The great aim of education is not knowledge but action. –Herbert Spencer

With the first days of school here for some and rapidly approaching for others, the end of summer is being marked with a transition into fall and a new school year. First day outfits, reacquainting with friends, jitters about schedules and logistics of buildings, lockers, and lunchrooms: These are the things most people relate to the beginning of a new school year. However, the approaching school year means something different for teachers: the dreaded and required district-wide professional development.

In my perfect world, teachers would be given a few days to get classrooms ready, plan the first few weeks of instruction, and meet with colleagues to goal set and discuss curriculum and assessments. Ah, the feeling of complete preparedness for the first days of school, wholly organized and equipped and ready to welcome jittery students and ease their fears…

Let’s bask a moment in that fantasy…

BAM! Reality hits and so does the dreaded, mandatory district-wide professional development day.

I love to learn. Most teachers do… Though we may tackle our pedagogy and philosophies differently, the love of learning is a common thread with most educators. When it comes to material we know to be valuable to our students and our goals, there is no more rapt and cooperative audience. Teachers will dive into material, take risks, and participate in the learning environment like greedy children. The energy in this room is intense and contagious. Big things happen in these spaces. Presenters dream of rooms like this and hope to even simply have moments of buy-in and flashes of inspiration from those participating.

On the flip side, there are other rooms of professional development that are completely different: saturated with frustration and steeped in obstinate professionals who wonder if their senior leadership team ever considers the professional needs of teachers, the expertise in the district’s classrooms, or the actual needs of the students.

In my short time as a teacher, I’ve been involved in the former so rarely that I wonder if it actually happened, and the latter is where I have found myself more often.

It all started optimistically from most: shuffling into the room, waves and greetings to friends, discussion of summer activities, and a palpable feeling of excitement for the new year… a fresh start with new possibilities.

Then the work began. Teachers around the room glanced at the handout: information that seemed oddly similar to many other professional developments brought to them by their district leadership team. As the presenter clicked through slides and explained procedures and expectations, the mood in the room shifted from one of excitement to one of submission and disappointment, even weariness.

Once again, senior leadership mandated a training that was redundant and unneeded and felt like an insult to the competent professionals in the room. Rather than completely participating, teachers found themselves trying to be professionally courteous to the unassuming speaker while using what time they could to be productive and actually accomplish something to prepare for the new year.

Our job is to meet student needs, one educator bemoaned, and this training doesn’t lend itself to that.

 Another agreed: It’s just more hoop-jumping, a complete waste of time and money and completely unproductive.

They keep shoving this down our throats, another griped. This is completely insulting.

An empty promise of plenty of collaboration time to make the training more applicable was delivered by the speaker: Instead, teachers sat passively and were talked at the majority of the day… From a company that boasts “best practices” and “research-based” methods, this felt oddly contradictory.

Here’s the thing: Teachers are already dedicated to the pursuit of life-long learning. Many of the teachers in the room had Masters degrees or higher, and nearly all teachers spend their own time developing professionally. To add to it, the topic for the day was something at least half of the teachers had been working closely with for several years. Why insult the intelligence of people who are entrusted to teach our children? Why waste their time when they could be doing something that would directly benefit kids?

Any district-mandated professional development seems to be a dangerous thing. Never will every teacher have buy-in, and not every person is dedicated to continued professional and personal growth. What may be needed in one building—or in one classroom—may be completely obsolete in another. If we know the needs of our students are diverse, why do we assume all of our teachers need the same things?

Visiting with some of my more seasoned colleagues was even more enlightening, or more discouraging, depending on your perception.

After nearly 25 years (of these trainings), only two were worthwhile when I could say I came away with something useful that would impact my classroom, one teacher reflected. Only one time were teachers allowed to make a choice for their professional development, and that was one of the good years.

Apparently, teachers know what they need, and teacher choice is a powerful thing. Why are we tying the hands of our teachers behind their backs rather than empowering them to be self-directed?

Why are things this way? I can venture a guess: I suspect there is one person who has a high position in the district (as well as a large ego), and this person has a vision of what school SHOULD be. While there is nothing wrong with that vision, it lacks realism. There is very little consideration given to the diversity of our student population and the needs of our community, and almost no consideration is given to teacher capabilities or needs.

I have to respectfully say, I’m very sorry, but not all of our students are round pegs that will fit into your version of “school.” What we are doing instead is neutering our teachers and enabling our students to perform at lower levels than they are capable of. While things like graduation rates and ACT scores are indeed important, there are more crucial things that our students need from us: lessons in life, perseverance, resilience, respect, integrity.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m guessing no one found any of these lessons in our latest mandated training.

Suppose the training went a tiny bit better, and maybe half of the teachers felt they took away at least one useful thing. Then the questions changes: Will I ever be able to DO anything with this information? Or will this be just another handout that I file under “Professional Development”? What will be the mandate next year?

Trainings and professional development opportunities can be powerful, but only if those people who will be implementing the new knowledge will be empowered and given the opportunity to act on it and attach it to something they already believe in.

One more comment I overheard: The fact that I am thinking about shitting in my own pants in order to get out of here… Doesn’t that speak volumes?

Yes, it does. If anyone is listening.

 

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