This month our panel gathered to talk about professional development and some of our stories related to this topic. To start our conversation, I asked the panel to share experiences of professional learning or development that came from out of the ordinary or unexpected sources or experiences.
Justin: The first one that comes to my mind is our place, our city. I think we’re finding more and more that schools in Ontario are doing professional field studies to understand more deeply the stories of their larger communities, the history of the cities in which we find ourselves. We’re asking the driving question, “How can the learning that takes place in our schools help shape the story of the cities?” Or maybe less arrogantly, “How can we participate in the story of our cities?” That means we have to know the stories of our cities; we have to know what issues our cities are facing and how our students in their learning can participate in those issues.
Christian: For me, I think the best professional development that I’ve had is through traveling, visiting museums, going to historical sights, looking at the interpretive signs. I photograph everything, and I might not show my students everything, but I incorporate what I’ve learned into my lessons. I’m always looking for alternative perspectives. Lately, I’ve been traveling a lot to Washington, D.C., and visiting the various museums. At our school, where roughly 30 percent of our students are African American, I made it a mission to get in line early for the new Museum of African American History and spent the day there, just learning a ton. I’m always a little bit suspicious of history teachers who don’t seem all that excited or interested in history. I know I’m talking to a great history teacher when their vacations are history themed. And I think that’s really important professional development.
Rebecca: I would agree with Christian that conferences or professional development that speak specifically to what I teach are really pertinent. I teach high-ability students, sometimes called “talented and gifted,” and I’m the only one in my school, the only one in the Christian schools in this area, and there’s money in my school to allow me to go to a specific talented and gifted conference once every other year. And those are such beneficial conferences, not only hearing professionals who talk to the student group that I teach but also hearing other talented and gifted teachers who share the same concerns, the same challenges, the same kinds of kids.
And speaking about less formal experiences, some of the most effective professional development I’ve been part of is an informal PLC (Professional Learning Community), where teachers get together to discuss a professional book or article. You choose it; you read it; you want to be in this group. I’ve had such powerful conversations with colleagues over various professional development topics over the years. That more informal kind of professional development has done some wonderful shaping in how I teach.
Justin: Yes and, adding to this thread, for me Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing was life giving. It wasn’t an educational conference, but it fed my own passion and priorities as a teacher, and it really did feel like a community of like-minded souls that was both personally refreshing but also practically deepening my competence as it related to my profession or my discipline. I think that finding those niche communities that speak specifically to whatever our own passion or professional portfolio in education is can be really affirming and helpful.
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Christian Altena teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
Justin Cook serves as the director of learning at the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools in Ancaster, Ontario.
Rebecca DeSmith serves as Discovery Program coordinator and teacher at Sioux Center Christian School.
John Walcott is assistant professor in the education department at Calvin College.