It’s no secret that teachers are incredibly busy. From planning, assessing, managing classes, and volunteering to support sports teams and other school initiatives, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. And yet, with so many new and exciting approaches to teaching nearly every subject, you may also feel like you are missing out on ways to be more responsive to your students or more efficient in your work.
I remember the excitement of my first 5 years of teaching and wanting to sign up for every professional learning initiative possible, from social justice to anti-bullying and eco-friendly schools. By the end of it all, I was working way later than I wanted to and exhausted from the job. My marking piled up, my to-do list grew exponentially, and Sundays became a ‘prep’ day. What I was doing was not sustainable.
What I have learned to do since those overwhelming and hectic years is to make my professional learning much more efficient and targeted. I prioritize what I know is important: an area of teaching I don’t feel 100% comfortable in, a goal that my board or school has, or an additional qualification that I need to take my career a step further. It may be a single thing that I focus my learning on, and I scale up or scale back depending on what is happening in my life at the moment. There will be times where all you can focus on is getting through the week or month, and that new book on assessment or pedagogy will have to wait. Educator-selected professional learning is always best – you know what you need, and what aligns with your interests and schedule.
It’s also healthy to remind yourself to honour the time it takes to learn and grow. A new practice or pedagogical skill I learn this year, for example, will make it into my teaching in the following year. Professional learning is a long game, and it takes time to incorporate a new strategy or new way of thinking meaningfully into practice.
Here are a few strategies that I have found very useful for squeezing new professional learning, even in a busy school year.
Watch a Presentation at Your Local or Board
There is something special about attending a live presentation from a guest speaker or expert. Good guest speakers are well versed in the art of communicating complex ideas clearly, know how to get their listeners engaged, and may even bring new perspectives from outside your local context. They will focus on the most important ideas in their area of expertise, and tailor it to the audience. Speaker sessions condense a whole lot of insight into a short period of time, and can be inspiring or even transformative.
Live, in-person workshops can also be high-impact, as you are learning with peers and sharing ideas in addition to receiving new ones. I recall attending a workshop on assessment and Growing Success at my local years ago, and using the knowledge and insights I gained from that one event long after it ended. The opportunity to network is also important: you can make long-lasting professional connections with colleagues from other schools you would not have met otherwise.
When these sessions take place after school, they usually finish by dinner time, and if they are virtual you can tune in while you do other things. The best format for professional learning, however, is always during the school day: it is important to honour the work that you are doing and the valuable time you have after school to prepare, fulfill personal commitments, or simply unwind.
Take Advantage of Audio
Is there a new education-related book you would love to read but simply don’t have the time for? A new practice you want to hear more about? There are so many great podcasts being released by educators that you can tune into using apps you likely already have on your phone. Audiobooks are also a great way to ‘read’ a book while taking a walk or commuting. Check to see if your board subscribes to an app like Destiny Discover: you may already have a professional audio library at your fingertips.
Start a Book Club
Book clubs are an amazing way to ‘divide and conquer’ a larger text. Bring a group of colleagues together, choose a text that relates to an area everyone is interested in, and assign each reader or pair of readers a chapter to ‘present’ at meetings. This way, if reading a whole book is too daunting you can get a sense of which parts are worthwhile. Of course, you can read the whole book if you prefer but when you are only responsible for one chapter the task is much more realistic. Book clubs are a really fun way to connect with colleagues and brainstorm ideas to improve teaching and learning in your school.
Join a Professional Learning Network
While social media certainly has its downsides, one of the great things is that you can follow authors, educators and administrators that share lesson ideas that you may find useful for your own practice. There are dozens of Facebook groups, Twitter threads, Instagram and Tiktok pages where you can see educators being creative and even sharing pedagogical strategies. Not sure where to start? Try searching a hashtag like #etfoeducators or #ontarioteachers that may lead you to some great accounts.
Attend a Conference or Workshop
While it can take a bit of paperwork to organize going to a conference, attending one can be a wonderful break from your regular routine. Conferences usually have influential keynote speakers, interactive breakout rooms, and are an easy way to network with professionals outside of your board. ETFO hosts amazing conferences and workshops for members throughout the year, and you can find great options in the fields of Edtech and literacy such as Reading for the Love of it. Who knows, maybe you will be inspired to share your own practices as a presenter one year!
Conference funding can typically be accessed through your local and possibly even through your board. Check with the treasurer at your local to find out what is available to members.