Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Professional Growth in the Making

When I think about professional growth, I think of stretching beyond my comfort zone.  This stretch means reaching for new knowledge, trying new strategies, and considering new possibilities.  As an educator, I'm always looking for ways to learn and grow: staying current with relevant research, reading a lot, and connecting with other educators in the field.

With this being my 19th year in education, I've attended a lot of training sessions, workshops, and in-service sessions.  I've gone to local, state, and national conferences. While some opportunities for professional development are better than others, I always try to find at least one little nugget to take away and apply to my work.  I've engaged in a number of "on the job" growth experiences, as well. As a classroom teacher, I was lucky enough to receive training in instructional coaching at the Annenberg Institute.  I piloted reading programs with coaching support from the top educators in reading research from the University of Pittsburgh. My traditional schooling also allowed me to learn and grow.  I experienced tremendous growth in technology skills through my Master's Program at Robert Morris University and benefited from the cohort setting during my doctoral studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

All of these experiences have helped me to grow as a professional, but the BEST professional learning opportunity I've ever experienced has been at the MAKESHOP at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

The MAKESHOP is a permanent space in the museum where children and families can tinker with tools and make just about anything.  The space includes knowledgeable Teaching Artists who can guide visitors as they mess with sewing, woodworking, circuitry, digital animation, etc.  Every August, they offer a week-long MAKER Boot Camp for educators.  A few summers ago, I invited some teachers to go and stretch beyond their comfort zones with me.

I remember walking into the wood shop, and after a brief safety talk, the Teaching Artist said--OK, go make something.  Really? That's it? Where are the directions?  I had no idea where to start or what tools to choose.  The open-ended nature of the task was daunting and uncomfortable.  Soon, the other educators in the room started talking about what they were doing and sharing strategies--collaborating.  We cautiously tried some tools and messed with some materials.  Some designs worked well, others failed miserably.  We persevered and continued on with our creations.  In the end, many walked away with an innovative end product, but I walked away with a renewed sense of what it meant to be a learner.

At the time, our school was in our second year of housing a STEAM Studio in the building, a dedicated space for hands-on learning.  This professional development experience was so valuable, as the teachers and I were able to return to school with a new understanding of what it felt like to be a student in a Making environment.  We felt invigorated about infusing creativity into our work and were better equipped to support our students in this new learning pathway.

As teachers and school leaders, do we readily step outside our comfort zones and try new things?  Or do we remain in the safety of what is known?  Do we try things and open ourselves up to potential failure?  What does this say about our professional growth?