Fun Professional Development Is Not an Oxymoron

Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

I learned early in my career, as an RA I think, that I don’t believe in the concept of mandatory fun which is an oxymoron if there ever was one. You know what I mean, that after-hours get together that is supposed to create camaraderie, but is unlikely to make anyone happy – other than the person whose bright idea it was. People’s schedules are too complex these days and commutes too long in some urban areas for an entire office to make such events work well. So I don’t believe in mandatory fun – after hours. I do believe there’s a place for truly voluntary fun that may extend after work. And I do believe there’s a place for unique and varied ideas about professional development.

Matthew Dicks is an author, storyteller, teacher – of both storytelling and elementary school, among other vocations. He also writes a daily blog, which I find amazing in and of itself. ( Tuesday’s blog really caught my attention. In it he recounts a professional development day that took the teachers on a field trip. They went to the Hill-Stead Museum, the New Britain Museum of Art and the Mark Twain House. As he tells the story, their principal with the amazing name of Plato Karfelis, had to “fight like a dog to get those three trips approved and was still beaten up by his administrators about the trips after they were completed.” They seemed to think this was a “silly, purposeless” idea, a “terrible use of time and money”. But Dicks remembers it a decade later and he can point to ways it inspired his teaching, connections he made with colleagues that still exist at the writing of this blog, and that field trip “inspired me to be a better artist and teacher. Excited me about bring more art and beauty into my school day.” Now that sounds like great outcome. And it’s probably even measurable though it may have taken some time for the full benefits to be realized.

Author and teacher Julia Cameron would probably call that day, ‘filling the well’. Her version of that idea is to suggest that people who are creative should take themselves on an Artist’s Date. Once a week take an excursion somewhere by yourself. The by-yourself part is critical. It’s a chance to do something you think is fun, interesting, or just a change of pace with no one else there to direct your attention or to stop you from spending time with what ever catches your fancy. She calls it ‘assigned play’ for creative-types, but it’s really for everyone (the fact that we’re all creative-types is a topic for another blog post), It’s a way to refill the creative well that has been depleted. Once a week, for an hour, doing something that just sounds fun and has no other immediate purpose beyond fun is good for all of us. Like the museum trip for professional development, it doesn’t matter what the results are. It’s enough to know that you did something for yourself. It’s enough to trust that some day in the future you might realize that there was a result.

As we wrap up another academic year knowing how difficult this year has been for everyone, what might you do to help people fill their depleted ‘wells’. Wells of energy, creativity, compassion all have been depleted over the last year plus. You probably have staff who are anxious about returning to campus; you may be anxious about returning to campus. You may have hired new staff who haven’t met their officemates in person. What might you do as assigned play – during work hours therefore different than mandatory fun? Do you have a museum on campus that people always want to visit but never can get to? Is there a VIP tour of a facility on campus that ‘regular’ staff never get to see or do? What’s your town known for? Is there a tourist draw that no local ever does? Ask people for ideas and see what’s possible.

Like Principal Plato Karfeilis, you may have to convince someone to let you do this unusual activity. Be willing to fight for the opportunity to do something that will make a difference for your colleagues and for yourself. Matthew Dicks said he also learned these lessons from that experience, “Do the right thing, even when those in power don’t always think it’s right. Seek to inspire through novelty and innovation. Take risks. See beyond the mundane and expected to something less quantitive and more qualitative.” Overall that list strikes me as good advice for leaders and critical advice for all of us at this time in our organizational lives. What creative professional development can you come up with? I’d love to hear about it!

Take care and have fun!


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