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40 Hour Workweek

Uncategorized   |   Nov 22, 2011

A counter-intuitive way to re-energize ourselves

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

A counter-intuitive way to re-energize ourselves

By Angela Watson


There have been some good discussions around the web lately about why there aren’t more educators who participate in self-directed professional development–that is, reading education blogs and websites, conversing about educational topics on Twitter/Facebook/Google+, or participating in virtual and real-life conferences, chats, and edcamps. So many great resources are underused, which gets people are asking: what can those of us who are enjoying the benefits of a personal learning community do to encourage our colleagues to join in the conversations?

I wrote a post last week asking readers to share their take on both the solution and the root cause of the problem. There were some excellent comments on the post that shed a lot of insight into the topic, and I thought that the points raised by commenters were worthy of their own blog post. There were some common themes that multiple people touched on, so what follows is kind of a synthesized version of all the insightful contributions made. As you think about this discussion, keep in mind that we’re referring to ALL educators–not just teachers–because the percentage of district leaders, administrators, para-professionals, instructional coaches, etc. who regularly engage in self-directed professional development is fairly small.

Here are some things that can zap educators’ motivation to look for opportunities to learn and grow in their practices:

  • Educators are already doing wayyy more than what is contractually required.Lack of time and energy make it hard to invest in a personal learning community.
  • Learning about new ideas usually adds to that workload.The idea of discovering one more thing that they “should” be doing is exhausting and guilt-inducing to some educators. There’s a sense that the more you know, the more you’re obligated to do.
  • They may not think that the lack of PD has a negative effect on their practice. There’s sometimes a sense that, Hey, the way I’ve been doing things for years has always worked, why change it? While it’s true that we don’t know what we don’t know, there ARE a number of educators whose tried-and-true methodologies produce consistently strong results. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
  • Not all educators are comfortable with technology.Most of the opportunities for professional growth utilize web tools: social media, podcasts, webinars, etc. If you’re not tech-savvy, don’t enjoy being on the computer, or don’t have access to the right equipment, trying to stay current is not a very fun experience.
  • They aren’t part of a culture of innovation in which self-directed PD is the norm.The learning environment is heavily influenced by those in charge. If the superintendent doesn’t support principals in building learning communities, how can principals can support their teachers in doing so? When leaders make these opportunities abundant, simple, and part of the school culture, it’s much easier for educators to get involved.
  • Higher-ups may not approve of self-directed PD and block its use.Teachers are sometimes discouraged by their princials when they question the status quo; principals don’t find regional or district-level support for innovation. Why bother to learn about new methodologies when you’re required to do things the way the district wants them done?
  • Prior experience has programmed educators to believe that PD is boring. After you’ve slept through enough dull college courses and waste-of-time staff development meetings, you start to think that ALL professional learning is irrelevant. (It’s the same thing that happens to our students; a few years of drill-and-kill testing squelches their desire to learn and dampens their natural curiousity.)
  • A lot of  “best practice” info is coming from people who aren’t educators.Nothing is more frustrating than having someone with a business degree and zero classroom experience trying to tell someone in education how to do their job. After this happens enough times, educators may start to tune everyone out, and assume that there’s nothing of value out there. They get a chip on their shoulder and resent anyone who suggests that there might be a better way.
  • Some educators want to focus on the needs they see right in front of them.For teachers, this means focusing primarily on understanding what makes their students tick and how they can meet their kids’ needs. For school leaders, this means directing their attention to teacher, student, and parent needs, and investing themselves in the issues of their communities.

So, how do turn these energy-drainers unto energy-givers? Self-directed professional development. Taking charge of our own learning and doing more of the things in education we’re passionate about.

Self-directed PD (as I know it) is inherently energy-giving, not energy-draining. It feels like a burden when we’re assigned a book to read or mandated to attend a staff development session. But when we choose the topics that interest us and pursue them in ways that feel natural and enjoyable, improving our practice as educators becomes something that we look forward to doing.

It’s kind of like exercising. When you’re tired, the last thing you feel like doing is heading to the gym. But if you can establish routines so that working out is a regular part of your life, you actually feel MORE energized afterward. It’s totally counter-intuitive: how could something that requires so much energy actually produce more energy? But it does. And once you’ve entrenched yourself in the habit, you can’t imagine not exercising on a regular basis.

