How to completely waste your time in PD sessions

Most of us will have to take part in professional development sessions either this summer or the week before school starts, and let’s be honest, much of it won’t be very interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how teachers can get more out of these mandatory inservices, and I’ve realized there are a few choices participants can make that will determine whether the training is at least moderately valuable or a complete waste of time. The tips that follow are things I’ve observed teachers doing (and have done myself) that resulted in PD being only slightly less painful that stabbing yourself in the eye with a fork. Try them out at your own risk.

How to completely waste your time in PD sessions--blog post. Hilarious!

Give your administrators full control over your professional learning. Refuse to implement any new technology or teaching strategies until you’ve received more boring PD on it. Make it your mantra that you will only learn what you’re told to learn. Let your principal decide what is important for you to be an expert in, and only attend trainings on those topics. After all, building your own professional learning network (PLN) and reading books and blog posts on professional topics you care about gives you ownership of your learning and empowers you as an educator. Is that what you really want?

How to completely waste your time in PD sessions--blog post. Hilarious!

Just because you don’t get credits for what you’re learning on your own doesn’t mean it’s not valuable!

Immediately point out all the reasons why a new idea won’t work. I’ve totally been guilty of this. In fact, I thought I doing the group a favor by saying what everyone else was thinking but was afraid to speak out loud. Now, I realize I was just derailing the learning of the entire group by forcing them to think about the limitations before they’d fully considered the possibilities. I’ve found that I learn a lot more when I just listen, reflect on all the options as they’re presented, and then brainstorm with the group or a colleague at the end of the session.

Focus on the three kids in your class for whom the new ideas will be completely ineffective. It’s tempting to block out the fact that the majority of your class could really benefit from the strategy, and spend the entire PD session fuming about how useless it is because little Johnny will never go for it. But let’s face it: there will always be at least three kids in your class with whom ANY teaching strategy will crash and burn. There are no teaching strategies that work 100% of the time with 100% of students, so it makes more sense to listen to the PD session with a full range of kids in mind.

How to completely waste your time in PD sessions--blog post.

Hold side conversations the whole time. This is a fantastic way to ruin a training, because talking will ensure that the PD becomes useless for your colleagues, as well. Bonus points for holding side conversations about how the ideas you’re hearing will never, ever work with your students. However, even on-topic side conversations will be enough to distract everyone around you and throw your presenter slightly off of his or her game. There’s nothing more awkward than one adult trying to get the attention of other adults in a professional setting, so chattering endlessly is a great way to make your presenter resort to annoying kindergarten-style attention grabbers which you can also complain about.

How to completely waste your time in PD sessions--blog post.

Jot down notes on a piece of paper and stick it in your file cabinet, never to be seen again. If you do manage to learn something in the PD session, be sure to keep it to yourself! If you blog about it, share it on social media, or talk with your colleagues about their thoughts, you’re likely to encourage them to try new things and improve their teaching. Sharing your learning also gives you the opportunity to reflect on what you heard and figure out how to apply it to your classroom practice. So, if you want to make sure the principles you learned never have an impact on students, bury those notes in a folder! Sharing and collaborating will only lead to more learning.

What’s your advice for teachers on how to get more (or less!) out of the professional development they attend? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Justin Stortz July 8, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Focus on the three kids in your class for whom the new ideas will be completely ineffective.

Yikes. I’ve been guilty of that. It’s easy to get discouraged and downhearted at PD. Thanks for keeping things positive. I’ll have to look back on this in a few weeks.

– @newfirewithin

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2 Angela Watson July 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm

I’ve been guilty of that, too, Justin! I know I missed out on a lot of great ideas because I was too busy thinking about how they wouldn’t work with my most challenging kids.

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3 Jim Randolph July 9, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Would make a great first back-to-school Planning Week presentation to break the ice.

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4 Angela Watson July 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Thanks, Jim!

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5 Heidi Butkus July 9, 2013 at 9:38 pm

Oh, my goodness- when I saw the title of this blog post, I nearly snorted all of my coffee right out my nose! This was hilarious, from start to finish!
I think you could add a section here: play cell phone games in your lap the whole time. How about that? I’ve done that before! You can play Words With Friends, Scrabble, Boggle, heck, you can even spend time on Pinterest, and that is WAY more fun that sitting through a mandatory staff development presentation designed for some other grade level than the one I teach!
Actually, my district has gotten better and better at planning meaningful staff development days, so I really can’t complain- although the side conversations in the room rarely stop, and that is incredibly irritating for me as a person with a hearing loss. I actually like bringing a fidget with me, such as silly putty or “Floam.” (I must have ADD!) One group of teachers used to bring things to COLOR while they sat and listened… and even got permission in advance from their principals to do so! Can you imagine? I was surprised that it was allowed… and a wee bit jealous! LOL!
Heidi

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6 Angela Watson July 10, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Hah, thanks, Heidi! The cell phone thing is an interesting point. I have found that if the principal does not specifically say, “Phones, laptops, and tablets away”, teachers will multi-task. I have mixed feelings about that–when I’m presenting, I like to have people’s full attention, but when I’m attending, I like to take notes and tweet out important ideas. I would find it frustrating as a learner if I wasn’t allowed to access any devices during PD.

