I had the honor and privilege of being selected and funded by Raise Your Hand Texas to attend The Art of Leadership at Harvard University Graduate School of Education earlier this summer. I learned more than I could possibly put into one blog post, but 3 things stood out to me about the training. These three practices are why I believe I came away with so many ideas I feel like I can really implement right away – and these three big ideas will shape how I approach future staff development that I attend. I hope sharing these three strategies with you will help you to make connections with content and get more out of your upcoming professional development opportunities.
Bring a problem of practice.
As a pre-requisite to attending The Art of Leadership at Harvard, all attendees were required to submit a paper detailing a current problem of practice we were hoping to solve as a result of the training. This requirement made me sit and think about the biggest challenge I face, what I’ve already done to address it, and what plans I have to address it in the future.
At some point every day – during a lecture, small group, or partner activity, we were reminded to keep our problem of practice at the forefront of our minds and work to connect how our new learning might be applied to positively impact our challenge.
Throughout every session, I kept my problem of practice in the forefront of my mind and reflected on how I could apply strategies, ideas, and new learning.
I think this strategy can be applied to any future professional development I attend. By taking just a few moments to reflect on a current challenge I face before stepping into new learning – whether that be a professional development I’ve chosen to attend, one I’ve been assigned or required to attend, a book I am reading, or an online course I’m taking… no matter the professional learning, I CAN get something out of it that applies to my current challenges if I take the time to identify the challenge and look for connections.
During my training at Harvard, there were times that it almost felt as if the presenters were sharing information and strategies just for me, yet when I went back to discuss and reflect with my small group, they each got completely different ideas and felt connections to their own campus challenges.
Selecting a problem of practice will help your brain to make those connections for you!
Connect with others.
It almost sounds cliche because I’ve heard it so much in the education world lately, but there is so much value in connecting with others. During my week at Harvard, we were in a large lecture hall or large group room for all of the presentations, but each presenter asked us to share ideas with someone next to us. As part of the structure of the week, we were divided into 12 (or more) small groups which met at least one time each day. We were challenged by our small group facilitators to share our reflections and connections following each session. At the end of the week (after we had made deep connections with each other), we were challenged to share the problem of practice we brought with us in a timed consultancy protocol. The members of our group discussed our problem, asked probing questions, and gave advice and suggestions. Y’all – It was powerful.
The most valuable thing you have to learn at a professional development session may be held by the person sitting next to you and not the presenter. Meet those sitting next to you and then… be vulnerable. Share your challenges and ask for advice.
When you are brave and share your problem or ask how others sitting near you would handle it, stop yourself from saying things like, “I’ve tried that.” or “That won’t work at my school.” Instead, write down every idea and ask questions to clarify what the person means or how they would do it if they were in your shoes. Writing down all ideas validates the person for sharing them and also allows you to go back later and reflect on connections or applications you can make that you may not have seen in the moment.
Make time for self-reflection.
I am an avid note-taker at professional development sessions. Often, I am self-reflecting and jotting down ideas for how I can apply strategies taught as the presenter is sharing them, however, so many more connections can be made by taking time after a professional learning opportunity to look back over your notes or just sit and think about what was shared and how you can apply it in your own work.
During my week of learning at The Art of Leadership Training at Harvard, following each presentation, we were given time to reflect in which everyone sat in silence. We were encouraged to get out a notebook and write down our reflections and connections on what we just heard. That little bit of time to self-reflect and look for connections and applications into my own work led me to make so many more connections and reflections about how I can improve my own practice as an educator and a leader than the connections and applications I had already made during the sessions. I thought I was being self-reflective already (and you may feel the same way), but taking 5-10 minutes to silently reflect, purposefully look for connections to my biggest challenges, and note specific ways I can apply the learning to my current practice is why I truly believe the I walked away feeling that this was the most valuable training I’d ever attended. Everything felt tailored to me and my needs – but it is because the facilitators made me work to tailor each session and apply my learning.
If you are a creator of professional learning – I challenge you to plan time for participants to self-reflect on how the new learning connects to their biggest challenges. Plan time for them to write down how they can apply their new learning to their work.
Conclusions, Applications, and a Template
These three learning strategies – bringing a problem of practice, connecting with others, and taking time to self-reflect – are what I believe made my training at Harvard so beneficial. These three strategies are why I believe I came home with a notebook full of ideas, strategies, connections, applications to my work that I can’t wait to try and share.
So if you are reading this, I hope you will test me! At your next professional learning opportunity, take time beforehand to think through a current challenge you face, connect with others and ask for their advice on your problem of practice, and make time afterward to write down connections and applications to your work from the training.
Here is what I created to help me prepare for and self-reflect on my next PD opportunities: