Professional Learning That Energizes Teachers and Brings Change to the Classroom

By Diane Heacox, Ed.D, author of  Making Differentiation a Habit: How to Ensure Success in Academically Diverse Classrooms (Updated Edition)

Professional Learning That Energizes Teachers and Brings Change to the ClassroomIt’s time to admit that professional learning sessions that both interest and excite teachers and result in educational innovation in classroom practice do not happen, and will never happen, in done-in-a-day professional development presentations. Fly-by professional development presented by an animated speaker with skinny knowledge and a joke a minute may seem appealing, but in the end, what are teachers really taking away? And will it make any difference in students’ success in learning?

So how do we increase the likelihood that professional development will actually change teaching and learning? First, we establish a framework for effective professional learning that commits time and support to teachers as they work to apply new ideas:

  1. Build a solid and agreed-upon foundation of common vocabulary, definitions, and understandings related to the educational innovation.
  2. Start small by providing some initial teaching and learning strategies that are ready for classroom application.
  3. Provide teachers with time for planning, sharing, and problem-solving in job-alike discipline or grade-level groups.
  4. Up to a year later, extend previous strategies with a second level of classroom ideas.
  5. Provide instructional coaching with a trusted school leader who can give teachers descriptive feedback on new instructional strategies.
  6. Move teachers into more-autonomous peer support through collaborative planning and lesson study in groups; this may involve professional learning communities.
  7. Consider implementing co-planning and co-teaching models to lighten planning and management demands.
  8. Provide ongoing critical reflection on how the innovation is implemented in the classroom, and modify and adjust plans as necessary to ensure teacher success.

This framework represents a comprehensive and long-term approach to professional learning that increases the likelihood that new ideas and strategies will actually take root in teachers’ classroom practices.

Next, we consider what makes professional learning sessions engaging and exciting.

Professional learning that engages and excites teachers . . .

  1. Is teacher driven, relevant, and applicable to their work in the classroom. If we want teachers to make instructional decisions based on data, facilitators of professional learning should do the same. Prior to sessions, I use online inventories to gather information on the frequency teachers use particular differentiation strategies so that my plans align with their needs. Along with conversations with their school leaders, this data enables me to help teachers improve, using new strategies that actually extend teachers’ practices. Posing a series of statements at the beginning of a professional learning session and asking teachers to respond with “thumbs up or down” or “fist to five” enables you to gather data on the spot to differentiate your plans. I may offer a list of topics for each training session and then ask teachers to prioritize their degree of interest in each: What topics are of greatest urgency in the work you do in teaching and learning? Then I determine on the spot which topics to simply touch on and which need more in-depth focus. These strategies result in greater enthusiasm, engagement, and high praise from teachers who are too infrequently consulted about what they want or need in professional learning.
  2. Clearly places new initiatives within the context of present school practices, mission, and vision. Although school leaders may see how a new initiative fits with previous efforts, teachers may not. Each year there is the next new thing that past experience shows will fade away over time. Connect the dots! Graphically represent how this year’s professional learning topic builds on or complements past efforts or the school’s mission and/or vision.
  3. Honors their work. Are there opportunities during the session to enable teachers to share with a partner or the group, a similar experience, problem, or practice? Invite teachers to provide examples of the instructional practices in play in their classrooms. Encourage them to share problems presented and resolved by a particular innovation. Has a teacher or group of teachers already been trying this innovation? Can they share stories, student products, or tips for effective classroom implementation? Remember that, just like students in an inclusion classroom, teachers are in very different places in their professional practice.
  4. Is highly interactive and provides lots of modeling and active engagement with strategies. Sequence direct presentation of new ideas with periods of active engagement, conversation, and hands-on/minds-on work. Consider brain breaks every 20 minutes or so to have teachers get up, move about, share an idea, or reflect on a practice. Tell teachers to find someone they have not talked with, someone wearing the same color, or someone with similar shoes and chat for two minutes about what they have learned thus far.
  5. Briefly connects strategies to research foundations. As professional educators, we need to know how what we do reflects best practices. Quickly remark on the source or evidence for a practice you are promoting, note the source on your presentation slide, or include a list of citations or resources for additional reading in your handouts. Prepare for “who says so?” questions.
  6. Provides time to reflect on, consider, react to, or adjust thinking or perspectives. The brain needs time to process new information. Give teachers time to jot down or sketch out an idea or to talk with table buddies.
  7. Sets up an expectation for direct classroom application. What’s the homework assignment for teacher application of new strategies or ideas? Consider making it an expectation that teachers will try something out in the classroom. Remind them to start small but start someplace: Choose one new strategy or idea and work with it for a while, then add another once you feel confident with the first. Provide an avenue for a feedback loop so teachers can share what they tried, how it worked with students, and any adjustments they would make when they try it again. Encourage them to share with colleagues student work samples or digital photos of student products. Could this exchange occur during before-school coffee or at lunch? How about at roundtable discussions by grade level or discipline on an early release or late start day?
  8. Promotes a sense of enthusiasm for teaching and learning. Teachers want to know how the strategy will “look” in the classroom. You can show this using a YouTube clip, a specific student example, work samples, and teacher-tested tips. Make sure what you present is both doable and practical!