I wonder if the group of teachers you know who got permission to color while listening allowed the same for their students during class lectures?

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7 Diane H July 10, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Better still, take interactive notes: with graphic organizers and diagrams and lots of bright color. Use colored pencils and highlighters and post-its and and create your own creative working document in a notebook or composition book.

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8 Elisa Waingort July 10, 2013 at 7:59 am

I laughed too as I read your post, Angela. I know we are all guilty of these, and other, diversion tactics. I think you have a point when you say it’s better to listen and decide how a particular strategy would work with our students before resorting to complaining about how It won’t work. We never do something as it’s presented. We always adapt to the students we have at any given time. Later, in conversations with colleagues, we can debrief the pros and cons of the PD. I would only beg to differ with this approach to PD if it would be completely detrimental to students. Then, I think I would have the moral obligation to voice my dissent but I would do it by asking questions of the presenter rather than whining about it. Make sense?

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9 Angela Watson July 10, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I think you’re totally right about the moral obligation to voice dissent when an idea is detrimental to students. The problem for me is that I am naturally a very critical person and can see the flip side to pretty much any point, so I find myself trying to pick apart holes in people’s theories and thinking of examples in which their ideas won’t be effective. That’s not a bad trait in and of itself (someone needs to be thinking critically and not blindly swallowing everything they’re told, after all), but I know it has inhibited my own learning on many occasions.

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10 Elisa Waingort July 10, 2013 at 2:41 pm

LOL! You just described me to a T!
I agree. We need to go into any mandated PD with an open mind.
Thanks for the reminder.
Elisa

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11 Rebekka B July 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Trying to look interested when the PD is for classroom teachers only and you are support staff.

What frustrates me the most is when the PD is info for classroom teachers such as what to do with teaching materials. Half the staff is sitting there bored out of their minds for 2 hours while the rest of the staff is engaged. Or when presenting info about state testing for 3-5 teachers and the k-2 teachers are sitting there doing nothing. WASTE OF TIME!

Administrators really need to look at who benefits from the PD and make alternative plans for those that have nothing to do with the info presented.

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12 Angela Watson July 10, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Rebekka, I agree that PD needs to be differentiated. It’s hypocritical to tell teachers they have to teach in small groups and meet individual needs, and then provide the same training to every single staff member every single time. PD needs to model what teachers are supposed to be doing in the classroom. I’d like to see the edcamp method used more (in which teachers choose and lead their own sessions).

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13 Karen Sabados July 10, 2013 at 11:09 pm

This is exactly the point that I was going to make…differentiation. As teachers, we should be giving the students pretests to determine what they know and what they need to know. The administration does not do that very often. While I understand that at some times, all staff members need to hear a similar message, this is not always the case.

In addition, in my classroom, I teach the students that fair and equal are not the same. If all students receive the same amount of help, the same resources, etc., that would not be fair. I do many lessons that teach those concepts and they need reminders throughout the year. I think that as teachers, we need to remember this also. Sometimes, when P.D. is differentiated and some members are allowed to “do something different”, other staff members become upset. Just as in our classroom, the staff should only get what they need. As teachers, sometimes we ask for differentiated PD but then do not like how it is implemented because it doesn’t seem “fair.” We need to accept what we need, especially if needs are assessed by surveys, data, etc.
(Hopefully that made sense!)

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14 Heidi Butkus July 10, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Angela-
Great point, and that’s HILARIOUS!!!! What irony- I never thought of that before! LOL!!!
Heidi

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15 Beth Cole July 10, 2013 at 6:43 pm

My previous admins would let me knit (hats in circular needles so I knit without looking) under the table and take copious notes at the same time…I showed then that the knitting helped me stay focused on whoever was presenting…they were pleased when I showed them my detailed notes…my professor at grad school let me do the same thing…

My new school, however, is all about project-based learning and collaboration so I never had a chance to itch for my needles in the 2 weeks (yes, 2 weeks) of PD before school started and I hope this year will be similar but even better!

