10 Free Ways To Grow As An Educator

Teacher Quote
Image by Denise Krebs, courtesy Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Every teacher knows that feeling of pure bliss after a lesson was a complete success. Those are the times you are just smiling ear-to-ear as you walk to the parking lot at the end of the day. It is a feeling like no other, and once you feel it, you are on a quest to create as many of those types of lessons as possible. It sends you scouring far and wide in search of that next great lesson idea or strategy you could use with your students.

As a new teacher, I really thought teacher professional development meant either paying to attend conferences, buying professional development books, or taking more graduate classes. Those are all fantastic ways to grow as an educator, but most require spending money. So, the question I faced as a new teacher was how to grow professionally without breaking the bank. Guess what, spending money is not your only hope!

What follows are the 10 most effective ways that I’ve grown as a teacher over the last 11 years and each and every one was FREE!!!

  1. Student Surveys: Your students are your most important source of feedback, and seeking out their input on lessons is critical. Strategies that I have employed to do this include daily target sheets. Students not only reflect on the lesson of the day, but they also give me feedback on lessons they found to be most effective—as well as those that were duds. I have also used Google Forms to collect student feedback. This is my end-of-the-year Google Form from last year. I also gave a similar mid-year survey form last year. Gathering this feedback has been critical to me adjusting and changing my lessons. If your students are struggling or disengaged by your lessons, you need to know! That’s why getting this feedback is imperative. Yes, some of the feedback can be harsh, but often times it is spot on and has prompted me to overhaul lessons and units. Always start with your students.
  2. Podcasts: I think podcasts are an often-overlooked, amazing form of free PD. The great thing about podcasts is that you don’t need your eyes to enjoy them. As I set up my classroom in the morning, do laundry, or cut the grass, I can also be learning new teaching ideas. My favorite education podcasts are Visions of Education  (@VisionsOfEd), History Tech Podcast, by (@glennw98)  Hacking Engagement by (@jamessturtevant), and Talking Social Studies (@TalkinSS). All four have a ton of social studies content that provides me with lesson ideas I could use the next day in my classroom. I also love podcasts with an edtech focus, such as Check This Out (@CheckThisOutBR), Sustainable Teaching by (@TomEMullaney), The House of #EDTECH (@HouseofEdTech), The Edtech Take Out (@DLGWAEA), and The Google Teacher Tribe Podcast (@GTeacherTribe), as they not only include effective classroom strategies, but also detail edtech resources I can try in my class. Podcasts I enjoy to help broaden my content knowledge include 99% Invisible (@99piorg), Freakonomics (@Freakonomics), Back Story (@BackStoryRadio), Stuff You Should Know (@SYSKPodcast), The Memory Palace (@thememorypalace), Revisionist History (@Gladwell), and Stuff You Missed in History Class (@MissedinHistory). All have supplied me with more content knowledge that I can bring into my classroom. As I listen to podcasts, I often have my Google Keep close at hand so that I can quickly take notes on what is being shared. If you are looking for more on podcasts, I wrote this post in which you can read more about them.
  3. Teacher Blogs: The great thing about blog posts is that they are short and don’t require the time commitment of longer professional development texts. Another benefit is that they are current, while some PD books can become dated. One more benefit is the digital format, which makes including links to resources much easier. Some of my favorite edu blogs are Chuck Taft’s (@Chucktaft) blog Social Studies Out Loud, Glenn Wiebe’s (@glennw98) History Tech blog, Matt Miller’s (@jmattmiller) Ditch That Textbook blog, Richard Byrne’s (@rmbyrne) Practical Edtech blog, Quinn Rollin’s (@jedikermit) Quinn Rollins Play Like A Pirate blog, and John Raby’s (@JohnHRaby) Mr. Raby’s Classroom Blogs and of course both the #worldgeochat blog (@worldgeochat) and the National Geographic Education Blog (@NatGeoEducation)!
  4. YouTube: If I ask my students where they go to learn something new, most often they say YouTube. There is also great video PD for teachers on YouTube! Some of my favorites are The Library of Congress (@librarycongress), John Spencer’s (@spencerideasThe Creative ClassroomRichard Byrne’s Channel (@rmbyrne), Stanford History Education Group (@SHEG_Stanford), Smithsonian Education (@SmithsonianEdu), Michael Matera’s channel (@mrmatera). Plus, there is great content for students from Crash Course (@TheCrashCourse), Hip Hughes (@hiphughes), Simple History, HistoryTeachers (@historyteacherz), and National Geographic (@NatGeo).
