Buyer Beware

August 01, 1996 17 min read

In its ideal, professional development is beyond reproach: Set aside several days a year for seminars and workshops where teachers can pick up teaching ideas grounded in research and commiserate, collaborate, and rejuvenate. Unfortunately, most sessions don’t live up to that ideal. In fact, they often flop. We asked a number of educators to jot down their most memorable experiences. The short essays that follow describe professional development at its best--and its worst.

Coleen Armstrong teaches English at Hamilton High School in Cincinnati.

‘Susan, that dress makes you look like an elephant.’' The teachers in the session exchanged glances of disbelief. Who could possibly say such a horrible thing to a child? Yet it was there in black and white, one of the stories we read on the first day of an eight-week professional development course titled “Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement.’' The course’s main premise was that teachers generally got from their students no more or less than they expected (big surprise) and that as long as we treated youngsters with courtesy and respect, we generally received the same in return (another surprise). How long, I wondered, would I be force-fed such “wisdom’’ under the label of professional development?

Things got worse before they got better. As we read aloud negative story after story, I couldn’t help musing, “Do they really pay people to write this stuff? Is there any teacher on the face of the earth who would talk to children this way?’' And: “Why am I sitting here wasting $240?’' The answer, of course, was that I needed three credit hours for recertification. And the class was conveniently held in-house for three hours each Tuesday at a low group rate.

Plenty of teachers agreed the class was useless. We made jokes among ourselves. “Susan, that dress makes you look like an elephant’’ became a standard one-liner during any lull in our conversations.

The classes did, we grudgingly admitted later, have some value. There were exercises during which each small-group participant listed things he or she admired about every other participant. For some of us, they were the only compliments we’d heard in weeks. Faces turned rosy with pleasure. Yes, positive reinforcement definitely had its charm.

But I still didn’t believe any teacher would treat a child this badly--until one day near the end of the year. A stern-faced 1st grade teacher whom I didn’t recognize was leading a straight line of students down the hall. One bright-eyed little girl stepped out of line and craned her neck to see how many children were ahead of her. The teacher was on the girl’s back in an instant. “You’re disgusting,’' she hissed. “Can’t you ever do as you’re told?’' The woman started to turn back toward the front of the line, then whirled around and fired another verbal missile: “I don’t even want to look at you.’'

The child’s face disintegrated before my eyes. But only for a moment. Then she composed herself, and her expression became a mask of passivity.

I leaned against the wall, feeling a pain so intense that I could hardly move. By the time I could react (to say something gentle or offer a hug), the group was already marching single file into the classroom. How long, I asked myself, would that little girl carry that hurt? How many other times had her self-esteem been annihilated? How old would she be before she learned to see herself as a person of value?

I left the building and headed to my car. All those jokes about teacher expectations and student achievement weren’t funny anymore. The only trouble with professional development, I realized then, was that the wrong people enrolled. Those who needed it most would never sign up.

Evelyn Hersh is a former elementary school teacher in Wayne, Pa.

I was seated in a workshop called “Enlisting Parental Support,’' half listening to old ideas about getting parents on your side--weekly reports, initialed assignment books, parent conferences--when one young woman mentioned that she made two positive phone calls each week. I thought about it and realized that I’d never called parents just to let them know their children were doing well in class. That night, ignoring misgivings that I had nothing important to say, I made my first call.

“Mrs. Cerny, this is Mike’s teacher.’'

“Yes?’' The word hung there; her unvoiced concern filled the pause. Homework incomplete? A fight? Drugs?

“I called to tell you about the great job Mike did in organizing the setup of the room for a visiting speaker.’'

“Oh. . . . Well, thank you so much for calling, but . . . .’'

Another pause. Something more was expected, and I understood that expectation. First, teachers stressed the positive, and then they inserted the “but,’' changed tone, and went on to detail all the areas that needed improvement.

“Just thank him again for me. The program would have fallen apart if he hadn’t taken charge.’'

