What is Professional Development for ECEs?

Time and time again we hear about the importance of professional development for Early Childhood Educators. Expand your knowledge, prepare for imminent change, hone your teaching practices, advance your career. Reflect, reflect, reflect.

We can all agree that PD is a major part of being a good educator, just like personal development is an integral part of becoming who we want to be. If we don’t make concentrated efforts to improve and advance, to set and achieve personal goals, and to engage with others, we might as well be a lump on the couch watching Netflix with a bowl of popcorn in our lap, passively watching the world go by. We all know that person–and that teacher.

So why is there such a disconnect between doing what we know we should do, wanting to do it, and actually getting out there and doing it? Like the literature points out, bridging the gap between theory and practice requires concerted effort. Why does professional development, like life, sometimes seem like a mountain to climb?

Well, let’s consider a day in the life of an ECE. When is there the opportunity among everything life requires of us? PD can feel like one more responsibility added to the mix. Ask any mother-educator when she last rubbed her own feet, took a long bath, or simply had time to do nothing more than watch the clouds change shape. Our culture values ambition like its a status symbol. We constantly feel the pressure to advance and improve, especially as educators. Let’s face it–there is enormous pressure on ECEs to attain a high level of professionalism in face of societal attitudes that render us glorified babysitters.

But PD is not about social pressure–we want to get better and better at what we do, right? Well, self-improvement doesn’t have to feel like you’re trying to emptying Lake Ontario with a spoon, and we certainly don’t have to do what has always been done. Taking incremental steps is a tried, tested, and true method for assimilating new information and broadening perspectives towards change.

If you’re new to the field, don’t panic–being an ECE practitioner organically lends itself to professional development. If you want to be a writer you can take a hundred courses on how to write but they’ll have no real impact unless you’re actually writing. Teaching is no different. And PD is not a passive endeavour. It should extend beyond what is required in accreditation courses for becoming an ECE. It should offer something new.

Professional development doesn’t have to follow a traditional path or take a familiar, trusted shape–though that’s often more comfortable and requires less effort (sort of like sitting on the couch watching Netflix). Our learning spaces are becoming less about location and more about how we ignite new ideas, share our knowledge, and make collaborative, meaningful shifts in practice.

Consider these following tips on how to “do” professional development.

Ensure it is useful, relevant, and immediate.

When embarking on any learning journey, big or small, independent or social, consider these three main features of effective PD.

  1. Confirm it is useful information. There is a lot of fluff out there and separating the wheat from the chaff is no small feat. Ask for recommendations. Use current, peer-reviewed literature. Know the origin of your sources, especially in regards to government policy.
  2. Know what you want to know–it sounds simple but often (and certainly because of our educational histories) we expect an authority to feed us relevant information. Much like you wouldn’t write a thesis without a central question, you’re not going to spend an entire weekend in a workshop learning about public policy if you’re interested in developing your behaviour guidance techniques.
  3. If you don’t use it, you lose it–this is especially true in learning. When you finish any workshop, conference, or other PD activity, apply what you’ve learned right away. This will lock in the most important information.

Attend a mix of formal and informal trainings.

Some of the best learning instances happen in the context of a gab session with a colleague over a cup of coffee. There is a time and place for formal learning and we all need that structure–some more than others! But we also need the opportunity to mull over new information, to take account of our day-to-day experiences, challenges, frustrations, and wins, in a comfortable space. This is often when true reflection takes place, when realizations emerge organically after our brain has had time to process them. But don’t discount those classrooms sessions either. Attend a mix of trainings. Large conferences are an excellent opportunity to hear from the experts. Small group, interactive sessions allow for deep discussion, collaboration, and hands-on learning. Independent activities like professional online courses or webinars are opportunities to read, listen, rewind, review, extract, and play with new information at our own pace.

Engage in social and independent activities.

As we know, learning is social. While isolation is often necessary to negotiate and explore new information, group learning benefits us by shaking up our own ideas or freshening a stale perspective. Conferences, workshops, and various classroom trainings support collaborative inquiry and learning while activities like reflective practice (being conscious of what you’re doing when you’re doing it, and knowing why you’re doing it), and online courses and webinars support independent learning.

Develop your own professional portfolio.

A professional portfolio is a record of your professional knowledge, beliefs, and successes. Creating it provides an opportunity to articulate what you know and what you strive to achieve in your professional career. What better way to start developing yourself professionally than to lay it all out there and see where your strengths lie and where you want to fill in gaps. Write a professional portfolio that includes a statement of your educational philosophy. This communicates your belief system to potential employers and most importantly, it helps you to articulate it and align it with your practice. Everything in your portfolio should reflect that statement.

Join a professional network.

Now compulsory, registering with the College of ECEs is an excellent way to keep abreast of changes and the variety of PD activities happening in the community. The College’s Continuous Professional Learning (CPL) program formally supports and encourages greater professionalism in the role and highlights the importance of reflective practice and self-directed learning. (See future articles for information on some other great professional organizations).

Share what you’ve learned with others.

We know the best way to learn something is to teach it. Expand every PD activity you do. Share your newfound knowledge with your colleagues and families. Publish a professional blog. Develop a workshop for your colleagues. Create mini info-sessions for parents or write a short but informative weekly newsletter. Add a new element to your professional portfolio.

Being an ECE requires you to get out there and learn something new, continuously. Acknowledge the organic opportunities for learning your daily work provides and expand your knowledge by reaching out into the community and networking with other professionals. Keep your knowledge fresh and relevant, and know what’s happening in the global ECE community. Whether you’re a new ECE or an advanced practitioner, we can embrace the opportunities this vibrant, creative profession delivers us every day to expand our minds and practice.