How to Sharpen Your Skills at Back to School Time

Judy Stoehr
Judy Stoehr

Sharpening our skills and/or knowledge is crucial to our ongoing growth and development as educators. As George Couros, author of “The Innovator’s Mindset,” has stated, “If you want to become a master teacher, you must be a master learner.” Research has shown that the most effective way to improve skills and knowledge is through ongoing professional development. The key is making sure this PD is intentional, practical, and relevant to your situation.

Not sure where to start? Create a simple needs assessment by sketching a T-chart, then write “What I Need to Know” (knowledge) on one side and “What I Need to Do” (skills) on the other. Brainstorm knowledge and skills that you need to improve in the appropriate column. For instance, under “What I Need to Know,” you may include:

1) Understanding My Students (How they learn; What they need)

2) Content/Standards (for new teachers or those teaching new grade levels or subjects); and/or

3) Technology (tools, strategies).

The skills list might include:

1) Instructional Methods (Scaffolding; Small groups, Stations and Centers);

2) Using Data

3) Assessment

4) Creating a Positive Learning Environment.

Of course, because knowledge and skills are so interrelated, each of the above could be in both columns. Don’t let your list overwhelm you. Instead, identify three priorities on which to focus for the year. You can begin before school starts.

What kind of professional development should I seek?

Now that you have prioritized your needs, it is time to consider the types of professional development that are available. To be effective, your PD should be:

(a) Results-oriented (goal or data-driven)

(b) Practical (hands-on and relevant) and

(c) Sustained (year-long).

If you are in a graduate program, look for courses that support your priorities and that will apply toward state recertification. Many courses are blended or totally online, providing flexible learning opportunities. Other online learning opportunities include videos, webinars, e-coaching, and research provided by professional organizations. Your school district may provide traditional workshops, which often serve as kick-offs for new initiatives. While these may not target your needs specifically, try to keep an open mind and look for ideas you can use. The two most effective types of professional development are: Job embedded, which includes classroom application with coaching/mentoring and feedback; and, collegial/PLCs, whereby teams of educators share goals and evidence-based teaching practices, conduct book and research studies, and determine how to use data.

How will this professional development help me sharpen my skills?

To successfully sharpen your skills through professional development, you must use what you are learning, not just know about it. If possible, before beginning your PD, meet with a mentor or coach to review your priorities and to create an Action Plan for each one. Each plan should include: a SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable, results oriented, target date); data indicating the need for the goal; and, how the goal will be measured (your growth; impact on student achievement). Revisit your Action Plans regularly to record your progress. Celebrate – You are doing it!

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