6 Tips for Getting the Most from Your Professional Development

If you’re like most private-independent school administrators, you fill your summers with that long list of projects you’ve put on hold … a few precious days of much-needed vacation … and an equally important chunk of time focused on your own professional development.

And let’s face it, while professional development is vital to keeping you on top of your game, it’s also a big investment of both time and financial resources.

I’m in the process of preparing for a couple of summertime professional development workshops I help lead for ISM, and that got me thinking about the students I’ve had through the years who have gotten the most out of their experiences — and why.

What has been the difference for those with tangible, measurable results versus those who check in, check out, and don’t move the needle when they get back to their schools?

After lots of unscientific research (read … thinking in the shower), I have determined there are six things you should do to get the most from your professional development time and dollars. These tips are based on my 10 years of leading PD workshops and lots more as a participant. Perhaps some of these tips will resonate with you, and maybe you have other ideas to share in the comments section below. Please do.

#1 – Come prepared. Devote an hour before arriving at your PD experience to review any communications materials you’ve received — agendas, workshop descriptors, materials you should bring with you, attendee lists, etc. Download and set up that conference app. That little bit of time you set aside for planning will save you from feeling lost halfway through the first day — both literally and figuratively.

#2 – Be present.
The emails at the office will wait. I promise. They will be there when you return just like they are there every Monday morning … like magic! It’s just like high school. If you sit near the front of the room, ask questions, and stay off the Internet, you’ll learn more, and you won’t miss the important stuff. Unlike high school, you don’t need a hall pass for the bathroom, and you won’t get detention for chewing gum.

#3 – Be a teacher’s pet.
No apples required. Whether it’s a short track session at a big conference or an all-week deep dive with a few faculty members, don’t be shy. Seek out your workshop leaders and the speakers you enjoy most. Have them weigh in on a challenge you’ve experienced at your school; swap business cards so you can stay in touch later; or ask to grab coffee so you can just have a professional conversation. Those who lead professional development workshops are doing it because they believe in building connections, they want to share their experiences and learn from those they teach, and because they want to help mentor their peers.

marketing workshop, professional development
My 2018 New Marketing Communications Directors Workshop. I’m hiding behind the “i” because the participants were the stars of the show.

#4 – Maintain connections.
Most private-independent school conferences provide lots of networking time. And there is nothing like having an unbiased group of professionals you can reach out to for advice when you need it. But collecting business cards and making promises to stay in touch won’t do you any good if you don’t follow through. When you get back to your office — before you even answer that *urgent* email awaiting you — send LinkedIn invitations to your new contacts (and please take the time to write a personal note on each invite). Then schedule yourself a quarterly reminder to check in and see how their school year is going. Attending another professional development event? Ask if your contacts will be there. If so, arrange a meetup.

#5 – Choose 3.
Attending a professional development event can feel like drinking from a firehose. You may get so many takeaways it feels impossible to even begin to implement all the new ideas at your school. So, what happens instead? You get back to your school campus and do nothing.

I’ve written before about choosing three things, and I’m going to repeat it here. You can’t do everything, nor should you even attempt it. So pick three impact items you can take back to your school and focus your efforts there. And one of those “to dos” should be something you can accomplish in 30 to 60 days — a quick win. “Three” may not sound like much, but it’s just the right amount because it’s realistic and doable. You will build momentum and most importantly, advance the mission of your school.

#6 – Be accountable.
You’ve chosen three strategic, impactful “to dos” to bring back to your school. Now take it a step further. Write. Them. Down. Determine the tactics you need to do to achieve your objectives. Sketch out a timeline for each. Decide who’s going to help you accomplish your goals. And figure out how much it’s going to cost (if anything) and where the money is going to come from (if necessary).

Take your plan back to your Head of School or your direct supervisor and share it. Get their feedback, ask them to poke holes in your plan and question to your logic. But most importantly, get their buy-in. By educating your supervisor about what you learned during your professional development experience and how it will make a positive impact on your school, you will not only gain the support you need to accomplish your goals, but you will also demonstrate the value spending all those hours away from the office.

Even if you did neglect a few hundred emails.


Looking for a great professional development experience this summer? Check out the more than two dozen Summer Institute workshops ISM offers in Minneapolis and Philadelphia.

ISM Summer Institute - Professional Development for Private Schools

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