Rachel is Prizmah's Director of Educational Innovation. Learn more about her here.

What Makes a Great PD Experience


Here is the dream:

You are an administrator planning professional development for your faculty. Sometimes you have a specific day and/or specific groups of people you are planning for. The goal, the dream, is that your faculty grow, learn, engage and become inspired, more engaged and more innovative and confident and brave and open. At the end of the program, they will tell you, “Wow, that was so worth my time!” 

It is the same dream you have for your students in every class, that they learn, they achieve that joyous lightbulb moment of understanding and connection. And yet, this goal is so challenging to achieve.

At Prizmah we have had the joy of creating all sorts of professional development experiences, some with partner organizations and some on our own, working with each school to tailor the program for their specific needs and contexts. After having been a part of creating more than ten programs in the past four years, I developed a checklist of ten items in planning any kind of PD opportunity.

The Framing Matters

The topic for the PD experience matters. If faculty are told that PD opportunities are always coming to correct or fix, then they get the message that every PD experience is a veiled criticism. The message of growth is more effective; growth is seen as an exciting and desirable opportunity and not a signal that we are doing something wrong or not working hard enough.

At the same time, we might benefit from reconsidering the “theme of the year” approach. Sometimes, faculty see these themes as temporary fads, so they keep their heads down and get by with the least amount of effort possible. If there is no clear and urgent benefit for the classroom, and there is no implementation, then please do not choose the theme.

So the framing should be something relevant, helpful, applicable and one that, even if it is challenging, the faculty can understand why it is worth investing time and effort into learning this new topic/skill set.

The Setting and Setup Matters 

Just as we know from excellent teaching, the way the room you are in sets the mood, creating the atmosphere for learning and exploration. Atmospheric elements, from the seating and tables to the lighting and even wifi access, impact the learning that can be accomplished in a moment, and certainly set a tone when faculty enter a room. (This is true as well even for virtual meetings and experiences.) 

So just as we know that form=content, consider the room set up with purpose and intention. Where are the food and drinks? Garbage cans? Seating, tables and open spaces? Is the seating done with intention, so the folks who are excited about this and will engage are grouped together or mixed in with the folks who will probably be cynical? What do you think will set this up for the most success? Can everyone see the screen/s and have access to enter and exit the room without drama and attention? 

Setting up the physical space impacts the experience not only in the opportunities for learning, but in making faculty feel taken care of and seen. I often have gifts and giveaways for faculty to elicit joy and delight; endorphins are key as we start any learning experience. If we can proactively plan for them, then we start a few steps ahead.

Offer Many Access Points 

We are not all the same; what one teacher finds "easy" is the most challenging ask for another. We learn and see the world differently. One PD theme for the year, though it takes less time and effort to plan, sometimes forces everyone to learn in the same way - not what we want our teachers doing in their own classes. So if we do offer PD for the whole faculty at the same time, we must model differentiation just as we want them to offer the students. Provide multiple access points, activities and ways for the PD to look successful. Which leads to... 

Choice Is Powerful 

We adults especially like to have choices, not a million, but certainly a few. We know that choosing to engage and feeling agency helps learning. So creating options and multiple ways to engage in PD is key. Where can we offer real choices? Where is a choice not such a good idea?

Cut Down on Cognitive steps of application

As much as we can, we must create, design and offer PD that is accessible to each teacher, with math, science, Bible, Talmud, art, PE applications. The more we create opportunities to implement the PD for a specific subject, with the language used in each context, the more likely it will be applied.

Additionally, for our faculty who have any kind of disability, from hearing and sight to English as a second language, we must proactively design PD that is truly accessible to them. And while I am on the topic, please just use the microphone. They should not have to ask, they need it.

Get Clear On The Why And What Success Looks Like 

When your faculty teach the next day after a PD, what do you wish for them to tell their students about what they learned the day before? If this PD "works," what will it look and feel like? How will you (the admin) be measuring success? How can the faculty measure success?

Model it- or don't do it 

The head of school asked me why the theme of the year isn’t so popular. The theme was technology, and she was not sure why the teachers were not excited about it. So I asked her one question: When was the last time you used technology in a faculty meeting? She answered: Never.

If the administration believes a PD is worthy, we must model it in faculty meetings so there is buy-in, and we are actively learning with our faculty.

The Topic is Not Necessarily The Reason We Are Doing This

The goal for a PD, and the topic or entry point, may not actually be the same thing. In other words, sometimes the best way to accomplish a goal is to enter through the window. For example, one school may want to work on staff morale and how to build one another up. However, addressing that problem directly may be less effective than working on writing report card comments to students and using one another as practice for positive and authentic feedback. Both are worthy and helpful, but there are many ways to achieve goals. Be creative.

Provide Immediate Takeaways 

Be mindful of creating some immediate takeaways that staff can “steal” for their own classrooms, from activities you model to games and approaches to use. Be transparent about the modeling and ways in which you are sharing information, access and learning experiences. Often, I will break the fourth wall and narrate my thoughts about why I am approaching something in a specific way in a specific context.

Be Flexible When The Needs Shift 

This is, of course, the rule for all things involving real people: We plan, God laughs, and we adjust. So reading the room, knowing the context and being flexible are essential. When designing PD we must be aware of the context of the session. What happened before this, and what is happening next? What is going on in the school right now, and what big topics are on peoples' minds? 

When it comes to providing transformative and excellent professional development experiences, the same rules apply to all good teaching: make it fun, engaging , powerful, accessible and yet challenging; help me push myself to grow and apply new ideas and skills, so that the person I emerge as after the learning has more skills and abilities and knowledge than the person I entered as.