Professional Development… at all costs!

Professional development at any budget.
Photo credit: Nicole Cann

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could wave a magic wand and design your own professional development plan? If you widen your definition of what professional development actually is, you may be able to do just that.”

It is with great pleasure that I present a guest post from my friend and colleague Nicole Cann. Nicole is manager of interpretive delivery at the Vancouver Aquarium. I saw her present this subject at a recent professional development opportunity, and I asked her to share it with my readers. Please welcome Nicole!

-Don Enright, editor 

Almost any book you ever read on how to be a great employee will tell you that professional development is vital. You’ve also probably heard speakers praise the value of development in conferences you’ve attended. In fact, I bet if you were to ask anyone for their top 5 success tips, Pro-D would be somewhere on that list.

If it’s so important for staff at all levels to engage in professional development (and I 100% agree that it is) than why does it feel like it’s always at the bottom of our priority list? Why is it always the first thing to get cut from our budgets? Why does it feel like there’s never any time for it?

The two answers that I have come up with to these questions are:

  • It can be difficult to explain why professional development is important.
  • We tend to have a narrow definition of what professional development is.

So what IS professional development, exactly? defines it as a “Process of improving and increasing capabilities of staff through access to education and training opportunities in the workplace, through outside organization, or through watching others perform the job.” But what does that actually look like? The trouble I’ve found is that is can look like a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What does professional development look, sound, and feel like to you? Has your manager ever asked you that before? If you’re a supervisor, have you ever asked this of your staff?

Professional development is a form of personal growth and since that is, by nature, personal it is best to design a professional development plan that is specific to an individual. You likely have strong interests in certain areas of your job and hopefully you are also self-aware enough to be able to recognize some of your own areas of improvement. Wouldn’t it be great if you could wave a magic wand and design your own development plan that featured your professional idols mentoring you to excellence in those areas where you could use a little work? If you widen your scope of what professional development actually is you may be able to do just that.

The trouble I’ve found is that corporately we tend to think of professional development as two things: conferences and courses. This is an incredibly limiting filter on our abundantly creative minds and it is one I have tried for years to break. While I am a huge fan of conferences and I love a good lecture there are countless other learning opportunities afforded to us if we open our eyes to them. This is especially important to do since the typical forms of professional development can be quite costly and time consuming – and we all have so much money and time, right?

A few of the examples of professional development that I’ve experimented with in my career involve partnering up with other interpretive facilities nearby. They may be similar in content to your own field of expertise but they don’t have to be; that’s one of my favourite things about our profession —our skills are so easily transferable! If you are able to find another organization that is willing to work together you can set up for staff-swap days. Put another facility’s staff to work for you for the day by having them shadow one of your own staff. The first time I tried this with Science World I was amazed by the number of takeaways both teams had after just one day.

If there’s a guest speaker you want to bring in but they’re a little too much for your budget, this relationship with another organization could also be used to help share the cost. On an individual level I love visiting other interpretive sites whenever I can because there’s no shortage of knowledge I can soak up: knowledge of our common profession, and of that organization’s procedures and practices.

Given the wonderful world of technology at our fingertips everyday why not also take advantage of it for your professional development? The number of free online courses available continues to grow and when you start adding in TED talks, podcasts, blog reading and writing, and online communities you might find yourself overwhelmed instead of underwhelmed by your options. On Facebook alone I belong to seven different interpretive discussion groups and the conversations going on there are fascinating. If you’re a “learn by doing” type of person why not try starting your own interpretive blog or training session that you could deliver to your peers? Better yet, why not offer an interpretive training to your non-interpretive coworkers who could probably also benefit from their own professional development?

But why should we? Why is professional development so important? If you’re a manager, providing professional development for your staff is an important part of building a strong and engaged team.  To quote “The importance of continuing professional development should not be underestimated – it is a career-long obligation for practicing professionals.”

Professional development is important. It’s not only how you’re going to get better at your job; it’s how you’ll stay good at it.

And hopefully that matters a great deal to both you and your boss.

Nicole Cann

Do you have innovative ideas for professional development? Please share them in the comments below. Let’s start an inventory of affordable professional development ideas for working interpreters!  


  1. Dorothy Young

    Great post from Nicole! She has lots of good ideas about professional development (pd). She is also correct that it is usually the first thing to be cut from budgets in your world as it is in education budgets. People learn differently so the ‘one size fits all’ type of pd just doesn’t work. Managers who want to develop strong teams should encourage their team members to be creative in the various forms of pd they plan for themselves. Job shadowing within your own organization as well as outside of it helps people see what opportunities there are for advancement. A fresh set of eyes and discussion over a beverage with someone who doesn’t know why you do things a certain way can lead to pd for both people. Learning is lifelong. So learn something new everyday of your life!

    • Hi Dorothy- I couldn’t agree more. I remember the first time I was asked to job-shadow someone as pro. development- I kind of rolled my eyes. By the end of the day I was so excited about everything I’d seen and learned. It gave me a whole new perspective on my own job.

  2. Thank you, Nicole, for breaking the barriers of how we define professional development. I, too, am guilty of limiting my definition (and therefore also my options) to conferences and courses. But, they are often the hardest things to get managerial and financial support for.

    I absolutely love your idea of shadowing staff in a partner organization. I also love the idea of shadowing staff in another area of your own organization. Think of how beneficial it would be for a park interpreter to assist with a caribou aerial survey, for example. I bet that interpreter would have boundless enthusiasm for the topic afterwards, and would similarly engage the public with amazing tales. the same would hold true at a historic site where an interpreter could shadow an archaeologist or a curator.

    Another idea that came to mind when reading your post is the idea of mini seminars with staff. What if you had a small team of interpreters and each one could read an article about interpretation (or book if they are so inclined) and do a quick presentation at a morning (or weekly) meeting about one key idea from it. Your whole team would be peppered with neat ideas without needing to invest the time of each person reading every article.

    Again, thank you for your insight and for causing me to think a little differently. I feel inspired to request a different kind of professional development from my boss this year!

    • Thank-you so much for that very kind comment Cal! I LOVE the idea of mini staff seminars and may have to steal it… 🙂 I look forward to hearing about what you request.

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