I hung up and savored the thought of Mike’s reaction to the phone call. Unless his mom spoke very fast, he’d have time to conjure up all sorts of images of the trouble he was in without even knowing what he’d done wrong.

I made my second phone call. As soon as I gave my name, the mother rattled off a barrage of excuses for imagined complaints. Finally, when I squeezed in my reason for calling, her response was a flat, “Oh.’' Disappointed? Apologetic? Who knows. But it was far easier to work with that family from then on.

Some weeks I made no phone calls. Because of my mood, I sensed that the praise might sound insincere to the parents or that the kids, with their built-in antennae for anything fake, would think I was exaggerating. The next week, I might make five or six.

I’d like to say there was immediate feedback from the calls. There wasn’t. A few of the kids mentioned my talks with their parents; most didn’t. Over a period of time, though, the atmosphere of the class changed. The kids approached me more readily, and their attitudes toward one another improved. Parents communicated with me more often and more openly. But I myself derived the greatest benefit--a strengthened resolve to look for the good in every child.

Nicholas S. Thacher is headmaster of New Canaan (Conn.) Country School.

Surrounded by a jostling crowd of registrants at the 1970 annual conference of the California Association of Teachers of English, I open my registration packet.

In it are a badge and a program reflecting the conference theme: “The Age of Aquarius.’'

I examine my badge first: “Hi,’' it proclaims, “my name’s Nick, and I’m a Taurus.’' My name and astrological sign have been hand-lettered. The calligraphy looks nice, I think. A Taurus--now, staring around the cavernous Anaheim Convention Center thronged with thousands of my teaching colleagues, I understand why the preregistration form asked for my birthday.

This is my very first experience with professional development. I have been attracted to the conference largely by the advertised keynote speaker, Neil Postman, whose recently published Teaching as a Subversive Activity intrigued me mightily. He will address the crowd at lunch. But first, we will enjoy a morning of practical workshops. I scan the program, unhappily discovering that most of the offerings hold little promise. I am one of two English teachers in a small private high school, so seminars such as the one advising “How To Wangle More Funding From Your Department Chair’’ seem irrelevant to my professional life.

At last, I settle on “Practical Tips for the Classroom.’' I wind my way into the bowels of the convention center and find myself seated in a small meeting room. Glancing around, I notice plenty of veteran teachers. This seems to guarantee that I’ll pick up a lot of useful pointers.

The presider introduces herself, explains that she is with us simply to facilitate the exchange of “hands-on management tips.’' She starts us off with a bonding experience: We move around the room individually stating our names, the grade levels we teach, and our astrological signs.

Wasting no more time, she sets out the first professional conundrum: “How do you handle a situation when one of your students raises a hand and asks you how to spell a word, and you aren’t sure?’' A gasp of horror wafts through the room. People step right up to the professional plate, though: You could say that there isn’t time for that right now and direct the questioner to look it up later. Or you could ask students to raise their hands if they know the correct spelling. Or you could look indignant and direct the offending child to the classroom dictionary, insisting that he or she read the correct spelling to the whole class or write it on the board for visual reinforcement. Around the room, my teaching colleagues are nodding. That seems to be the best solution.

All the way down to Anaheim, a three-hour drive, I have been thinking about Neil Postman, so I raise my hand and am recognized. I confess I’m a newcomer to the classroom. Then, I suggest that you admit you aren’t sure how to spell the word either, so why don’t we look it up together?

It is suddenly still in the room. The lengthy silence that ensues is a visible rebuke of my first contribution to a professional development seminar. I am seized by a wild impulse to cover my badge, even though it gives away only my first name.

Finally someone explains, “That admission would destroy the very fabric of the student-teacher relationship.’' The facilitator graciously moves things along to a new situation, leaving me in her wake. The room feels palpably claustrophobic. A Taurus, I reflect miserably. What else can you expect from a Taurus?

William Scott teaches social studies, service learning, and English as a Second Language to 7th graders at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco.

