The best professional development experiences are wonderful because they remind us of who we are: They affirm and support our evolving senses of identity in a complex world filled with mixed messages and lots of noise. In this post, I’d like to reflect briefly on professional development and identity.

Earlier this week, I had a remarkable opportunity to spend two days with six amazing educators in a “design sprint” organized to help develop a new graduate certificate program in innovative school leadership for The University of Colorado Denver. Our gathering was the brainchild of Dr. Scott Mcleod (@mcleod), who is an educational leader I’ve known and followed for many years. For a rather extensive dive into our learning from these two days, check out the Twitter Moments I captured from both day 1 and day 2. Also give a listen to the 9 minute reflective podcast we co-created at the end of our time together with Anchor. There are LOTS of fantastic ideas and links there.

One of the design sprint participants who I did not know previously, and thoroughly enjoyed learning and conversing with, is Dr. Dana S. Watts (@teachwatts.) Dana has extensive experiences as an international educator and is currently the Director of Research & Development for International Schools Services (@ISSCommunity). Dana’s PhD research focused on professional development and educator perceptions of personal identity, operationalized as “professional capital.” I haven’t read her dissertation yet, but plan to in the weeks ahead. There are some VERY powerful ideas here that are applicable to all of us as teachers and educators.

Identity is VERY important to each one of us regardless of our age, not just to young people. Several weeks ago I wrote the post, “Don’t Let Toxic Voices Tell You Who You Are,” as an attempt to encourage some people who are close to me as well as anyone else “out there” who finds themselves in a challenging professional place. Some of my most important thinking about identity as an adult was jumpstarted in 2013 by Michael Wesch’s (@mwesch) keynote presentation at the Heartland eLearning Conference. I’ve heard Michael present several times, and his story about his doctoral research in Papua New Guinea is the main one which has stuck with me ever since. This 2009 UVA interview article provides more background. Basically Michael experienced the reality that our identities are mostly constructed by what is REFLECTED BACK to us from those in our environment, rather than things we consciously or subconsciously project OUTWARD to others. This is a flip on what I’d traditionally thought of as identity: If I wear particular clothes (or even a uniform) then I’m proactively “telling the world who I am.” No, that’s not entirely true. I may think I’m telling others who I perceive myself to be through my own actions, but the ideas, emotions, feelings, and opinions which are REFLECTED BACK to me by others around me are actually often more powerful for my own identity formation. This is one reason it can be very challenging to live in an extremely unfamiliar and foreign culture. Like Michael, we can risk “losing ourselves” if we don’t have any cultural markers / people who can reflect our identity back to us.

This takes me to Dana Watts’ doctoral research and dissertation. Dana found that international educators generally have VERY high professional capital, or senses of personal identity. Again I have not read her research yet… but based on our conversations earlier this week, I understand a big reason international educators have a strong sense of personal identity is because they HAVE TO living in foreign cultures which (on average) change fairly regularly, sometimes every 3 – 4 years.

This relates to me this week because I found my two days of professional development with the #CUDenverLSI design team to be extremely inspiring and energizing. Megan, Allison, Dana, Scott, Zac and Tim reminded me who I am and what I’m about during our two days together. I’m passionate about engaged learning, deep learning, media and digital literacy, and transformative leadership. I love engaging in discussions and dialog with others about pedagogy and ways we can help other teachers design and facilitate authentic, meaningful learning experiences for students. I love teaching and working with other teachers to figure out how to teach as well as learn better. And I love sharing ideas! (Exhibits A and B: This blog and my growing collection of Twitter Moments, including those from #CUDenverLSI.) This professional development experience reminded me of who I am as a professional educator, and who I aspire to be in the months and (hopefully) years ahead. That’s a priceless gift, and one for which I am extremely grateful.

Has professional development helped shape your own identity as an educator and a human being? Dana mentioned to me this week how important it is that educators have AGENCY and CHOICE over their own professional development, because those decisions can and do shape our senses of identity as well as impact. That’s a reason I’m passionate about the EdCamp / unconference model of professional development, including EdCampOKC.

Do not underestimate the importance and power of professional development. Just as we all need to jealously advocate for and act to protect our own wellness as educators and professionals, we also need to advocate for self-directed professional development. PD we choose and we love can be powerful fuel for not only our growth as educators, but also our development as human beings more fully attuned to and aligned with our “calling” and purpose in life.

Long live transformative professional development experiences! Thank you, #CUDenverLSI teammates!

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