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16 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Two weeks of high quality PD?! Wow! That’s awesome.

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17 Diana July 10, 2013 at 8:23 pm

This is great! It describes most of our meetings. I find it is so easy to get sucked into the negative talk about PDs not being useful. I am most guilty about complaining when it is the PDs that are specific to grade levels but do not benefit the others at all. We have had trainings on various topics with K through 12th grade teachers all together. The presenters would even make comments about how difficult it is to present to such a wide range! I agree that admin needs to differentiate when possible so that it is not a waste of time. However, I also agree that in many of the meetings we can usually find at least 1 thing that applies to us and will help us to be better teachers. I may have to file this in the “read often” file : )

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18 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Yes, yes, YES, to everything you said about differentiating PD! I prefer to work with one grade level at a time so the group is small and intimate and I can make sure I’m sharing examples that will work with that particular group of teachers. Sometimes that’s not possible, but it’s definitely something principals should consider.

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19 Dave Faulkner July 10, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Great piece Angela. We will definitely share it with our networks. Our PL participants will find it very amusing as we often make fun of traditional professional learning approaches and why they disengage the learner. PL needs to be useful and relevant and allow people engage in the learning but the learner also needs to ensure they take responsibility for trying to engage! Unfortunately what makes your post even funnier is that there is a lot of irrelevant and useless PL that staff are forced to engage in which doesn’t help!

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20 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Thank you, Dave! I’ve written a lot about bad PD, but you’re right that participants have the choice of whether to engage or not. I still have to attend unhelpful PD myself even as an instructional coach, and I try to keep in mind that I am responsible for my own learning–for me, that’s an empowering thought.

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21 Susan Mescall July 10, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Are you sure you weren’t sitting in one of my PD meetings? I make myself sit up front so I will stay focused. I agree, also, that I have learned to listen before deciding that I have to speak for the grade level or the group I am sitting with. Teachers are the WORST for side conversations, but my principal had finally taken a stand…if she hears talking and she is the speaker, she stops until the side talkers get the message. If someone else is presenting, my principal calls them out…”Ms. Smith, do you have a comment you would like to share?”. I also agree with Dave Faulkner that the PD must be relevant and usable for the classroom teacher.

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22 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 5:58 pm

LOL, Susan! Teachers are definitely the worst for side conversations. I am pretty much incapable of not talking while others are presenting, it’s a horrible habit! I can control myself if I’m allowed to tweet or participate in a backchannel, though.

I like that your principal calls people out. I have done that myself and I find it’s the most effective way to stop side chatter and bring everyone back to one conversation. I pause, smile, and say in a warm, friendly tone, “Did you want to add something to that?” Almost every time, the teacher then shares an example from his or her own classroom or asks a question. I love it.

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23 Jennifer Myles July 11, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Most of the PD I present is technology based. These provides lots of time to check email. So I like to present project based. I let “advanced” students play and work ahead but as I walk around I stop and have them share ideas and show them tricks they may not know but would be too advanced for some others. What is hard for me is when I’m asked to fit my presentation into “20min next Thursday before the students arrive”.
I have met people who take offense at side conversations but I am one of those people who has a terrible time focusing without multitasking (eating right now). So I totally do the change to turn and talk while I focus on someone who is really paying attention and then ask for sharing. Sometimes this time to talk helps everyone refocus.
I like the option of online PD. I participated in one where the instructors did a lot of talking and then asked us to type in ideas. This was great for me – I even went and was cooking dinner while processing and had a lot to type in on topic. Other people can’t focus without face to face. Its great when a variety of options are available.
Loved the humor in your article.

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24 Pat July 10, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Seems really simple to just be as courteous as we wish our students were. FOCUS!

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25 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Pat, EVERY time I’m sitting in a training, I think, “How in the world do our students do this all day?!” It’s really an eye opener to be in the position of a learner and realize how hard it is to sit passively and listen for any length of time.

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26 Randy July 11, 2013 at 1:06 am

You’ll probably get fired but secretly call the office and have yourself paged. It helps to have a friend in the office. Then excuse yourself and go do all the work you still need to do before the kids come.

I’ve seen teachers grading papers, cutting out art projects, reading emails, all sorts of more productive and useful things than being in meetings.

Unfortunately my district has gone viral with some of the routine mandatory trainings. They use a youtube style video and you have to watch ( wink wink) them on your own time. Last time I heard about some teachers ( not at my school) that went to the computer lab, fired up all 25 videos on different computers, and watched all of them at once… I was so jealous of them. What innovative and yet compliant professionals teachers are!