Having a personal learning community (PLC) is not for everyone. It doesn’t address all of the obstacles above. But it IS the solution for many of us who otherwise get worn out from the day-to-day stuff that sucks all the fun out of our work. Scrolling through my Twitter feed or Pinterest for 5 minutes a day might be the last thing that comes to mind when I’m tired. But if I do it anyway, what I find gets me excited about my work again because I’m connected with other people who are enthusiastic and positive. Reading other educators’ blogs motivates me to reflect on my own practice and try new things. Checking out the latest educational books gives me ideas to share with the teachers I coach and makes doing my job easier. I do these things because I know that they’re going to inspire me to keep giving 100% each day.

Taking charge of my own professional development over the years hasn’t been about proving that I’m on the cutting edge, ensuring students pass The Test, or labeling myself “highly effective.” It’s been about bouncing ideas off of other people and feeling like I’m not alone in the issues I’m facing. I consistently find that relying on my PLC actually increases motivation during low-energy times. Tapping into those aspects of work that I love helps me get past the parts I don’t love.

So what’s your experience? Maybe you’ve never thought of yourself as having a personal learning community, but do you have educators you share ideas with? What things help you re-connect with your passion for education and keep you motivated when you start to lose sight of what matters? How do you cut through all the extraneous required tasks to re-focus on what you truly love about your work?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I think THIS post is written in a more realistic fashion that seems more respectful of all that teachers already have on their plate. (I don’t think you meant for the last one to sound harsh, but I can understand why it offended some people because it sounded more like teachers who don’t do personal P.D. just don’t care, instead of having a myriad of reasons they don’t engage in it.)

    Personally, I really enjoy trying to connect and get other ideas from the internet. Sometimes I find that it refreshes me, but it’s easy for me to get sucked in and spend too long on the internet instead of getting things done for work. I also find that while I get great ideas, a lot of them take far longer to implement than I have at the current time. And I do think guilt is part of that process. It’s overwhelming to constantly feel like you’re working, and yet it’s still not everything you could be doing.

    Part of that problem is that most school corporations are constantly changing curriculum or requirements for teachers. Unfortunately, if a teacher is having to implement a new reading series AND start Writer’s Workshop with little training, they’re probably spending most of their energy toward learning new things on those they HAVE to do, per the school. I think the revolving door of “education best practice” also makes some teachers reluctant to buy in, too, because they think they’ll just be told something different two years down the road.

    Another issue with the technology is that sometimes use of social media to communicate anything related to teaching is not only not encouraged, but it’s actively discouraged by school admin. At the very least, it may be blocked at school (which makes it harder for me to keep up and connect it to my plans/classroom), and at the worst, teachers can be banned contractually from using some sites and media to discuss their teaching.

    Not only are people uncomfortable with the technology, but they often don’t know where to start. I might use Facebook and know how to browse the internet, but how do you make that about teaching? Not everyone knows where to look. Plus, it becomes a habit of how you work. One of my old co-workers was perfectly capable of using the technology, but she was so used to her methods that she would look in a file cabinet or Mailbox magazine on first instinct, when I would immediately turn to Google.

    I do find connecting to be refreshing, but honestly, it doesn’t put more time into my day. It can make me a better teacher, and I enjoy it, but life is pretty overwhelming right now and at some point, it becomes another thing to fit in. I make time for it, but… if I had kids? No way.

    I also know that I had a lot less time for P.D. at my last school. I had too many kids that needed intervention, too many powerful needs, too many things I had to do myself if I wanted them done. Now I’m at a higher-income school, with more prep time, less hours at school, parent copying/laminating volunteers, and less challenging kids, academically and behaviorally. Your last reason, I think, is a bigger issue in certain schools.

    One quick note- you mentioned paraprofessionals in your summary of educators. While I agree that they are certainly educators as well, honestly, we need to be showing para’s a lot more respect in compensation before we can start expecting significant off-the-clock PD. At least around here, many para’s are deliberately kept just under full-time so that the school corporation does not have to provide benefits, and they get paid dirt for the work they do. (And nothing for any planning time they do, most of the time, even though it’s often needed to do the jobs they’re assigned, like teaching intervention groups- or in my mom’s case, teaching for an entire day each week and then doing the grading from it.) I know this is another can of worms, but good para’s are seriously underappreciated and (unless things are vastly different elsewhere) should not be given any gripes for not engaging in self-directed professional development.

    1. Hey, there, thanks for another thoughtful response! Don’t even get me started on the way paras are underpaid and under-appreciated. My last school had paras that were absolutely phenomenal and worked just as hard as the teachers for not much more than minimum wage. I only included paras in this post to emphasize that they are “one of us” as educators facing the same energy-draining, motivation-sapping issues.

      You’ve made some wonderful points here: the revolving door of ed trends, the “time-suck” that is the internet, the blocking of social media in schools…I found myself nodding along at each paragraph.

