Today I was reminded by a colleague of the great opportunity to go to the SAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta going on currently. The Southern Association of Independent Schools serves many fine members from Virginia through the South on to Texas. I have had the great opportunity to attend in the past and was privileged to present during a session four years ago. This year, it was not in the cards. I had busted my PD budget with ISM’s (Independent School Management) wonderful summer training conference for Division Heads in Salt Lake City. Like many other schools, mine has been keeping a watchful eye on enrollment amid demographic shifts in school ready populations. Prudence with resources has necessitated resourcefulness. Innovation in PD is no longer a luxury; it’s essential to bring big value at smaller expense. With all of that in mind, Independent School Leaders should be aware of the best means by which educators can cultivate their craft. Looking at three key elements of PD: Cost, Convenience and Capacity, I have ranked 5 PD options for Independent School Educators.
1. Use Twitter. This one tops the charts in 2/3 categories and isn’t far off in the third (Capacity): Cost (It’s Free), Convenience (any educator can do it as soon as the kids are asleep), Capacity (I can instantly network and learn from eminent leaders in my educational field with a few clicks). If you are not on Twitter, you really do owe it to yourself. You could never post a tweet and still view blogs, journals, opinion pieces, data, and vibrant debate with colleagues from all over the world in rich 20-30 minute sessions.
2. Join a Twitter Professional Learning Network. At any given time in any timezone, educators are conversing on Twitter about engaging topics in Ed. Click the google docs link to the right and you can find a group of educators meeting on Twitter on a given day at a given time (thanks @thomascmurray , @cevans5095 and @cybraryman1 for compiling). Early birds can get on #satchat, 21st Century Educators meet at 8 EST on Sunday nights (a very popular night incidentally). You can double dip Sunday nights if you are also an Algebra teacher at #alg1chat. My favorite meets Wednesday nights at 9 EST. It is the #DK12Chat for educators into Design Thinking pedagogy. Back in the day, I would have loved #apuschat when I was teaching that course. Almost every state including my home state (#ALedchat) has one. If you have an area of interest, there is probably a group that meets at a set time on Twitter to converse. Again, it’s free and it’s powerful with many of the moderators having great insights. It is, however, a little less convenient because you have to sync up with the times for your group to participate.
3. Present at a Local, State, Regional or National Conference. When I became principal of my school last year, one of the chief challenges I made to my faculty was that 20% of them would present at one of the aforementioned by the fall of 2015. So far we are up to about 16%. This summer, I expect us to blow past the 20%. I had four teachers present at i-Summit Atlanta which ties in nicely since our school is an Apple Distinguished School. This one ranks third because it ranks highest in the capacity or raw power of the professional development, but is more expensive than 1 or 2. There is nothing like prepping to teach fellow adults to sharpen one’s insights. I also find that those who are becoming a little bored in their craft become inspired when aiming to teach their colleagues from other schools. I worked for weeks prior to my presentation at SAIS, checking my facts, bouncing ideas of others, and practicing the routines for the presentation. Another cost benefit is that most conferences give some discount to presenters. Obviously, the most sought presenters get paid to go. It sure would be great to have folks like that on your faculty. Do note that the deadlines to present proposals for most regional and national conferences are usually at least 3 months in advance of the conference. The ability to take rejection is also a “failing up” skill your faculty may learn along the way. I have been rejected at least 4-5 times and have presented about the same amount.
4. Go on a School Visit. This option is really the wildcard. Some school visits are virtually free if you are nearby. However, in the independent school arena, one usually has to go at least 90 minutes away to visit a non-competing school. And while we may have great friends at rival schools, learning a lot from them and bringing it back home isn’t exactly a recipe for the type of innovation that will set you apart in your market. Certainly, one could go to visit public schools in the area. These are good opportunities to see how others operate, but it is likely your environment is not similar enough to bring back significant changes. So to use #4, we have to hit the road. That drives up expenses a bit. Since expenses are higher, you’ll want to get big bang for your buck. My advice is to research schools with a similar mission, ask about their pet projects and connect with the a peer colleague at the school to plan the visit during a normal operating day. Try to take several folks from your school who may have interest in the pet projects, those who are your pied pipers on the faculty and some you simply need to set on fire. This one obviously scores high on capacity. All of the earlier ones tend to be theoretical in nature, but this one you can see played out in a similar school. Last year I loaded up two Suburbans with my History and Bible faculty to see the Dunham School in Baton Rouge and their wonderful Harkness Method pedagogy. Later, I took Science faculty and many from my Middle School division to see Mount Vernon Presbyterian’s dynamic Design Thinking habits. Both visits sparked wonderful conversations among my faculty and led to some distinctive innovations at our school.
5. Make a Four Year Plan to Visit the Very Best Possible Conference and Keep that Network Alive. We all know that conference that we would love to go to each year. It brings the best and brightest thinkers in your specific field together. Maybe it is so in-depth that it captures every nuance relevant to your field. Maybe it is a week long and its in the summer so you don’t have any conflicts for your mind or your time. These may score the highest on the capacity ledger, but they are extremely expensive. They harken back to school budgets before 9/11 when travel was cheaper and when every independent school had a waiting list. If you and your school have budget constraints, try to work a 3 or 4 year plan for your faculty to go to the best conference in their respective fields. This should not be an exercise taken lightly. If you are the school leader, ask to see the breakout sessions. Ask to see the other schools attending. Is the conference in a city with excellent schools? Is a school visit ala #4 possible to maximize the school’s dime? Finally, have your faculty do their very best to develop a PLN from the conference that has some staying power. I am grateful to the folks I met at ISM conference I mentioned earlier for sticking together. We wrote letters to each other, set up a Facebook page, read each others blogs, and e-mail frequently to ask questions. Having spent 10 hours a day with colleagues for a week, makes them friends from whom to continually learn. It was expensive to go, but the dividends hopefully will continue to pay out for years to come.
A few others that did not make the list but are rewarding are: AP Reading/Grading, State Ed Conventions (public school oriented), Summer Fly-Bys while on Vacation, Grad School, MOC’s, Skype visits with other schools.
Until next time, may your PD be innovative, creative and on the cheap!