Take a Hike and Take Your PD With You

I’ve been doing a lot of math in my head lately trying to puzzle through some vexing equations:

Teachers + Technology + (?) = Engaging/Effective PD

(Sub-equation: Effective = Dynamic Learning for Students and More Trusting, Transparent Professional Culture)

Truth be told, professional development can often be an impersonal experience, one that fails to nourish connections between teachers that work right next door to each other. What to do?

Hall Middle Principal Tom Utic and I thought about this when planning our opening day PD this year: How could we create the right mix of structure (key outcomes around building community, school culture, intervention and instructional practice) and freedom for teachers to use digital tools to have a meaningful and memorable meeting? A meeting oriented toward doing/experimenting rather than watching someone show off their expertise (and dropping a big binder in our lap while doing so).

Our solution was dubbed #OpenAirPD– which we came up with while (fittingly) on a hike ourselves. Tom Kelley of IDEO talks about finding the “unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts” as a formula for creativity/innovation. It seems like an oxymoron to see the outdoors as an ideal place to learn how to use technology in a meaningful and creative way; however, if our goal is to disrupt an educational tradition of boring/uninspiring/ineffective PD, then the outdoors suddenly offer the perfect opportunities for unexpected juxtapositions. The outdoors invite cross-pollination.

#OpenAirPD began with a brief huddle in the library of our sister elementary school. After introducing new teachers and handing out iPads, we laced up our boots, reapplied sunscreen, and walked out the front door in pairs. Each pair was armed with a driving question handed out on a small strip of paper. Five minutes later we were walking gently uphill through stands of bay and oak trees, jagged rocks and poison oak with the first blush of fall red in its leaves. Every 10-15 minutes we gathered together to debrief, take pictures, and hand out a new question on another small piece of paper. We ate lunch atop Turtle Rock, a gas station-sized boulder famous with locals for views of the Bay and San Francisco and read an article one of our teachers recommended. On our way back downhill we spent 15 minutes doing a sensory walk: no speaking, just listening and looking at our surroundings – a protocol suggested by another teacher. At our final gathering back in the school library, people had time to create something on their iPads, putting into practice our overarching theme for the year at my school: Making Our Values Visible.

Were we successful? Despite our initial fears about some teachers not liking the location and format of the PD (not serious enough, not relevant, too much fluff…), the verbatim feedback below describing “Likes” from the day represents the overwhelmingly positive feelings people had about the experience – in fact, we’ve incorporated outdoor walks into virtually every staff meeting since.

The fact that we were in a natural setting without having to be sitting the whole day listening to the same speeches we hear every year.

Being outside, iPads, small group discussions. Being able to hike and talk allowed for more organic conversation as opposed to usually meetings. Success.

Working outside. It was nice to have conversations one on one out in the open because there was a privacy and space and time to finish our thoughts. The prompts were great. It was a nice way to start the year.

I really enjoyed being able to meet my new staff members in the great outdoors. The environment really allowed for casual conversation which was appreciated.

New equation:

#OpenAirPD + tablet = hAPPy Trails. (Sometimes life calls for sAPPy puns!!)

The greatest authority we have as educators (regardless of our position/role) is creating a sense of permission to try something new; after all, isn’t trying (and internalizing) new ideas and practices the definition of learning? We PD-planners and meeting-makers spend a lot of time building agendas, gathering materials, sorting through feedback. Do we spend an equivalent amount of brain-wattage choosing where we hold our meetings? If not, then here’s the simple math that will continually trip us up on our journey to make PD better:

Same meeting space + same people = (really close to) same results

Having yet another meeting in the Faculty Lounge somehow doesn’t lend itself to the idea of adventure

For a more in-depth look at our #OpenAirPD go here.


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Eric Saibel is the Assistant Principal at Hall Middle School in Larkspur, CA after 16 years as a high school Assistant Principal and Spanish teacher. He is interested in how inclusive, emotionally intelligent leadership fosters school cultures that center on student growth, ongoing organizational learning and shared risk-taking. Co-founder of Global School Play Day – over 65,000 kids on six continents participated in 2015, aiming for 1M in February 2016! Blogging about the intersection of leadership, learning and creativity at Principalsintraining.wordpress.com. Presenter on social media in instructional pedagogy and adaptive leadership models. 2014 Bammy Award nominee for Secondary Principal of the Year. Big fan of the outdoors as humanity’s first (and best) classroom. Find him at @ecsaibel.

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