No one had told me about them then either. I was intrigued. I was curious. I was pumped.
They would approve the sub, he’d said, but I would have to pay the conference fee on my own. I thought of my dad (a lifelong insurance agent), and my hairdresser, and my dog groomer, and my Tupperware lady. Each of them engaged in professional learning. I’d heard each passionately discuss the new trends and research they had learned at various conferences and workshops. It seemed like a no-brainer. I signed up. I paid. I went.
Friends, it was life changing for two main reasons. First, simply being in the space of other professionals who share your passion and vision energizes a person. The camaraderie and networking help teachers feel less isolated and more empowered. Conference attendees feel that maybe we’re not the only ones doing things differently in our classrooms. We realize we aren’t crazy for thinking bigger. We understand that change is possible, maybe even inevitable, and it’s a worthwhile movement to join. Actually, it’s necessary, especially if you want more than to join it but rather drive it.
The KATE conference offered me this my mind-expanding experience. I had ventured out of the cave, and I could never unsee my new vision. I was a changed teacher. It seems dramatic, I know, but it’s true. That one workshop with its impassioned keynote speakers and engaging curriculum workshops and funtastic teacher toy booths changed what I knew to be possible. A path had been set that would, in the following years, lead to the most rewarding and effective teaching choices in my career so far.
The second life changer stemmed from the first. While I appreciated my administrator’s advice to attend the KATE conference, I realized almost immediately that mere attendance didn’t solve my problem. In fact, it deepened it. Before, I wanted to be a better teacher. Now, I knew I could be a better teacher, but I still didn’t have a firm grasp on how to do it. Attendance had set the path, but it was networking that would carry me down it.
Nowadays, many teachers use social media. Not all of them, however, use it to network. While social media has its down side, the good news is that we are in control of our own feeds. A gazillion (to be precise) companies, organizations, master teachers, and edu gurus offer Twitter chats and blog posts and feedback for every single teacher issue imaginable. Teacher workshops, conferences, and institutes take it further and allow more intimate connection and conversation in certain areas of focus. I still believe that face-to-face interaction provides the best kind of networking, but it also can guide your social media network. When you’ve met powerhouse teachers and authors in person at the conferences, you can choose judiciously which ones to add to your social media in order to serve each other well and not drain your teacher cup. To bring it full circle, this networking--whether in person or digital--can lead to more professional learning opportunities and, therefore, a more rewarding teaching career.
Okay, okay, you say. You get it. It sounds fun and, on a good day, maybe even slightly, life changing, but you don’t want to have to pay for it and not all schools will. Here’s where I must hold up the mirror and ask how many $7 lattes you had this week or even $2 sodas? Have you added up that cost? How have those served you? The caffeine bounce might have been necessary at the time, but I doubt it made you your best you in the long run. The truth is, we can afford to provide our own professional development, if we really want it. There are grants, scholarships, and even garage sales, if we are truly desperate. If my dog groomer can prioritize professional development, I can, too.
If you still don’t feel you should have to pay for official professional development, consider this. Not all professional development comes in the form of workshops. A couple summers ago, I teamed up with another English teacher to tour the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Wichita, Kansas. At lunch afterward, we brainstormed how to use our very cool new knowledge in the classroom. The cost was thirty bucks including lunch. I’ve called up teacher friends to attend $15 lecture series events at our the Kansas Oil Museum or free best-selling author book talks at Watermark Books. Okay, for that one I also purchased the $7 latte.
Look around. I promise inexpensive professional development opportunities exist in every community across Kansas, some as close as your public library. Gather some teacher friends. Make a Saturday of it. Make several Saturdays. Read the latest book on project based learning experiences or innovative teaching practices. Those books, by the way, you can borrow for free while you are at the library for their Talk About Literature in Kansas: “Living With the Land” or to use their Makerspace Virtual Reality console and 3D printers.
The point is that when you take control of the how and when and what your own professional development, you will embark upon a life-changing journey. Honestly, it can solve a lot of teacher ennui and frustration.
In the comments below, please let us know about your favorite professional development experiences.
Deborah Eades teaches English Language Arts at Andover Central High School. She holds a Masters in English from Wichita State University. Her favorite professional development experiences include the National Portrait Gallery’s Learning to Look Summer Institute for Teachers and a trip with her dad to Mark Twain’s Connecticut home. The Cindy Lauper/Rod Stewart concert they stumbled upon during that trip was serendipitous moment Samuel Clemmons would definitely have approved.