Summer PD Feel Overwhelming? An Improviser’s Mindset Can Help You Keep Cool

Professional Development

Summer PD Feel Overwhelming? An Improviser’s Mindset Can Help You Keep Cool

By Dan Ryder     Jun 25, 2017

Summer PD Feel Overwhelming? An Improviser’s Mindset Can Help You Keep Cool

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

With every summer break comes the eight-week-or-so refresh and reset most classroom educators need. But for many of us, professional development opportunities wrestle for space amongst family vacations, home projects, and part-time jobs. A quick tour of the edu-blogosphere reveals numerous reading lists, playlists, conferences, workshops, seminars, webinars, retreats and edcamps to engage with over two short months. It can overwhelm, yes, and...there is a way to manage it all.

As a veteran improv director and performer, I’ve distilled the essentials of improvisation into what I call the Improviser’s Mindset, a posture we may all adopt to better deal with the variables and ambiguities in our personal and professional lives. The Improviser’s Mindset is built upon three principles: accept, communicate and trust. Accept the status quo so we may then work to change it; communicate with intention and reception; and trust in others and in ourselves to work toward a common goal.

This mindset can help us both in the classroom and to navigate the challenges of summertime professional development. Here’s how.


Unless we experience a breakthrough in quantum mechanics soon (and who is to say we won’t?) there just won’t be enough time this summer to read every book, organize every article, attend every conference or chat with every colleague. However, there is enough time to make a simple commitment to ourselves to work with what we have and let go of what we don’t.

My advice? Prioritize. Choose the book that has you the most excited, not the one that others have told you is a “must read” or the one distributed in the teacher’s room by the leadership committee. Instead, focus your energy on the title that has you uncapping your pen, opening a new blank book, and reaching for the sticky notes.

Also accept the very real possibility that whatever is galvanizing your passion this summer may have nothing to do with the classroom, at least not directly. Perhaps a community workshop provides a pathway to clearing up mental and physical clutter; maybe a local museum exhibit delves into the history of humanity’s most essential innovations. Or maybe a streaming documentary shares the creative lineage of a legendary musical artist who inspires you.

Remain open to influence and aware of analogies and be amazed at the degree of professional growth you can experience without requesting a single contact hours certificate.


In the words of author and visual thinker Austin Kleon (as well as my ninth grade Algebra teacher Mrs Grant): show your work. Whether it be on Facebook or Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest, share your learnings with others. Certainly you might blog about your knowledge or produce a podcast, and yet a well-captioned photo paired with a couple of choice hashtags could be just the catalyst your followers need to take action themselves.

Also remember that ninety percent of communication is listening. Consider lurking on a Twitter chat, Voxer community, or Flipgrid . . . grid. See what you might learn from another educator’s perspective. Make a sincere effort to see the world from their point of view. Then pause for thirty seconds, perhaps as long as a minute, and reply. As wonderful as the gift of silence can be on a stage, find a moment to acknowledge the speaker. After all, ‘tis a gift to be human and connect with others, even on the basis of tempered disagreement. When we listen with our whole selves, not just our eyes and ears, we stand a much better chance of understanding one another, and understanding is the first step to enlightenment.

Finally, TRUST

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the improviser’s mindset is trusting in oneself and process. Trust is built on experience, context, relationships and time. We tend to be flush in the former, and sorely lacking in the latter.

When attending a conference, trust there will be a home for these new notions in the coming school year. In the face of testing windows and jam-packed calendars, trust there will be space to integrate a design challenge, to field test a new portfolio and blogging app, and introduce your students to visual notetaking. Those initial moments may well be imperfect and that is okay--making mistakes is all part of the game. But we gain nothing without an attempt. Ultimately, as long as it is legal and in accordance with the Geneva conventions, what have you got to lose by trying?

Most importantly: trust yourself. As educators, we place tremendous faith in others, just as others invest significant confidence in us. It is nearly impossible to fulfill those contracts if we don’t first believe we are doing what is best for our students and that the choices we are making are in the service of learning. And this is not easy.

Build relationships. Grow your professional learning network. Tweet. Follow. Direct message. Hangout, Skype, Facetime and Zoom. Get to know virtual strangers as they become digital friends. Spend time with colleagues away from school. Eat. Love. Pray. Get to know one another as people. Discover how much easier it is to wrestle with dischord when you share bonds beyond the curriculum and when you believe in the other’s goodwill and intent.

Invest in yourself. Take some measured risks.

Accept. Communicate. Trust.

Dan Ryder is a veteran educator, improviser and design thinker at Mt Blue High School in Farmington, Maine. He is the co-author, with Amy Burvall, of Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom, from EdTechTeam Press. He can be followed @wickeddecent on Twitter, Instagram and Medium and seen onstage with his improv team, Teachers Lounge Mafia.

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