On Thursday, I asked my wise and worldly readers for examples of in-house professional development that they actually found useful. To my great relief, they answered.
I have the best readers ever.
Below are some sample responses — sorry I couldn’t use them all! — with my occasional commentary in parentheses. My thanks to everyone who wrote!
The training was how to use PowerPoint effectively. Sure, the time-saving tips were great, but the most important thing we learned, and spent the better part of a week on, was how to communicate complex concepts in a digestible manner.
(Yes, yes, yes. The distinction between clarity and simplicity too often gets lost.)
[College] is running a professional development session on Roberts Rules, led by our Parliamentarian, to make colleagues more effective in faculty meetings. Attendance is not required, but I’m betting she gets more than a handful of takers.
Matt—You’re asking for concrete instances. I’ve a hunch this won’t be real popular, but it’s concrete and it had a very big impact on my own professional development. Shortly after I was tenured, back in the early ‘80s, the college organized a panel discussion on effective teaching. I’d been completely focused on what it took to get tenure and although I cared about teaching I hadn’t been giving it much thought. The panelists at this session were mostly from a program that was eliminated long ago, the department of “compensatory programs.” That is, these were the folks who worked with students who were mostly assigned to remedial classes (which CUNY has left by the wayside). These people were professional teachers. They worked one-on-one with students and had a clear sense of what OUR students brought with them and what they needed. I learned a lot from them.
But the bigger influence on me was that I got to know these specialists and felt comfortable dropping in on them and engaging in conversations about teaching. As a consequence, my classroom skills improved, but more to the point, I grew into the mindset that teaching is important and worthwhile and requires skill. And I became aware for the first time that knowing something doesn’t at all necessarily mean that one knows how to teach it. I had to rethink what I was doing and I continue to do so. I like to think that developed the hell out of me.
(Informal mentoring is underrated. Sometimes it’s the throwaway observation or the snarky aside from a veteran practitioner that makes all the difference. This sort of thing is partially accidental, which makes it hard to scale. But we can create environments in which folks are more accident-prone.)
A Jan. 2021 remote workshop here at [university] was extremely well designed, with various voices taking the lead, a mix of activities, etc. It was on diversity issues and took on topics like contract grading and trauma-informed teaching, so both content and model were super helpful. Voluntary, I believe subsidized by a grant, and driven by interested faculty, not top-down.
(Sometimes it’s all about asking the right question. It sounds like this one did. We recently had “mental health first aid” training on campus, which was very well-received; it addressed a recognizable reality.)
We have a campus listserv on teaching topics. It’s been very active throughout covid, and there’s both administrative input and crowd-sourcing. Mundane questions on the battery capacity of a laptop get answered by computer geeks, holes in our LMS are identified, and right now the meatiest question is whether, by not having hybrid set-ups, we might be incentivizing sick students to come to class. It’s also led to a smaller happy hour occasionally in person, but mostly Zoom, that probably a dozen folks connect with regularly and 40-50 have connected with at one point in the last 18 months.
(I love this! Some faculty at Brookdale did something similar, starting a “faculty share” Canvas course in the summer of 2020 during which faculty shared tips with each other. They won the “Innovator of the Year” award at Convocation for that. It’s simple, relevant, affordable, and faculty-driven.)
We have done two book discussion groups as professional development during the pandemic that have been rewarding. Both were done online in Zoom (with a chance for some in-person hybrid presence during the second one). We discussed So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeoma Oluo in response to the racial justice events last year. Then we had a discussion group led by a college counselor on Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, that went through this past spring. These were useful because they were chosen in response to faculty and staff interest, encouraged involvement through reading and discussion (rather than passively listening to a speaker), took advantage of the experience of our college community for leading the sessions, and created a camaraderie between the people who learned together.
(Here, too, it sounds like they asked the right question. Kudos!)
(Finally, of course, there’s a horror story…)
I will never forget the day I was required to attend a one-on-one consultation with an assessment consultant. He had an assessment scheme all prepared which he presented to me. I looked at it, and asked him what it would tell me about the students’ writing. He told me that wasn’t the point; that the goal was not to assess the students but how well I was teaching them, and for that the quality of their writing was irrelevant.
It seems like common themes involve addressing a problem that people recognize as a problem, keeping it relatively straightforward, and engaging people as actors, rather than as audiences. Good ideas all.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention feedback from my wise and worldly readers as key components of my own professional development. Thank you! And thank you to President Curry, of Compton College, for prompting the conversation. Sometimes the right idea at the right time is all that it takes.