Primed for PD

How play can transform your professional development

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: May 16, 2022

How do we keep our teachers? It’s the question on nearly every school leader’s mind as educators across the country leave the profession in droves. While this current crisis has certainly been aggravated by COVID-19, teacher shortages are nothing new. From 2016 to 2018, all 50 states reported widespread vacancies in at least one subject area, according to an Education Week analysis.

Now, even as the pandemic begins to subside, more than half of teachers say they’ll leave the field sooner than they’d planned. COVID-19 didn’t cause the teacher shortage, and the pandemic’s end won’t fix it. So what will?

You’ve probably heard about districts creating self-care spaces, implementing four-day workweeks, or upping staff salaries. But what if you just don’t have the resources to make those changes? We have another idea for how to reduce staff turnover, and it’s something you’re already doing: professional development.

It may seem ridiculous to suggest that professional development could help solve this seemingly unsolvable problem. After all, school districts across the nation are already spending an incredible amount of time and money on professional learning. Research from the Gates Foundation suggests that the average educator spends 19 school days per year on professional development; in just over 10 years, they will have dedicated a full school year’s worth of time to the endeavor. What’s more, U.S. schools spend a collective $18 billion on PD annually.

But is all that time and money paying off? Maybe not. According to a 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute, 91.9% of teachers surveyed had access to professional development workshops or training sessions, but less than a third of them rated the activities they participated in as “very useful.”

Needless to say, your teachers have incredibly full plates. If mandatory professional development wastes their time, it will only damage staff morale—which may already be dangerously low. But effective PD could help stave off burnout and keep your classrooms covered.

Why do your teachers attend professional development?

The answer to this question might seem simple. After all, in most states, teachers are required to obtain a certain number of professional development hours. But if your teachers are only participating in PD because they have to, you’ve already lost them.

In their book Primed to Perform, authors Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor explain how motivation can affect your work performance—for better or worse. “There are six basic motives behind people’s work,” they write. “Play, purpose, and potential strengthen performance. Emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia weaken it.”

As Doshi and McGregor put it, we’re motivated by purpose when we do something purely because we want the immediate outcome it will produce—not because we enjoy the activity itself. When we’re motivated by potential, we’re acting because we value an eventual outcome, often one that aligns with our personal values. In other words, “You do the work because it will eventually lead to something you believe is important.”

It’s not too difficult to see how purpose and potential factor into the lives of school leaders and educators. For many, these are major driving forces. You come to work every day because you care about the growth of your students, both tomorrow and in the long term. However, the third motive, play, is often forgotten—but even more important.

The word “play” may bring to mind sports, video games, or even gamified learning, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. According to Doshi and McGregor, when we’re motivated by play, we’re engaging in an activity purely for the love of the activity itself. You don’t need any external motivation to play; you do it because it’s fun. And because it produces intrinsic motivation, play is the most powerful motivator. We work hardest when we enjoy what we’re doing.

While these more direct motives “drive performance,” indirect motives—ones that are unrelated to the activity at hand—tend to make our performance suffer. Emotional pressure, according to Doshi and McGregor, occurs when you perform an activity due to guilt, shame, or fear of disappointing others. Economic pressure comes in when we do something “solely to win a reward or avoid punishment.” And inertia rears its ugly head when we no longer know why we’re doing something at all: ”You do what you do simply because you did it yesterday.”

Let’s go back to that initial question: Why do your teachers attend professional development? It may be emotional pressure—they don’t want to let their students down. It could be economic pressure—they’ll lose their teaching licenses if they don’t get enough hours. Or perhaps it’s inertia—they’re attending simply because it’s what they’ve always done. If these are your teachers’ primary reasons for attending, your professional development probably won’t be effective.

But even purpose and potential don’t drive your teachers nearly as much as play. The authors of Primed to Perform estimate that “play is about two times more powerful than purpose, which is about three times more powerful than potential.”

When we talk about introducing play into your professional development, we don’t mean you need to plan icebreaker games or end your fire safety presentation with a Kahoot. In a work environment, play can be anything that inherently interests and engages your staff. As Doshi and McGregor put it, “Curiosity and experimentation are at the heart of play.”

So does your professional development spark and indulge your teachers’ curiosity? If not, you’re leaving their strongest source of motivation untapped.

