A Few Thoughts about Professional Development Books

twitter pollI’m about seventy pages into a new writing project. Although I’m reluctant to say much about it at this point, I hope what I’m working on will eventually be of use and interest to teachers and maybe others who care about education and literacy. Right now, this project is a glorious mess with ideas everywhere. The shape and focus haven’t emerged yet, and I’m 100% comfortable with that. I believe that if writers just keep going, the writing will eventually reveal its own purpose.

A few days ago, however, I had a moment where I lost faith in that belief. I was becoming impatient. I wanted to see the end of the journey while backing out of the driveway. I was thinking about whether this project is a professional development book, a memoir, or a hybrid of those plus a few other things.

That led me to wonder about my professional reading. When I read those books, I know what makes me turn down page corners and add highlights and margin notes. I also know what makes me roll my eyes and skip a few pages. Thinking about my project and its potential audience, and possibly avoiding the actual hard work of writing, I popped up a little Twitter poll to see how others view their professional reading: “A question for educators: What do you hope to find in the books you read for professional development?” The poll offered these choices: Practical strategies, Inspiration, and New insights on theory.

I appreciate the 138 people who responded to the poll. 61% said they hope to find practical strategies. 22% want new insights on theory, and 17% are looking for inspiration. As we all know, Twitter polls are hard science, so I accept these results, although they were a little surprising to me.

This got me thinking about how different readers might approach professional reading, my own perceptions of that genre, and how it can help my current project.

One of my firmest beliefs about educational practice is that it is highly contextual. What works for me might not work for you, and it might not even work for me tomorrow or with a different class. So, when I read books that offer “practical strategies,” I immediately think of them not as recipes or how-to guides but something that worked for one author in a specific context that will need adaptation to work for me. In other words, a strategy isn’t completely practical unless it has some elasticity. I’m turned off by writers who claim to have discovered The One True Way and condemn those who don’t follow it as unenlightened and doomed. On the other hand, I’ve harvested many great ideas from my professional reading, and I’m indebted to the authors who provided them, but in virtually every case I changed something about the idea to make it fit the specific needs of my students and contours of my school.

What about theory? Reading about educational theory used to make me snort in contempt. I thought, “Theory is just theory! It’s an abstraction with no real-world relevance.” Now I realize that I didn’t have enough experience to see the connection between the abstractions and the “real world.” Useful theories are derived from practice. Further practice results in new insights on those theories, which in turn creates more innovative practice, and on and on. Thoughtful readers understand that new insights on theory can lead to creative classrooms using new ways to engage learners. Writing about theory needs to be framed in such a way that it helps readers see how the implications affect real students in real classrooms.

As I said earlier, the results of my Twitter poll surprised me. I would have chosen “Inspiration” as the answer to my own question. Being a teacher is gratifying, frustrating, and misunderstood by the public. Sometimes we can feel isolated in our classrooms, our schools, and even in our profession. I am inspired by those who have overcome obstacles, silenced critiques, and discovered ways to thrive in challenging environments. Their stories reinforce my faith that I too can achieve important accomplishments and that I am not alone in my work.

I hope my writing will eventually provide readers with some of the valuable ideas I’ve mentioned here. Those are worthy goals. For now, it’s time to get back to the writing. It can’t take shape until it has mass. Onward. Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to A Few Thoughts about Professional Development Books

  1. Surprised that theory ranked higher than inspiration. Loved the post, Gary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Liz Kirby says:

    I was also one who is looking for inspiration in my professional reading choices…that is, I seek to have fresh life “breathed(?)” [spir] into what may have become a stogy or stale practice or to find a new seedling implanted into my garden of teacherly delights, to be nurtured by me in my own fashion, for my own teaching context. Gary, thanks for the ongoing inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

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