Professional Development

14 Apr 2008

I have been living and teaching in Costa Rica since 2003. I came from a school district in California that offered many opportunities for professional development both on campus and at the district office. The district provided several professional development days every year. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy a lot of it. Way too many workshops focused on butcher paper and markers, but many were beneficial for me. I was even the coordinator of staff development at my school for a year, where I delivered staff development to my colleagues and also to other teachers in the district a few times a month. I also supplemented the district professional development with professional organization membership and by attending conferences that interested me, such as Computer Using Educators (CUE).

It was not long after arriving in Costa Rica that I realized there was not professional development going on at my school or even in the country (to the best of my knowledge). Also, I was told in a meeting that it was very unlikely I would be attending any international conferences any time soon because the school only invested this kind of money in long-term employees. I was very disappointed.

I get so much out of conferences: fresh ideas, networking, enthusiasm, and practical help. I was missing this desperately. Fortunately the technology coordinator (Paul) at my school seemed to always be investigating new educational technologies, and he would send me off exploring on my own. Probably the most valuable information I learned from Paul was from a standard answer he would give anyone who asked him how he got so good at technology. He would always say, “I grew up on a farm.” He would pause. “We had to solve our own problems on the farm, just like I have to do here.” The wisdom of a farm boy. Paul got me to subscribe to a couple of ed tech listserves. We would discuss the articles and web sites featured in the emails.

My second year at the school I was offered by the administration to attend a conference in Mexico City. It was very much a different experience than what I was used to. First of all, it was a general educational conference. My conferences of choice were usually technology or middle school. Another big difference was that everyone dressed in business attire. Not just the presenters, everyone. No t-shirts or shorts to be seen anywhere. The conference was OK, but lacked my areas of interest.

During this time Paul got me listening to podcasts. This was probably two years before you could subscribe to them in iTunes. Most of the podcasts I listened to were for entertainment like Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code, or The Roadhouse, which plays “The finest blues you’ve never heard.”

The next year I was invited back to the conference as a presenter. This time, my home school in Costa Rica hosted the conference. It was a great experience to be a presenter. For several years I had been feeling it was time to present. My workshop (Integrating Digital Video Projects into the Core Curriculum) went very well and due to the outstanding evaluations, I assume, I was invited to present (integrating technology) at the following year’s conference, this time to be held in Bogotá, Colombia. All expenses paid. Between the conference organization and my school, airfare, hotel, and food were all covered. The presenters were even taken out to dinner by the president of the organization and were invited to a cocktail party at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. What a treat!

During this time Paul decided that we should start doing a podcast at our school. Not too many schools were doing podcasts and as far as I know no schools in Central America were doing them. The high school student weekly news podcast was a big hit and a bit controversial because the students were reporting school news that was more than just the “happy truth.” Around the same time, more educational podcasts were coming out. The godsend for us was Dan Schmidt’s “Kidcast: Podcasting for the Classroom.” I still haven’t missed an episode. I started finding and regularly listening to other podcasts that focus on educational technology, such as “Tech Chick Tips.”

Paul retired before finishing a complete year with our podcast. I lost my mentor. My “tech guru” was gone, and in the eyes of most of the rest of the staff I was now the school’s “tech guy.” I took over the podcast. The show has changed since I took it over. It is now a middle school podcast. It is also a twice a month and video. And we now focus on less controversial news (by administrative mandate). We are in our third year and are about to complete our 50th show.

Although I had great experiences at the international conferences the networking just didn’t happen. Most international teachers I know are in the same situation I am in. We are lucky to get to go to the conference once. Returning year after year is unheard of unless you are the director of a school. Also, there weren’t many social events at the conferences and no special interest groups to join. Most people just hang out with the people from their own school, or if they attend alone they latch on to some other group, like I did in Bogotá. Thanks Lehigh University!

What sort of snuck up on me was that I was doing my own professional development and networking without realizing it. Not from the conferences, but from the podcasts. Suggestions of web sites and software recommendations are mainstays of the podcasts I listen to. I try the ones that are of interest to me and wait until the next show to hear other listeners’ feedback on the technology. I am now subscribed to about a dozen listserves. I have never been a fan of social networks like My Space or High Five, although I recently joined Facebook. So far, not much professional development has come from there.

Between the listserves and the podcasts I have found so many great resources. Articles, blogs, podcasts and educator networks. I have become my own professional development coordinator. My professional development is 100% tailored to my specific interests.

When I learned about Twitter from one of the podcasts my professional development exploded. I have built a network of people I follow, many of whom follow me. Every single day someone “tweets” a link that is meaningful to me. I click, I read, and I learn. Many of the links I click on I don’t read. That is what is great about my self-guided professional development. If I don’t want to read it or try it, I don’t. I focus on what is meaningful to me and leave the rest behind. No sitting through a discussion at the district office on something I don’t feel is meaningful just to get something on that butcher paper. And my network? For the most part they are just Twitter nicknames like Digimom or cbell619. They are all over the world. England, Australia, Malaysia the U.S. and more, and I know because I found them on mytweetmap. But the interaction is meaningful. Someone is always out there. And we grow as professionals.