As facilitators of learning experiences, it is critical that we recognize teachers as professionals with valuable insights that need to be shared. Committing to an effective professional learning framework and skillfully planning sessions that respond to teachers’ needs and interests are critical not only for meaningfully engaging educators, but also for making a difference for the students in their classrooms.

Diane HeacoxDiane Heacox, Ed.D., is a national and international consultant and professional development trainer to both public and private schools on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. She is Professor Emerita at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Heacox has taught at both elementary and secondary school levels and has served as a gifted education teacher and administrator, as well as an instructional specialist in public education.

Dr. Heacox was recognized by the Minnesota Educators of Gifted and Talented as a Friend of the Gifted for service to gifted education. She is also in the University of St. Thomas Educators Hall of Fame for her contributions to the field of education.

Follow Diane on Twitter: @dgheacox

Free Spirit books by Diane Heacox:


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10 Tips to Help Kids Set and Achieve Summer Goals

By Beverly K. Bachel, author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens

10 Tips to Help Kids Set and Achieve Summer GoalsThis summer, turn your get-to-it-later kids into real goal getters with the help of behavioral science, a burgeoning field designed to nudge people of all ages toward success.

Even if you’re not familiar with behavioral science, chances are you’ve used its techniques to help your kids make better decisions. For instance, you may have encouraged them to eat healthier by putting fresh fruit on the counter or to save more of their allowance by offering to match it at the end of the summer. (Those are both examples of what behavioral scientists call nudges.)

You can use these and other nudges to get your kids to set goals and take action toward them. Here are ten of my favorites:

  1. Get SMART. SMART goals—those that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound—are a great way to get kids to set goals that are the right fit for them. SMART goals also help turn kids’ vague ideas and unrealistic daydreams into well-defined statements of intent. This worksheet can help.
  2. Setting SMART Goals WorksheetLimit choices. Just as a body at rest stays at rest, so does a goal getter when faced with too many choices. So instead of allowing your kids free run of their days, take a lesson from behavioral scientists and offer up only a few options: “You can either walk or bike to the park.” “You can either go at ten or at two.” Not only will such well-defined options limit “choice paralysis,” but research also says your kids will feel more satisfied with their choices.
  3. Encourage the right friendships. Like all of us, kids take on the behaviors and moods of the people they spend the most time with. As a result, friends have a big impact on what goals kids set—and how much time they spend working toward those goals. According to research, this “contagion effect” plays out in a variety of ways: It can affect everything from how much people weigh to where they go to college, from how they respond to stress to when they go to bed.
  4. Enlist the help of a goal buddy. Going for goals alone can feel like eating soup with half a spoon. Set your kids up for success by encouraging them to buddy up with a sibling, friend, or trusted adult. Research shows that when others are involved with our goals, we’re far more likely to follow through.
  5. Support long-term thinking. According to research, the ability to imagine our future selves has a huge impact on how we behave today. Even grade-school kids who envision themselves in college save more money than those who’ve never thought about their lives after high school. A growth mindset can also help kids stay engaged with their goals.
  6. Stay positive. Kids should see goal setting as an adventure, not a chore. So while you’ll want to encourage your kids to achieve their goals, be careful not to nag. And if you do? Be sure to amp up the positive, as research shows it takes about three positive comments to offset the effect of one negative comment.
  7. Goal LadderBreak up the pieces. Imagine eating an entire apple in one bite. That’s what going for goals can feel like—especially to kids—if you don’t first break them into bite-sized pieces. I recommend using a Goal Ladder to help your kids develop a step-by-step action plan.
  8. Spark a sense of healthy competition. Whether mastering a new skateboarding trick or baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie, kids want to be as good as their friends and siblings. A little competition can help keep them engaged. Who can do three perfect varial kickflips in a row? Who’s the first to separate an egg perfectly?
  9. Focus their attention. Visual and physical cues can have a big impact on your kids’ actions, so use these cues to your advantage. Encourage foreign-language vocabulary practice by keeping flashcards in the car, or urge kids to be more active by inviting them to go for a bike ride. Asking questions is another simple yet often overlooked way of keeping kids focused on their goals. “Are you still thinking about trying out for the football team this fall?” “Any more thoughts about where you’d like to go to college?”
  10. Offer rewards. When your kids make progress toward their goals, add a bit of excitement by honoring their effort with something that will make them feel special: a sundae bar, a day without chores, or a trip to their favorite bookstore. And remember, the best rewards aren’t always material, genuine compliments, encouraging words, and pats on the back all go a long way toward helping kids feel they have what it takes to succeed.