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27 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 6:02 pm

I’ve seen those things, too, Randy. I think if teachers are doing those things on a regular basis in staff meetings, the admin needs to take a good hard look at how the meetings are being conducted. Can some of the info be disseminated in writing so there are less meetings? Can the teachers have input as to the meeting topics? Can some things be brought up only in committee meetings so the rest of staff doesn’t have to sit and listen to it?

It sounds like your district in on the right path with a “flipped staff meeting” method–I like the idea of teachers watching short videos on their own time…but then you have to meet in groups to talk about what you learned and apply it. Ideally those group meetings would be much shorter than regular staff meetings since teachers watched the videos on their own time. And of course, the videos have to be meaningful and relevant…sounds like that was not the case in your district!

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28 Jenni July 11, 2013 at 5:49 am

This was posted by one of my friends who is a teacher (I am not). I had to read it, because it sounded so interesting. I just wanted to say your points are excellent, and easily translate to other disciplines and professions besides teaching. I realize these types of sessions may be tedious and dry, but I think it’s interesting that there are likely many students who bring the same type of attitude of detachment to the classroom, and teachers are likely to find those to be their most challenging and frustrating students. It really comes down to being caring, conscientious and respectful, in spite of how difficult that may be. I especially like the point about having side conversations and distracting others. I often find myself being on the receiving end of that and trying to remain polite while trying to return the attention to the speaker at the front of the room – so frustrating for all involved! Thank you for an excellent piece!

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29 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Thanks, Jenni, it’s always great to hear the perspective of someone outside our field! You made some great connections to what happens in the classroom.

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30 Marilyn July 11, 2013 at 6:16 am

Our system did a week long technology PD in June. It was not mandatory and teachers & support staff could pick and choose the classes they wanted or needed. I was the instructor for 2 sessions on using smartboards everyday. I used the same exact techniques that I use in the classroom to engage my audience, teachers PK – HS. All but 2 (out of ab0ut 50) of my evaluations were positive, the comments those 2 wrote were obviously teachers that should have taken another class. So from a presenters point of view….when given a choice, teachers need to make sure the classes are really what they need.

When I am in a mandatory PD, I find I need to sit away from distracting teachers and only take what I need during that time. That doesn’t mean with my pen and paper that I can’t perfect some of my doodles!!!

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31 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 6:05 pm

I love the idea of staff picking and choosing their sessions! I’ve done some PD work in a fabulous school that operates that way. They called theirs the “tech fair” and teachers selected what topics they wanted to learn about…and the choices they had were based largely on the results of a staff survey earlier in the year.

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32 Heidi Butkus July 11, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Would you believe that I once had a principal that was considerate enough to plan the meetings so that the topics were organized by grade level. He often allowed the K/1 teachers on the staff to leave early if the content did not apply to their grade level.
Rather than appreciating this, one of the upper grade teachers COMPLAINED that we didn’t have to “sit there” as long as they did, so it was decided that we again had to sit through a whole bunch of material that was irrelevant to our grade level (thank you very much- NOT.)
You know, some teachers really should just RETIRE.

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33 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Oh my gosh, Heidi, that happened at one of my schools when I was a teacher! The grades 3-5 teachers were annoyed that they had to sit through extra trainings while the K-2 teachers got to leave. (I think they were mostly annoyed because the training was on state testing which K-2 doesn’t do, and that’s a huge point of contention in itself.) The guidance counselor told them, “K-2 teachers have their own testing to do, don’t worry, there will be a day soon when they sit in PD and you don’t.” It’s funny how much we are like our students–it’s not faaaaaiiirrr! LOL

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34 Jen July 11, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Oh! his made me laugh too! I agree that this would a great ice breaker and a way to keep us positive. I even enjoyed the other teacher’s comments! I know I’ve been guilty of these too. >_< I'm especially guilty of having side conversations.
I even had a principal text and e-mail throughout my entire PD presentation once. Way to make me feel like I have nothing worth while to say. Ever since, unless there is an emergency, I turn my phone on silent, and wait until we have a break or I'm finished before I pick up my phone.

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35 Angela Watson July 11, 2013 at 6:10 pm

WOW, I can’t believe your principal did that during your presentation. Talk about setting a bad example! As an opposite example–I once worked for a principal that would stand at the front of the room and just glow as she watched teachers and other staff members talk during meetings. Not a single one of us dared to check out phones or rustle through a binder once, ever. She was so engaged with what we were doing and so enthusiastic (even about super boring subjects) that we wouldn’t even think of disrespecting her with side conversations or grading papers. It was a great example for me.

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