Find out teachers’ wants and needs.

To make sure your PD engages your teachers’ curiosity, you have to know what topics they’re curious about. Start by determining what your teachers find interesting and engaging. This may seem like a no-brainer, but as of 2020, only 24% of schools allow their teachers to vote on or suggest professional learning topics. This is a huge missed opportunity to create better teacher buy-in and satisfaction.

Before you even start planning, “develop a clear understanding of where your teachers are,” says Allison Rodman, author of Personalized Professional Learning and founder of educational consulting organization The Learning Loop. “Your student achievement, growth, and observation data provide really rich information, but the fourth piece of that puzzle should be an anonymous needs assessment with your staff.”

Unfortunately, there likely won’t be a unified consensus across your district. “I’m going to be honest with you—you will see a wide array of teacher preferences for professional learning topics, formats, and timing,” Rodman tells us. “Your natural inclination might be to meet everyone’s requests by providing a whole host of offerings, but it’s critical to start small. Even if you’re planning a topic that teachers specifically requested, they’re not going to get anything out of the experience unless it’s designed really intentionally and facilitated well.” In other words, prioritize quality of PD options over quantity.

Of course, the learning opportunities you provide depend on more than just teacher wants and needs. You also need to make sure your PD aligns with district goals and, of course, state requirements. Your strengths and weaknesses as a district matter as well; there’s no reason to pour resources into an area that’s already strong.

If a significant number of teachers are interested in a topic that has only minimal alignment with your overarching district goals, Rodman suggests offering a one-time workshop on the subject—honoring your teachers’ wants and indulging their sense of play without dedicating too many resources.

Build in choice.

Taking your teachers’ needs and preferences into account when choosing PD topics isn’t enough to ensure success. You also need to include choice in the implementation of your PD by giving your teachers autonomy over their own learning. Remember: Play is an intrinsic motive. We engage in play not because we have to, but because the activity itself is enjoyable for us. It makes sense, then, that the more choice you build into your professional development, the more playful it will become.

But according to research from the Gates Foundation, only 30% of teachers choose most or all of their professional learning opportunities. However, those who did have more choice reported much higher satisfaction than those without.

In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink argues that people are happiest—and most motivated—when they have autonomy over four areas: “their task, their time, their technique, and their team.” As you build professional development, try to provide choice in most, if not all, of these areas.

Task: Do your teachers have multiple options for professional development, or is only one topic available? Is every session mandatory, or are some voluntary?

Time: Are professional development sessions only available at one date and time, or can your teachers choose between sessions to accommodate their own schedules?

Technique: Do your teachers have freedom in how they choose to apply their professional learning?

Team: Are there opportunities for teachers to apply professional learning in collaboration with colleagues—or even other departments and grade levels?

Considering these questions will help you assess how much choice teachers have in their own professional learning and give you ideas on what to change. You do have to comply with state guidelines—you can’t make PD totally optional or reduce the number of hours required—but there’s still plenty of room to color within those lines.

Lisa Elliott, superintendent at the School District of Greenfield in Wisconsin, has made a point to include teacher voice and choice in her schools’ professional learning opportunities. “When we look at adult learning theory, we see that it’s super important for teachers to be self-directed in their work,” Elliott tells us. So her district has replaced the traditional beginning-of-year “sit-and-get” sessions with eight hours of self-directed PD time, allowing teachers to explore any topic or technique they choose. “We really want our teachers to think about their strengths, their students, and how they can enhance their own practices,” she says.

These hours aren’t completely unstructured, though; the district provides questions to “guide teachers’ self-reflection, like, What do I need to be learning now? How will that support my students? How does this align with our building goals?” Elliott explains. But at the end of the day, it’s still the educators themselves who decide what they need and how they’ll pursue it. This is a great opportunity for Greenfield teachers to investigate, experiment, and explore—in other words, to play.

Harness the power of relationships.

It’s no secret that community and collaboration are powerful idea generators. Open-plan offices swept the private sector for that very reason. The more serendipitous interactions we have with others, the more ideas we have access to. “Ideas stimulate curiosity,” Doshi and McGregor remind us. “Curiosity fuels play.”