By employing these nudges and the science of behavior, you can help make summer goal setting fun for your kids—and even yourself.

Author Bev BachelBev Bachel has helped thousands of get-to-it-later teens (and adults) become real goal getters. She set her first goal—sell twenty-five glasses of lemonade—at age five and has since used the power of goal setting to make new friends, buy a car, run a marathon, read a book a week, and buy an island beach house. In addition to writing and speaking about goals, Bev owns her own marketing and communications company and writes freelance articles.

What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for TeensBev Bachel is the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens.


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3 Ways to Help Kids Learn Money Smarts This Summer

By Eric Braun and Sandy Donovan, coauthors of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give

3 Ways to Help Kids Learn Money Smarts This SummerIt’s important for kids to learn money management skills, not only so they don’t grow up to bumble their financial affairs, but also because money smarts equal life smarts. If you learn to be responsible with your money, you learn to be responsible. Setting financial goals is practice for setting all sorts of other goals. Saving money is a way of delaying gratification, a life skill associated with increased success in school and future careers.

So what can parents do to help kids learn money smarts this summer? One way is to encourage kids to earn money. After all, they’ve got more time on their hands when they’re out of school (tell them not to worry, YouTube will still be there when they’re not working).

Here are a few ways adults can encourage kids to earn a little cash this summer. Depending on the age of your kids, some or all of these may be appropriate, and kids will need a bit—or a bunch—of help.

Offer to Pay for Extra Work at Home
Kids likely have certain responsibilities at home already, such as keeping their rooms clean, feeding the bearded dragon, or vacuuming. Maybe they get an allowance for this work, or maybe it’s just part of what’s expected of family members. Either way, those chores are not a way to earn extra money. Extra money comes from extra work.

There are two kinds of extra chores you can offer kids: one-time chores and ongoing chores. A one-time chore might be pulling weeds in the garden or cleaning out the refrigerator. An ongoing chore might be taking out the trash and recycling or watering plants, which needs to be repeated. Suggest a few ideas to your kids, but also ask them to look around and think of their own ideas. To encourage their initiative, be open to reasonable suggestions.

What should you pay for these chores? Every family will have its own standards that depend on your financial situation and history with paying for chores. If you pay an allowance, estimate the portion of the allowance that corresponds to the value of each of the child’s existing chores, then extrapolate from there. It can be interesting to let kids suggest a price to see how they value the work. You don’t have to go with their suggestion, but it can be a starting point for discussion.

Since learning responsibility is an important part of extra work, make quality and timeliness part of the deal. A late or sloppy job doesn’t deserve the same pay as a top-notch, on-time one.

Help Kids Work for Friends or Neighbors
This is the next level up from doing extra work at home. Here, kids have to take initiative to find nonfamily adults who need help with chores and who are willing to pay for that help. If your kids are fairly young, you can give them ideas—the family next door needs someone to let their puppy out while they’re at work. Older kids can do a little more legwork to find ideas. They might check a neighborhood social media site for help wanted postings or directly ask friends and neighbors if they need help with anything. You can also help kids advertise. Post on that neighborhood social media site or hang a flyer in the neighborhood.

When working for adults outside your home, kids will need some extra coaching from you regarding how to charge for their work and the importance of doing their best job. Remind them to use their best manners and to always show up on time.

Younger kids should probably work for someone you know well. And make sure you meet any strangers your middle schooler works with.

Help Kids Sell Things
Kids can sell things they make or things they own. Things they make might be drinks or food, from the classic lemonade stand to cookies or other treats. Things they make might also be art or other projects. To help with inspiration, take a trip to the library for baking or crafting books. Things they own might be toys they’ve outgrown, old collectors’ cards (Pokemón, sports, etc.), books they no longer want, and so on.

Depending on what your child is selling, it may make sense to hold a sale in the yard or the park (check to see if you need a permit first), or it might be best to sell online. Kids might be able to join a neighborhood garage sale or set up their drink stand along a path where lots of people walk. For a sale, help kids choose a date, time, and place, and help them advertise. They’ll likely need to get some cash to make change, and they’ll need to prepare any food or drink ahead of time. The older the kid, the more they should be doing on their own.

If kids are selling something that would attract a particular audience, like a set of baseball cards or kitty-cat finger puppets they’ve knitted, their best bet to find that audience is via a website such as Craigslist, Etsy, or eBay. Kids will need you to set up their account and post their ad since in most cases you have to be 18. But kids can craft their own ads (possibly with your help). Keep in mind that they’ll have to buy packaging materials and pay for shipping, so these costs should be considered in the price they set. Help your kids respond promptly, politely, and professionally to inquiries, and get those packages in the mail.