      And thanks for the confirmation that this post hit the right tone. This post feels more like me. To be really transparent here…the other post was written off the cuff in 15 minutes; this one I labored over, thought about, re-crafted, and considered every word choice. I’m actually trying NOT to do that much editing so I can post more often. Most of the prolific bloggers I know say what’s on their mind at the time and let the chips fall where they may. People take offense and they’re okay with that. They don’t mind pushing buttons and stepping on toes. I do–and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

      Pushing people’s buttons creates dialogue. It makes them think and it makes me think. I like that. Too many times I play it safe, everyone agrees with me, and I haven’t learned anything new about the topic or about what other people are really feeling. So every now and then, I feel like I need to just take a risk and face the controversy. The last post generated some amazing comments that really deepened my thinking (and hopefully did the same for the commenters as well as the people who are reading the commenter’s ideas in this post.) Would people have been as moved to share their thoughts if I tempered things in my usual kum-bah-yah fashion? I don’t know. As I said, it was a risk. I’m glad I took it. I’m also glad to be back in my comfort zone. 🙂

  2. I never got around to commenting on the last post about PD, but these are some of the exact reasons I would have given for why there isn’t more if it happening. That said, I also had wanted to say that almost all of the teachers I know, are constantly seeking new ideas – mostly in the form of talking to other teachers and reaching out to resources like reading specialists, but also by taking graduate courses…etc.
    I find that education blogs like yours motivate me to approach my job with a positive attitude and bring my enthusiasm back, without adding something to my “I should be doing this” list.
    In your list, I can especially relate to #2. First, I get really excited about a new I have discovered and I eat up all the information eagerly. Then, I get back to work and implementing the new things seems so hard and I can’t find the time and then I feel guilty and then I’m less productive than ever. So, I try to make the seeking out new ideas less frequent than the reading I do to get myself back to finding joy in teaching. And if I am looking for new strategies, I try and pick one area I want to focus on and work on improving that.

    1. Hi, Molly! Thanks for the kind words. I find that #2 is an issue for me, too–finding out about new ideas definitely adds to the workload. You’re smart to pick one area to focus on at a time. I like to pick an area of an improvement and stick with that for an entire school year. One year I focused on family outreach and communication, another on improving the way I taught writing, another on doing more hands-on activities, especially in science. This year I am trying to improve on my efficacy–as you can probably tell from all the recent posts on energy and motivation! I’m really paying attention to the things that give energy and the things that take away, and how to increase my productivity. 🙂

  3. Real quick to add to the higher-ups not approving part: in my particular state, you need PD hours for recertification points and the state Dept. of Ed. does not recognize blogging/twitter/etc. as legitimate PD for recert.

    Which pisses me off, btw.

    I’ve loved your comments on other blogs and I’m excited to start reading more of yours.

    1. Hi, Tom! I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and comments, as well–I discovered you a few weeks ago via the Innovative Educator with the whole 20 Things a Teacher Wants the Nation to Know About Education kerfluffle. Now THAT was a great series of posts…I’m STILL thinking about everything that was discussed on your blog and on the sites of others who wrote about the topic.

  4. Hi Angela,

    I look at your website ALL the time. It’s been so instrumental in my teaching practices, so first of all, thank you! Also, I just started a blog and am trying to get my own personal learning community started, but I really don’t know how. I am wondering what you suggest as far as getting connected. I’m on facebook, but not twitter, and I also hesitate to be too public on the web as a teacher. Any suggestions you have would be welcomed.

    Thanks again for all you do!


    1. Hi, Sarah! Thanks for the kind words and encouragement. I would highly recommend the Teaching Blog Traffic School if you need help getting started in building your platform. I’m writing a blog post about this soon. It’s something I just discovered from the fabulous Laura Candler who recommended it. The training course is by a former teacher and she uses videos to walk you through each aspect of running a teaching blog. There is also a “secret Facebook group” which you can post questions to any time and other teacher bloggers will jump in and help you. It’s been a lifesaver for me! Let me know if you have any questions. 🙂


  5. Thank you for an update from the last round of risk-taking thoughts. I’m one of those people that live, eat and sleep teaching since I was young. I love it. And I love that I love it too! It does energize me when I come up with a new idea or reflect on something I’ve heard or read. I like the idea of using Internet blogging in a PLC that would count. We blog in grad school and get credit for reading and responding, so why not let it count towards your continuing license credit? A facilitator could be the “MC” and help bring current topics and research to the forefront of everyone’s mind. I don’t know how this would quite work, but I’m going to get on it! I’ll let you know what I can get going 🙂

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