Unpolished Professional Learning: 3 Things That Are More Important Than Perfection

My Beat This Year: Taking Care of the Grownups 

When I shifted out of the classroom and into supporting adult professional learning, I was worried I’d miss the kids too much. I do miss the kids, but I’ve found that I really love working with adults, too. I especially love when I get to join them in the classroom and work with kids again, but I’ve found a kind of nerdy home working with grownups, too, and I think that’s because I’ve found that grownups need a lot of the same things that kids do when it comes to learning and writing. In my beat this year, I’ll write about my experiences taking care of the grownups in the system. 

My Current Situation 

I work full time as a literacy consultant for a public ISD (Intermediate School District). In a normal world, I spend my days traveling between the 28 districts in my county to facilitate free professional learning, coaching, and consulting. Now, instead of getting in my car and driving from school to school, by the end of the day, my browser has far too many tabs open to be healthy – and most of them are from Zoom meetings that have already ended. 

Much like everything feels kind of impossible these days, professional learning is sitting in its own tough spot. Just like every other educator, I’m aching to get back to normal, to circulate through a room that’s abuzz with conversation about reading and writing. And even though I’m starting to settle into some of the digital ways of doing this, that ache makes it feel extra tough.  I’m also recognizing that there’s a distinct contradiction in how teachers are feeling – and that it can vary from day to day or hour to hour – and that takes the tough and ratchets it up another notch. There are times when it feels like everything is new, and teachers want ALL the professional learning. And then there are times when it all seems to be too much and they want NO professional learning at all. I get it. I’ve been there. Heck, I still am. (And I won’t even admit to how many webinars I’ve signed up for in the past months that I haven’t ended up attending.) 

When everything first started moving online in my area, I had a moment (or forty seven) of panic because I’m not an expert in facilitating remote instruction. I’ve never taught high school students from behind a computer screen. And I definitely don’t have any tips or tricks for making it work when you’ve got some kids in an actual classroom and some online. I wasn’t sure I could still support teachers in the new problems they were facing. It felt like impostor syndrome to the highest degree. 

But here’s the thing that I’ve come to realize: There are no experts. No one is an expert in emergency remote teaching or in hybrid teaching. And if anyone is trying to tell you they’re an expert in in-person socially distanced teaching during a pandemic, they’re lying. 

What I’m Learning

It’s okay not to be the one with all the answers. It’s not my job to swoop in with a video of a perfectly polished exemplar or a whizz-bang session that will blow everyone all away. Instead, I’m learning to embrace the unpolished – the rough around the edges sessions where it’s okay to admit that we don’t all have all the answers all the time. 

These days, professional learning doesn’t look like loading my bag up with sticky notes and arranging tables into small groups, but I’m finding that meaningful, unpolished support still looks awfully familiar to some of the same things I valued back when the world was normal:   

Connection 

We’ve all been ripped away from those we were most connected to, and as teaching is such a social practice, it’s hard to over-emphasize just how important reconnecting is. When I plan for professional learning, I’m trying to think in terms of different ways to help teachers make connections: 

  • To each other: Whether teachers are missing the informal connections that they make in hallways and during planning periods or they’re wondering what their colleagues are doing down the road, I’m trying to plan for as many opportunities to get people talking as possible. Giving time to share what’s working, what problems we’re solving, and what conversations are bubbling up is proving to be time well spent. 
  • To core values and previous learning: We are being forced to reinvent so many things right now, I think it’s important to remember not to throw away what’s really important. When you’re thrust into something that makes you feel like a first year teacher all over again, there’s value in remembering that you’re not, that you have a wealth of experiences to draw upon, and core values through which to make decisions. I’ve also seen this play out when groups who had been engaged in deep, transformative professional learning last year found themselves trying to start all over again this year. In these cases, I’ve found in my role, I’m leaning heavily on asking questions to prompt reflection on what they can still carry over. I might ask questions like: 

What was true about what was important in instruction and engagement this time last year? 

What’s still true? 

What might we need to think about or problem-solve to keep this at the center of our learning? 

Tying back to previous learning and core values helps to keep us rooted in what’s important and how to strategically move forward. 

