Podcasts as Professional Development?


* This article was written for and published in fall issue of education-forum.ca

Professional development (PD) does not only benefit teachers, it is a requirement. While school boards endeavor to provide PD that they believe is valuable, individual teachers know best what they need, and self-directed PD is more specific and rewarding.

At the beginning of each year, as part of their Annual Learning Plan, teachers set out their personal learning goals. Attending courses and workshops are wonderful, but sometimes ambitious, ways of pursuing one’s teaching interests; often teachers choose to review resources in their areas of study.

Podcasts are quickly becoming a popular professional resource for teachers. Much like informative talk radio shows that you might find on CBC or NPR, podcasts are audio files that can be downloaded onto your computer or phone and listened to at your convenience. To effectively manage the podcasts you want to access, it is best to download a specific application, often called a “podcatcher”; you can search online for one that best suits the device you are using.

At the moment, there are over 500,000 podcasts to choose from with an estimated 18.5 million episodes. To help you find some shows that could potentially provide professional development in your subject area, some possible places to begin are listed below:

Physical Education
SHAPE America Podcast is a monthly show that provides tips from leaders in the physical education community to challenge your thinking, allow you to discuss important issues, and give you new ideas to try within your classes.

ConnectedPE is a British podcast produced by the ConnectedPE online training community. It focuses on personalized coaching, discussion and professional development for all areas of physical education.

RadioLab is a very popular podcast and one of the giants of the podcast community. Focusing on science and culture, this past summer they produced a six-part series, “Gonads”, that covered several topics around gender, fertility and sex. While all six episodes would appeal to any teacher who covers health topics, the “Sex Ed” episode is particularly interesting.

Math Ed is a podcast for math teachers who want to delve into the craft of teaching math. Each podcast is a long interview with international researchers in the field of teaching mathematics.

Scientific American Mind is a podcast spun off the bimonthly magazine of the same name. There is a great episode from August 7, 2013 that features Toronto’s John Mighton, founder of JUMP Math. If you have heard of the innovative JUMP Math program and want to know more, this is a great place to begin.

Freakanomics Radio is a podcast of the NPR radio show hosted by the author of the Freaknomics series of books. If you teach statistics or want to inspire students to see math in everyday life, this podcast will provide surprising stories and case studies.

The Secret Life of Canada is a podcast that describes itself as “a history podcast about ​the country you know, the stories you don’t.” An essential podcast for any teacher of Canadian History, it will change the way you think of many of this country’s traditional understandings of itself.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History consists of rambling adventures through world history. Deeply researched and actually fun to listen to, Carlin’s infectious storytelling is great for hooking people’s interest in history.

In Our Time is a BBC podcast that provides serious instruction on moments in history. Each episode features a trio of professors with expertise on that episode’s particular topic, and compelling conversation ensues. This podcast would be of particular interest to those who teach ancient history.

Grammar Girl is a podcast of hundreds of short (three to five minute) episodes which give you clear instruction on elements of English grammar. Need to know when to use “that” or “which”? What punctuation does one use with the word “however”? Grammar Girl has you covered. Great to share with students!

The Paris Review will take you back to your days of studying English in university. Need a break from teaching English and need to consume some of it? This podcast will bring you the best readings and interviews from the esteemed literary journal.

Can’t Lit describes itself as “a podcast on all things Canadian and Literature.” If you want to increase the Canadian content of your courses, this show’s vibrant conversations will give you lots
of options.

Lab Out Loud is a very listenable podcast that offers inspiring stories about teaching science as well as discussions about the challenges faced by science teachers. Their recent episode on science teachers spending their own money on lab supplies is particularly good.

Science Underground is hosted by esteemed scientist and inventor, Ainissa Ramirez. She explores the science behind every day things. How do fireworks work? What’s that fastest way to get ketchup out of the bottle? Do animals gossip? Episodes are entertaining and informative.

Life of the School is a great example of a podcast made by a teacher for teachers, in this case specifically biology teachers. These conversations between biology teachers cover the everyday challenges and joys of teaching science.

Visual Art
Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education, a community of Art educators dedicated to lifelong learning. Episodes of this podcast deal with practical issues that face art, such as plagiarism vs artistic inspiration, new ways to teach colour theory, and managing art room culture. These are real art teachers talking about real art education issues.

KCRW’s Art Talk will keep art teachers up to date on current issues in visual art. Each episode is only three minutes in length, but they have surprising depth and interest. Subscribing to this podcast will provide you with weekly inspiration.

99% Invisible is another classic podcast with wide spread appeal. While only some episodes deal with visual aesthetics, all episodes cover topics related to design. Smart, entertaining and very well-produced, 99% Invisible is an engaging listen for anyone interested in the arts.

There are several aspects of podcasts that make them ideal sources for the professional development of teachers and educators. First, somewhere out there is a podcast perfect for you. Podcasts are so simple to create and distribute that if there is a topic you want to hear discussed, there is likely someone who is already doing it. Second is the convenience of listening. You can subscribe to a podcast so that new episodes automatically download to your phone. Using a Bluetooth device you can listen while commuting or washing dishes. Third, podcasts are free. Some may ask for donations but, for the most part, you can listen at no charge.

Once you begin following one or two podcasts, you will quickly learn that podcasters form like-minded communities, and soon you’ll be introduced to other shows with similar content. You might even find yourself making suggestions or contributing to a podcast. Participating in these communities will bring your professional development opportunities to a whole new level.

Don’t forget to share your new found enthusiasm for podcasts with your colleagues.

Stupid, Sex(Ed)-crazed Politicians

Stupid Sex-crazed politicians


Oh how the mighty have fallen.