In all cases, the key is to help your kids just enough, so they take on as much of the brainstorming, planning, and actual work as they are capable of—which may be a little more than they think they are capable of. Whatever your kids earn this summer, encourage them to use some of that money to treat themselves to an ice cream cone or do something fun with friends—they deserve it for a job well done. Then coach them to stick the rest in a bank account or piggy bank.

Author Eric BraunEric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social-emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors, including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A recent McKnight Artist Fellow and an Aspen Summer Words Scholar for his fiction, Eric earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.

Author Sandy DonovanSandy Donovan has written nonfiction books for kids and young adults on topics including economics, history, science, and pop stars. She has worked as a journalist, a workforce policy analyst, and a website developer. She currently works for the U.S. Department of Labor, developing online tools to help people of all ages meet their career, education, and employment goals. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in labor and public policy. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.

The Survival Guide for Money SmartsEric and Sandy are coauthors of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give.


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S-t-r-e-t-c-h Your Year-End Dollars During Our Spring Sale!

S-t-r-e-t-c-h Your Year-End Dollars During Our Spring Sale!Start your summer with new books! And maybe even start planning for the school year ahead. Order by June 30, 2017, and enjoy 30% off sitewide,* plus free shipping on hundreds of resources on a wide variety of helpful topics like social-emotional learning, character education, and bullying prevention, and on our many books on teaching strategies.

Use code SPRING30 at checkout. Shop now!

*Excludes already discounted sets and clearance items.


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Weathering the Storm of Educational Reform

By Andrew Hawk

Weathering the Storm of Education ReformIf there is one thing that school personnel can count on, it’s that change is on the horizon. Technological advances trickle into the classroom, instructional design theories rotate, and curriculum resources are regularly updated. Additionally, education reform is a regular topic in America as new politicians take office at the federal, state, and local levels.

Unfortunately, the majority of teachers I have worked with during my career in public education have been resistant to change. It seems as if most teachers would prefer to have things remain the way they were when these teachers graduated from college. Whether you are in favor of or against education reform, it is inevitable and necessary. As the world changes, education must adapt in order to prepare young people for adult life. I recommend that teachers stay up to date with the reforms that are being proposed, especially those reforms that are coming to fruition. Here are some tips and resources I hope you will find helpful.

Consider the Source
Always consider the source of your information. All people and entities view the world through a specific lens based on their experiences and agendas, and information about education reform is often spread through faculties by word of mouth. This can quickly turn accurate information into tall tales. If you hear something that sounds unbelievable, it probably is not completely accurate information.

Wait and See
Do not get upset about a reform until you have researched exactly how it will affect you and your job. Problems can vary from state to state. When reforms are made at the federal level, they sometimes have a direct effect only in certain places. This is because some states have already adopted the reform at the state level.

Embrace Improvement
Forget the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There is always room for improvement, even if something is not broken. Education reform takes time and it is the job of educational leaders to be proactive. Sometimes reforms are planned in anticipation of a problem that is just beginning to unfold.

Check Reliable Sources
Stay up to date with accurate information by regularly reading reliable sources. Here are a few important ones:

  • Department of Education Websites. The first place I go for information about both state and federal reforms Department of Education website. I am also on my state superintendent’s email list and receive regular updates on what is being discussed. Many times, these sites also will include explanations about the motivations behind reforms.
  • Professional Publications. I recommend that teachers buy subscriptions to one or more professional publications to keep up on new practices. These publications can be print or digital. I like The Journal of Effective Teaching and Teaching Tolerance, but look around for publications that are suited to your grade level, subject, and personal views.
  • Professional Organizations. Not all professional organizations are traditional unions. In addition, not all professional organizations are expensive to join. A quick Internet search should reveal professional organizations in your state and also some that operate at the nationally. The one I belong to is not a formal union. It regularly sends out updates on what is happening with education reform via email. Sometimes the emails request that members email their state representatives in favor of or against upcoming reforms. For this reason, I highly recommend that you carefully review the beliefs of an organization prior to joining it. This can easily be accomplished by looking for the “About Us” tab on the organization’s website.
  • School Board Meetings. I can hear the moans and groans even now. To the best of my knowledge, most teachers do not attend school board meetings unless they have a specific reason to be there. I know from personal experience that these meetings are not always the most exciting events. However, lots of useful information is shared at them. If you cannot find the motivation to attend a meeting, review the meeting minutes on your county’s website.
  • Watchdog Websites. Numerous organizations have made websites dedicated to monitoring education reform. Many of these websites offer a fair and balanced interpretation of the motives behind and effectiveness of specific reforms. Here’s a great list of these websites. Many offer email newsletters, or you can follow them on Twitter.

Whether you choose to use these resources or do your own research, try to approach education reform with an open mind. Even if we disagree about reforms, teachers should acknowledge that everyone is working in what he or she believes is the best interest of America’s children.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


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