  • To new learning: If your experience is anything like mine, you probably feel like you’ve been hit by a tidal wave of resources, learning opportunities, and new ideas. Lately, I’ve seen part of my role as being somewhat of a personal shopper. I listen for what the teachers I’m working with are looking for, and I work to sift through that tidal wave to find the pieces that might be most helpful for them. That way, rather than being hit by a bunch of links, we can focus on new learning that will connect to what we’re already problem-solving, and it will feel like the right learning at the right time.  

Facilitation 

You know that lunchroom feeling where you start to talk about one thing and it just keeps spiraling until you wonder where the time went and how you never got around to talking about what you really wanted to? The same thing can happen in remote professional learning. It’s so easy to unload everything that’s on our minds or to get curious about everything that everyone is trying that the conversation loses focus. While you may walk away with the necessary personal connection (which is no small thing!), it might not feel as productive as you’d like. This is where I’m able to feel like I can bring some expertise to the group. While I may not be an expert in remote instruction, I’ve got plenty of discussion protocols in my pocket, and that means I can plan for discussions that meaningfully engage people with what they’re experiencing. 

And that facilitation is more than just for the sake of creating a feeling of productivity. Facilitating conversations through strategic use of protocols helps to ensure that everyone is able to participate. This is always important in professional learning because, as anyone who’s ever spent any time in a lunch room or staff meeting knows, the social dynamics of a department often lend themselves to participation that’s as inequitable as what happens in the classroom with students – if not moreso. Ensuring that all teachers are able to safely enter into the learning is critical, and planning ahead for facilitation moves that prioritize equitable conversation is one of the most important components of planning professional learning regardless of whether you’re in-person or in a digital space.

Support in Applying It 

I’ve always believed that professional learning is best when it’s studied in your own context – when we’re getting into each other’s classrooms, lesson planning together, and looking at our own students’ data to inform decision-making. The same is true in this new, strange context, too, it’s just that applying it might look different. So, some of the ways I’m leaning into making sure teachers connect with application in unpolished professional learning include: 

  • Time to play with New Tools: It seems like we hear about new apps or tools several times a day – so much that it’s almost overload. I know at times I’ve felt like it’s too much to even figure out what the latest update does for myself, let alone take the time to figure out how to use it with others. These days, I’m finding a lot of value in professional learning that slows down and gives people a chance to play with technology that they’re wondering about. This summer, as I was getting my legs as a remote facilitator, one of the things that helped me the most was the unstructured time when I’d “practice” with a friend. We’d take turns setting up breakout rooms for each other, for creating Jamboards, and sharing content. This year, as I plan for professional learning that’s unpolished, I’m trying to plan for more opportunities to play in the tech sandbox with each other. 
  • Study Real Life Examples: There are some really slick looking videos floating around out there, and I’m sure they have a time and a place, but I think there’s a lot more value in looking at examples that are a little more real life. You know the feeling when you see a video of a lesson that is executed flawlessly, and your first reaction is, “well of course! She only has twelve, perfectly behaved children!” The same is true now – maybe more than ever. If teachers are looking at an example that uses technology they don’t have access to or that is too far outside of what they’re used to seeing, it’s going to prompt more people to shut down than to engage. So, instead, I’m looking towards the unpolished examples that people are sharing: recordings of lessons we’re actually trying in our classes, lesson plans that are in the works, a video that maybe isn’t so slick in every way but does touch on one aspect that will push our learning. 

One small blessing that I’m finding in this mess is that we’re getting to know each other for our real, unpolished selves: with hair in a ponytail, a cat walking across the screen, or a kiddo asking for a snack in the background. When we’re lucky, we’re embracing the real life humanity in each other, and I think there’s great power in doing the same when we’re studying unpolished examples. I don’t have all the answers for how to best do this, but I’m hoping that if I lean into these three components throughout the year, I’ll be able support the educators I work with and grow in my own learning. 

What about you? What are you finding to be supportive when it comes to professional learning these days? What does leadership look like for you? I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments below, on facebook, or on Twitter @megankortlandt.

– Megan 

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