DAILY INSIGHT: The hierarchy of professional development needs

By Carl Hooker, CIO Advisor

It’s summer and we are learning.

July—a month usually reserved for family trips and “honey-do” lists—brought something different for our district: professional development. The fact that we did PD in July, while unique to us, isn’t a new concept in educational training. However, what made this PD different is that rather than having the usual amount of no-shows or malcontents, we were over-capacity with enthusiasm. And more have asked to come.

Did I mention this was a three-day training?

What makes teachers want to take a break from a beach trip or tiling that living room floor? It’s not the air conditioning (although for one attendee getting duct work done at her house it may have been). It’s not getting up before 7 and driving to a crammed room with 30 other people. Turns out, it’s something much more appealing than that: fulfilling their hierarchy of needs when it comes to learning.

For the second time this summer, Tim Yenca and I embarked on a three-day learning expedition called the Eanes Apple Core Academy. Here’s the crazy part—the teachers actually had to apply to get in. That’s right. This isn’t just your average “show up for a few hours and write on chart paper”-type event. ”Apple Cores,” as we call our attendees, are put through an intense experience of collaboration, sharing, and even….*gasp*…failing. So how do we do this? How do you create an “if you build it, they will come” training event? Here are five things we’re doing to change the way PD is presented in our district:

1. Celebrate Failure

Yes, at the academy we celebrate failure so much that when it happens everyone cheers “Woooo!!” and breaks into an almost freakish Carly Rae Jepson-style dance. In “standard” PD settings we’re always trying to reach that highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We want teachers self-actualizing before we even give them a chance to earn esteem, belonging or even safety. Without a comfortable learning environment, where risk-taking is encouraged and failure is cheered, learners will never even have a chance to reach that highest level. I love Teddy Roosevelt’s quote: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

2. Make it exclusive

When trying to buy tickets to the hottest show, people will hit refresh on their computer up to the second for when their tickets go on sale. In PD, often times it’s an afterthought. ”Oh it’s almost summer, guess I should sign up for something that I might go to just in case.” This is not the attitude of a poor teacher, it’s just the standard for how PD is presented to staff. Anyone can sign up, there are some mild slaps on the wrist for not showing up, but generally people go to training because of professional courtesy, some interest, or to fulfill some sort of appraisal system.

For our academy, teachers had to complete an online application. We told them that we were limited in the number of spots we could take on. This idea of an exclusive training environment generated its fair share of appeal, but be careful when using this idea. Letting only certain people in means that others are left out. That’s not an experience that teachers are used to with training and I encountered some mild grumbling after we selected our attendees.

3. Make it an event!

This one takes the most amount of work but has some of the biggest payoff. Our one-day iPadpalooza, tabbed as “1 Day of Peace & iPads,” was originally designed to be an event put on for our own staff. However, when region- and state-wide interest began to increase, our own staff’s interest increased. We had 200 of our own staff attend and 300 attendees from other districts (71 districts in all).

I don’t think you have to start with something this big, but with just a little bit of time and effort, you could create your own “mini-con” type of event. In our case, it started with just a website and some rogue advertising (created by students) and turned into a cultural phenomenon. (Free t-shirts probably didn’t hurt either.)

4. Treat them like professionals

This one is the easiest to do, but actually might take a little bit of budget, which we are all short of. Whenever possible, provide food. It may not seem like much, but bringing some coffee in the morning or providing some cookies in the afternoon can not only win teachers over to what you training them on, it fulfills Maslow’s lowest hierarchy of needs: physiological.

In addition to that, give teachers a chance to actually work and play together. The human brain can only take in so much content and hope to retain it. Plan for little breaks throughout the day that awaken the mind. One of my favorite things to do during a technology-based training is to have short, non-tech improv sessions. This gets people moving, laughing and ready to get back to intense learning.

5. Let them act like kids again

Like MIT's renowned media lab, where the motto is “Treat every day like it’s kindergarten,” there’s something to be said about putting the teachers in the role of the kids in the classroom. During our three-day academy we’ve heard things like “overwhelmed, but thirsty for more” and this gem: “My brain is only SLIGHTLY oozing out of my ears today. I understand how my students feel at times! What an amazing day of fun and learning!” I’m not sure you’ve heard that kind of feedback during an eight-hour state assessment overview training, even though my head slightly oozes after those trainings to be fair.

None of these ideas are new or incredible. But when you generate buzz and create this kind professional learning environment, the people attending the training walk in the door with an open mindset and a ready-to-learn attitude. They're ready to fulfill that higher level of learning needs. Learning within that type of environment can be infectious. So much so that it spreads to other staff and grows like in a culture. This kind of learning is one disease I hope we all catch and spread in the future.

Carl Hooker is director of instructional technology at Eanes ISD in Texas and blogs at Hooked on Innovation, where this is cross posted.