  5. Curriculum Work: What has been some of the most fun and effective growth for me has been joining our school’s curriculum writing team. The chance to routinely collaborate with several teachers passionate about social studies has afforded me the chance to pick their brains on what is working and not working in the classroom, have a better understanding of the curriculum, and have a lot of laughs each meeting. Chris Heffernan (@cheffernan75), my friend, co-#worldgeochat moderator, and fellow curriculum team member wrote about our work here.
  6. Edcamps: I found out about Edcamps via Twitter. This is some of the best PD I have ever attended and it’s totally free! Most Edcamps are offered on a Saturday. Teachers assemble and they create the sessions as a collaborative process in the morning. After that, you pick the sessions you want to attend. If you don’t like a session, feel free to try another one as they follow the “rule of two feet”, which empowers participants to find sessions that best meet their needs. I’ve attended several Edcamps and they are always attended by teachers who are so excited to teach and willing to share and collaborate. I always walk out with my brain filled with new ideas to try! To learn more about Edcamps and check to see where there is one close by you, check out their website (@EdcampUSA).
  7. Observing Other Teachers: I’m so lucky to have had several principals who have valued peer observation. When you are in a teacher ed program you have to observe teachers all the time—but at that point you don’t really know what you are looking for. I’ve learned new attention-getters, ways to start class, distribute materials, and how to structure my class from classroom observations. Some schools have even adopted a pineapple chart system to encourage peer observations. Learn more about pineapple charts in this post, “How Pineapple Charts Revolutionize Professional Development”, from Jennifer Gonzalez (@cultofpedagogy) Also, be sure to check out #pineapplechart and #observeme on Twitter.
  8. Staying Current With Pop Culture: Staying current with pop culture is also important. By reading books your students are reading, watching similar TV shows and movies, and being familiar with the music your students are listening to, you can tap into this and spike their interests when an opportunity presents itself. Whether it be including images or memes of pop culture icons in your slides or on your handouts, analyzing lyrics or video clips, having songs playing as they walk in or book talks to get them reading, it becomes much easier to hook students if you are familiar with what is popular with their age group at the time. If you are looking for book titles to possibly use check out this post. If you need songs you might be able to use check out this post.
  9. Collaborating With Learning Support Coaches/Librarians: In the past, I did not utilize our LSCs or librarians nearly enough. Now I meet with our LSCs weekly and collaborate with my LC director frequently. I’ve learned so many new ideas, especially in regards to teaching literacy skills from our LSCs. They are always offering new instructional strategies to try, as well as offered to come in and help implement these strategies. Our meetings cause me to be a much more reflective practitioner. I have also grown through collaboration with our school librarians. Not only have I gotten lots of great book recommendations but my LC director Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher) has also helped to create Breakout Edu games for me and has led my class through several sessions using Google Expeditions. I mentioned our work with Google Expeditions in this post.
  10. Twitter: Nothing has improved my teaching more than Twitter. Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher) is the one who recommended Twitter to me during a session he helped facilitate during our school Edcamp. I “lurked” for over a year. Lurking is following the conversations on Twitter but not actively participating. I learned of so many great resources. Josh was also the one to encourage me to take the leap and actually start tweeting. I’m so glad he gave me that nudge. Not long after I actually started tweeting, Chris Heffernan (@cheffernan75) pushed me into starting #worldgeochat with him. Now Chris, Sam Mandeville (@SamMandeville), Pete Spiegel (@GeoSpiegs), Jennifer Garner (@jmgarner2003), and I lead weekly Tuesday chats on a wide range of geography and education topics. I’ve grown so much through this collaboration with fellow educators on Twitter. If you haven’t started a Twitter account do it today! You will be so happy that you did. Social Studies teachers should also check out the #sschat, #sstlap, and #worldgeochat hashtags for a wealth of ideas. I know any of those chats would be happy to have you participate!

Teachers are learners. What have been your most effective ways that you have found to learn and grow?


Ed is one of our #worldgeochat bloggers. #worldgeochat is a professional learning network at its finest—a community of learners who work with each other and for each other. Join us each Tuesday night at 9 Eastern/8 Central—click here for a list of upcoming topics!


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