But needless to say, most schools don’t have open floor plans. Teachers are often isolated in their own rooms, with little to no time to engage with other adults. Professional learning communities or PD sessions may well be their only opportunities to connect with colleagues.

With that in mind, what does your professional development look like? Is it a “sit-and-get,” with one (usually outside) expert lecturing your staff? Or are your teachers learning from one another?

This is something Elliott and her team at Greenfield think about a lot. “Our district mission statement says that we believe all learning begins with meaningful relationships,” she tells us. “So building community is also a really important part of our professional learning sessions.” This means “working in small groups and teams so that teachers can bounce ideas off one another and give one another feedback about practice.”

And while connection creates more opportunities for curiosity and play, authentic relationships also make play easier. It makes sense—experimentation, exploration, and curiosity all involve a degree of risk. What if we ask “stupid” questions? What if we experiment and fail? When we’re surrounded by a strong community, we feel safer taking those risks.

“Learning can be a scary thing,” says Dr. Robert Kegan, the Meehan Research Professor of Adult Learning at Harvard. “It involves admitting you don’t know something—but under the right conditions, this can generate more curiosity than anxiety. An environment of safety allows people to explore and actually develop, to learn more.”

What does this look like in practice?

When it comes to how you’ll apply these principles of play, there isn’t one right answer. But as an example, let’s look at the Edcamp model, a radically participatory form of professional development driven by teachers, for teachers. “At Edcamps, it’s about the people in the room,” says Allison Modica, Project Director for Digital Promise’s Edcamp Community. “It’s about them sharing their experiences, their resources, and their tools.”

Each Edcamp event begins with a blank session board. As attendees trickle in, they suggest discussion topics—areas in which they need help or guidance. Once the organizers—all of whom are local educators—have determined the most popular subjects, other attendees volunteer to lead sessions on the spot, with no prior preparation. It’s not as scary as it sounds, though; sessions function more like free-form conversations than formal presentations.

While this may sound haphazard, it’s really a way of elevating educators themselves as experts. “Teachers have a lot of knowledge and experience,” says Modica. “Sometimes it’s best to tap into that internal experience.” Your veteran educators may not need PD on classroom management, but they have lots of wisdom to share with younger teachers. On the other hand, newbies probably know their way around social media well enough to help their older colleagues get the hang of it.

A few additional guidelines keep Edcamps effective. First, anyone can attend an Edcamp for free—even teachers from other schools or districts. Remember: Connecting with new people and perspectives sparks curiosity, which in turn fuels play. Teachers hardly get to connect with colleagues in their own districts, much less peers in surrounding areas. The confluence of ideas an Edcamp creates can send your educators down avenues of exploration they may not have considered otherwise.

To protect participants’ time, Edcamps also follow what the Community calls “the rule of two feet.” “Basically, if they’re in a session and it’s not meeting their needs, we encourage them to politely get up and leave,” Modica explains. No one gets stuck in a conversation that isn’t useful to them.

It sounds great, but does it work? The answer is a resounding yes. In a 2019 study on the model, 91.4% of participants surveyed said that Edcamps had changed their professional practices. And even though Edcamps are completely voluntary, even though workloads in education are incredibly high, teachers still attend—sometimes going to great lengths to do so. “We’ve seen people travel 50 to 75 miles or more to get to an Edcamp,” Modica says.

Why? “Teachers want to learn,” she tells us. “They want to do right by their students. They want to fill themselves up to be their best selves. And coming to an Edcamp allows them that: knowing that they have voice, choice, and autonomy over their learning.” By uplifting teachers’ needs, allowing them to choose how they’ll use their time, and capitalizing on the power of connection, Edcamps perfectly indulge teachers’ sense of play. They create that intrinsic motivation that makes people want to participate.

As you work to perfect your PD, you probably won’t be able to keep your teachers from being influenced by indirect motives. Professional development hours are still required by law, so that economic pressure will always exist to some extent. But you don’t actually need to totally eradicate those damaging motivations; you just need to make sure the positive outweighs the negative.

Is better professional development the secret to higher teacher retention? It’s hard to say. But one thing’s for sure: By making PD something your teachers actually want to do, you’re not just removing a contributor to burnout. You’re also giving them a source of inspiration, growth, and drive—and that just might be enough to keep them in your classrooms. You have the power to transform your professional development; all it takes is a little play.

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