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Innovative Back to School Professional Development

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By Sajan George, Founder & CEO, Matchbook Learning

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July is the height of summer vacation season. However, for those in public education, it is the height of activity: planning and designing changes to your school's model. For those of us iterating on an innovative or non-traditional school model, the pressure to create equally compelling back-to-school professional development (PD) training rises.  

If you're trying to deliver a 21st-century school that does not feel, well frankly, 20th century, your training of teachers must feel the same. Think about Charlie Brown's or Ferris Bueller's teacher, and you've epitomized what we don't want. We aspire to be like Robin Williams' classic English teacher character in the film "Dead Poets Society." The reality is that we often fall somewhere between these poles. 

I've participated in an array of trainings, conferences, seminars, and workshops that have utilized movable furniture, giant Post-it notes, continual snacks and beverages, stress balls, themed music, animated videos, movie clips, and the occasional game-based incentive. It's like an exercise in making back-to-school PD training the most fun and engaging experience you've had since you went to Disney World as a child. 

But I have found the most innovative ideas and their delivery have less to do with their form and more to do with their function. Innovation does not require newness;  it calls for thinking creatively about common problems. We have three weeks of scheduled PD for our staff before school begins. The challenge we have is to keep our teachers motivated, engaged, and learning over this stretch of time when there's a breadth of material to cover and a depth of understanding we hope to impart. 

I have three framing ideas that harken back to the traditional ways of engaging, inspiring, and empowering people:

Start with Purpose  

Why do we exist as an organization? What is our function? What binds us? Visions are neither auto-generated nor autopiloted. You have to manually tether people to your organization's sense of calling, purpose, and reason for being. You need to graft them into it and continually reconnect them throughout their employment to your vision. It is the only way momentum is both created and sustained.  

Follow Through With Care

Our Head of School and my colleague and partner, Dr. Amy Swann, has curated an array of gifts to give to our staff throughout our PD. It is the thoughtfulness of the gesture that counts, not the dollar value of these gifts. Amy had a great idea for our leadership team to cook breakfast one morning before PD to our entire staff. Yes, it is easier to cater and bring in food, but nothing shows you care like cooking for someone. We'll conclude our three-week-long training with a celebration party at my home. There are likely more fun venues in which to host a party, but inviting people you work with into your home is a sign of intimacy and hospitality reserved for those you trust and admire.  

Close With Accountability

This message is for leadership: walk the walk. PD generally conveys what is expected of the staff. But if you want their accountability to be meaningful, yours must as well. That means delivering daily during PD on the promises you articulate. Be flexible in design if you need to spend more or less time on specific areas based on staff feedback. Build in feedback loops each day to respond to what was clear and not clear in the presentations. Build your awareness daily about how staff are feeling, forming, and freeing themselves to realize the collective vision under which they serve. 

Looking back over these three framing ideas, I feel a little underwhelmed by the simplicity of conducting innovative PD. Purpose, care, and accountability; you don't get more old school than that. To move forward, we return to the past: the best things in life are proven over time to stand the test of time. We usually think that innovation means the new disrupting the old. But perhaps it can also mean returning to the timeless ways people have engaged, connected, and learned from each other.  

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