A creative strategy to engage staff in professional learning!

As an education leader, what creative strategies do you use to engage staff in professional learning?

I'm Dave Walker, an Apple Distinguished Educator (Class of 2023), an Apple Learning Coach (2022), and the proud principal of Highland Avenue School No. 10, an Apple Distinguished School since 2019. I believe that for professional learning to be of great value, it must be truly relevant and meaningful to the educators that are partaking in it.

I would like to share with you a strategy that I utilize as a building leader anytime that I am able, which has yielded both great engagement and increased professional learning.

The Spark! 🔥

It was the fall of 2015, on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, when I approached the doors of Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, New Jersey for a professional development experience that would change my whole view of how professional development should be done. It's premise was simple...educators sharing with one another and leading the professional learning themselves in an unconference setting - determining what they want to learn about, share insights on, all with the freedom to move to a different session if they felt they needed a different experience, "the rule of two feet." If you feel the session isn't meeting your needs, no worries, get up and move to a different session.


Pictures from my first experience with an unconference professional learning model, EdcampNJ, in 2015.

I immediately fell in love with the format, and the next opportunity that I had, as the Department Chair, we implemented it at our department-based professional development day. And it was a huge success! We had great conversations that not only led to increased learning, but also self-reflection and relationship-building. It was incredible! It was also unlike anything our teachers were used to, and that made it very powerful.


A session from our department-based unconference PD in 2015.

Leadership 🗣️

I transitioned into the role of high school Vice-Principal in 2016, and then in 2018, I was appointed as the Principal of an elementary school in my district, Highland Avenue School No. 10. I was so excited to begin this leadership journey, and have my own school. The building leader really can set the tone and culture for the building, and my goal was to make it an amazing place for students and staff!

In my district, professional development has often been directed by supervisors and directors, or provided by the district as a whole. But even with some constraints, I have been able a few times to either utilize the designated meeting time, or a half-day professional development day, as an unconference learning experience. And every time I have done this, I get similar feedback from participants every time, including wanting the following: "Just having more time, like all day!"

It is an experience that puts teachers in the driver's seat of their own professional learning, and facilitates leadership within the school. Our teachers are the professionals, and they need to be treated as such.

How can you do this as a leader? 🤔

The first unconference professional learning experience that you undertake can be a little nerve-wrecking, but you will see quickly how rewarding it is!

A few weeks leading up to the event, I discuss with my staff how we will be doing professional learning differently, and explain the model. It's not something that many educators have experience with, as most are used to the "sit and take" model, where they simply listen as someone speaks. I will have informal conversations with my teachers, and since I know the strengths that many of them have (relationships are everything!), I will see if they would be willing to facilitate a session. Get the buzz going! The most important thing is that they understand they do NOT have to be the expert, but rather willing to lead a conversation about the topic. Each session is meant to spark collaboration, and while some may present materials, it's not a necessity. The idea is to get the conversation going, and share thoughts, ideas, and best practices.

You should also open up a board, indicating the room they can utilize, (template linked below - just make a copy to your drive and then use), where teachers can sign up to facilitate a session. You can also create a visual board on the day of the event on a wall somewhere, so that people can quickly look at it instead of logging onto a link, though it's not necessary. Educators can even sign up to facilitate a session on the day of the event.

It will also be important to schedule IT/tech support ahead of time, so that they know someone will be there to assist in the event of any tech glitches. I also include a link to a blank Google doc, where any participants can record notes during the session, thus making the learning and sharing of ideas accessible into the future. And of course, don't forget to include a short survey to gauge the effectiveness of the learning, as it will guide you forward as the leader.

Unconference Discussion Board Template: https://tinyurl.com/unconferencetemp

Unconference Survey Template: http://tinyurl.com/unconferencesurvey

And of course, present or lead a session yourself! As an ADE and Apple Learning Coach, it is important for me to stay current and to be a practitioner myself. As the building or district leader, you have to let your staff know you are all in! It certainly lets your teachers and staff know that engaging in this method of professional learning means a lot to you as well, because as they say "actions speak louder than words."

And as an added bonus, seek out some donations from local business and restaurants, (be sure to include a thank you to them as well) that you can have at the end of the event. Everyone loves food, and if you can raffle off some goodies at the end of the event, it definitely makes people excited!


A recent session on virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), led by me!

This is just one way that I have shaped professional learning to be more engaging and creative for my staff. But let's keep the conversation going! #leadershipconversationseries

As an education leader, what creative strategies do you use to engage staff in professional learning?

All Replies

Posted on May 28, 2024

Your leadership, vision, and process are all inspiring! You have not only shared your story, but have also provided steps to take action and put this concept into practice, adaptable by any leader. We are continuing to seek the best methods to offer professional development in higher education, but haven't found the perfect approach. This helps a lot. The donations/giveaways are a great incentive to entice participants to attend that might need that extra bit of motivation.

Thanks for sharing, Dave!

Posted on May 29, 2024

As always, I am happy to help, Donnie! Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words.

Posted on June 06, 2024

Thanks for share David! Really good advice here! Love the idea of contacting local businesses to donate food or goodies for the Unconferences. And so wonderful to “put teachers in the drivers seat” of their own professional learning. Teachers have amazing ideas and insight and leadership doesn’t always tap into that.

Posted on June 11, 2024

Absolutely, Cheryl! Building capacity from within!

Posted on June 12, 2024

Yes, Cheryl and David. Love the idea of both partnering with goodies AND teachers in the driver's seat. Choice and autonomy often overcomes barriers. And who doesn't like a treat every now and then! Thinking bigger picture, partnering with local businesses could open doors later for all kinds of innovation and goodness.

Posted on June 12, 2024

Love the Unconference model. Thank you for sharing resources and process. Another creative strategy we use in our learning environment is what I've name just-in-time professional learning. When teachers show interest in learning or researching or diving into something they want to know, we offer what we call Two Cent Tuesdays. Completely voluntary (though most of us go) it is a 15-30 minute quick PL led by a teacher, coach, principal - coordinated by our professional development rep in our building. It is real and relevant and opens up conversations and opportunities for immediate steps forward in learning.

Posted on June 17, 2024

I would find this activity super helpful! The topics could have such range and relevance.

Posted on June 17, 2024

Thank you for sharing, David. I remember attending (participating and learning) some very well organized and powerful unconferences. I loved the energy around the event. It does show trust to educators…that is a lasting impression!

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