It’s hard to believe that the political party that once ruled the province of Ontario for 42 straight years has been reduced to flirting with climate change denial and shrilly decrying the merits of Sex Education. As incredibly disappointing as I find the former, it is the latter that leaves me shaking my head.

So let’s look at the four leadership candidates and what they have said about Sex Ed, starting with the most innocuous, Caroline Mulroney.

When Ms. Mulroney wasn’t busy running away from reporters asking why she sends her kids to private school, she weighed in on the topic saying she was against “undoing any of the changes that have already been made,” but that she would have more parental input on curriculum updates. Safe answer.

Third least alarmist on the issue, Christine Elliott, has been accused of flip-flopping on her position, but she has clearly stated that she thinks the current updated Ontario Sex Ed curriculum is “a big problem” and that she “would like to open up the curriculum to parents.” So, unlike Mulroney, she’s not planning on waiting for any updates before she imposes changes.

Then we have Doug Ford who, God love him, knows how swing a populist issue like a bullyboy swings his fists. Ford finds the curriculum “totally unacceptable” and that “travelling around the province, [Sex Ed] is the number one issue with parents right now.” He too claims that earlier consultations with parents were “insufficient”.

Finally we have the pearl-clutching Tanya Granic Allen who wants to know why someone won’t please think of the children. Granic Allen has the distinction having the title “Sex Education Critic” tagged behind her name on most newscasts. She is the president of Parents As First Educators and sits on the Catholic Civil Rights League, but most notably she uses the phrase “anal sex” more than any other politician I know.

So what’s the common thread through these four leadership candidates’ views on Sex Ed? They all stoop for the low hanging fruit of telling parents that they have control of their children’s curriculum. It makes sense though, right? In a democracy we get to choose for our children, right?


Sorry parents, curriculum standards are developed by the Ministry of Education, school boards are charged with putting them in place and teachers create and deliver lessons plans. No individual or group has the right to deny Ontario’s children of informative, sensitive and progressive Sex Education. You can choose to keep your child ignorant of the topic by removing them from class, but you cannot foist your sheltering ways on other families.

Some have criticized the newly revised 2015 Ontario Sex Ed curriculum calling it “radical” and it might very well be considered radical when compared to the former outdated and parochial curriculum. However, with children entering puberty earlier, with media and the internet presenting sexual themes more readily, and with our society’s understanding of sexuality growing more nuanced, a comprehensive Sex Ed curriculum was needed and the Ministry of Education delivered.

Politicians need to keep their vote pulling out of Public Education and out of the Sex Education Curriculum. Also, the Ontario PC party might want to consider what the “P” in their name stands for. The shared stance taken by these four leaderships candidates is certainly not progressive.


*Note: Have you ever looked at the Ontario sex ed curriculum? It’s not only progressive, but it is sensitive to students and their stages of development and it seeks to keep them informed and safe. I recommend a quick look here.

Been there, done that

principal offices

Now isn’t that a kerfuffle in Nova Scotia? Avis Glaze, superstar school board director from Ontario put the Nova Scotia school system under the microscope and decided that there needed to be some major changes.

No more school boards, for a start, and the setting up a college of teachers much like Ontario has. Now I don’t want to dwell on those two bombshells, but what do either of those two massive changes have to do with student learning? Both seem like pretty big sticks . . . one to whip teachers with and one to beat school boards out of existence. But I digress.

The change that I am most interested in is the removal of principals from their teachers’ union. I was a classroom teacher when that change was imposed here in Ontario. I remember that some stalwart principals resigned their posts while others stayed on vowing to preserve the good relationship between them and their teachers . . . and they did preserve that relationship for a time. They continued to see themselves as defenders and protectors of their staff and they pushed back on many board and ministry intrusions into their schools and classrooms.

For the first few years, not much changed. The role of principals and vice principals certainly became more administrative and, dare I say, bureaucratic, but most schools continued on as usual. And then a funny thing happened . . . as principals began to retire, the usual bullpen of potential replacements, the department heads, refused to step forward. These department heads didn’t only have the experience that would have made them ideal school leaders, but they had gained the respect of the teachers in their departments. But now, they didn’t like how the role of the principal had changed and they didn’t want to leave the security of their union. Some teachers who had never been department heads found themselves being tapped for principal positions. Soon younger and much less experienced teachers found themselves leading schools while their more experienced colleagues stepped back.

Then another funny thing happened. As this newer, younger, less experienced crop of principals became school leaders, they more readily accepted the roles as conduits for their employers. They implemented board and ministry initiatives and they managed their staff much like a business leader might. Many felt that principals were no longer the champion of their teachers; instead they were strictly managers. This new strained relationship between principals and their teachers exacerbated the hiring problem. Even fewer teachers found the position of principal attractive and school boards had to appeal to even younger, less experienced and ambitious teachers. It is now not unusual to find a school principal with a mere 5 years of teaching experience.

As it sits now, the principal hiring situation in Ontario could be called a crisis. The Ministry of Education knows it and school boards know it. Special administrative training programs have been set up to groom potential principals and weed out weaker candidates. Still, they can’t convince experienced teachers to step up.

Before principals were pulled out of their union, they were strong leaders in their schools. They were professional leaders; they were curricular leaders, and they were moral leaders. They could be these things because they were given the autonomy to do so. The term “principal” is the shortened form of “principal teacher” and that is exactly what they were. As teachers, standing with and leading their staff, they formed an education community that worked together for the benefit of the school, its students and their learning.

Nova Scotia, you don’t know how good you have it. Be careful what you wish for.


*On a side note, I hear the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union is planning an “illegal strike” to protest these changes. Our 1997 walkout was labelled an “illegal strike” too, but we were able to push back on many of the changes being imposed on the public school system.