A few years ago, I came across a list of America’s 10 most stressful jobs. Inner-city teacher was ranked No. 2, just behind urban police officer and just ahead of firefighter and air traffic controller. Taking home the silver was a dubious honor, I guess, but strangely validating.

Stress permeates the lives of many of my colleagues. Yet, much of the professional development we attend ignores this fact entirely. No surprise, then, that my most memorable professional development experience has been my least stressful. Instead of requiring us to do more, it asks us to reflect with colleagues about what we are already doing in our classrooms and how we can refine our practices.

Once a month, I meet with the Praxis group, made up of five other teachers, three aides, and a counselor from my school. The meetings, led by two trained counselors, begin with an art activity or some other relaxation exercise. Imagine a group of teachers gathered around finger paints or sculpting otherworldly creatures from model clay. This is not your standard professional development session.

Then we ease into the meeting agenda. Each session focuses on an area of concern for the group. We have discussed such thorny issues as disciplining students, cultural differences among staff, and the difficulties teaching in heterogeneous, mainstreamed classrooms. Frustrations often outweigh the successes as staff members share their stories. If there were easy solutions to these problems, the current state of affairs in public schools would be different. However, voicing these difficulties (and hearing others acknowledge them) makes them a little less crippling.

As the conversation progresses, my mind begins to buzz with techniques for my classroom and ways to improve the school community. Armed with the description of another teacher’s literacy program, I was able to refine my reading workshop to reach all my students. Although I’ve had two education professors lecture me about wait-time, it wasn’t until a recent Praxis work group that I internalized its importance and began to slow the pace of my classroom discussions.

I may not leave the Praxis group with next week’s lesson plan. But I do walk out the door feeling rejuvenated and better prepared to meet the challenges and stresses of teaching in an urban public school.

Gary Rubinstein is a high school mathematics teacher who spent the last academic year teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Professional development days are times of role reversal: Teachers become students (loud and uncooperative), administrators become teachers (boring and demanding), and students become administrators (at home sleeping).

If a television is posted near the podium, we know we are about to endure the least effective in-service imaginable--the video. I resent this medium because it encourages teachers who too often elect to make it “a Blockbuster lesson.’' The video usually depicts a round-table informational meeting where a group of teachers asks a moderator about the in-service topic. The video, with its unnatural dialogue, takes the tone of a late-night infomercial.

Sometimes, we are given an information packet to supplement the video. I once flipped through a booklet that had been included in such a packet and discovered a section titled “Commonly Asked Questions.’' I realized they had given us the script from which the teachers on the tape were reading. I pointed this out to some of the more obnoxious members of our staff, and they began reading the answers, loudly, along with the video. Others joined in, and soon, there were nearly 20 teachers participating in the mockery.

If no video is available, there is usually an experienced presenter. At our last development day, I took one look at the guest speaker and made a quick guess: 68. By this, I was not calculating her age; I was guessing the year she retired from teaching. This woman wouldn’t know a modern schoolchild if he or she bit her on the nose, which is probably what would happen if the speaker were left in charge of a class for more than eight seconds. One presenter offered this instructional tip: “Don’t just lecture the kiddos on Africa. Have them bring in African artifacts.’'

No development day would be complete without a giant pad where we can write down the results of all our brainstorming. Ideas always look silly on those big easels. There’s a law of physics, I think, that says the importance of an idea is inversely proportional to the size of the paper on which it is written.

Most teachers would rather be teaching their kids than sitting at the in-services. The rest would rather complain about teaching than complain about in-services. So why should school in-services continue? Though they fail to educate teachers, they do unintentionally achieve something significant. Each time I leave an in-service, I vow to never subject my students to such boredom. In that way, every in-service has made me a better teacher.

Curt Lieneck teaches 4th grade at the University of Chicago Laboratory School in Chicago.

Sometimes, I’m lured to professional development conferences. They always sound wonderful, but, like Yogi Berra’s “deja vu all over again,’' the same curious events unfold at each one.

The stuffy hotel meeting room has too few chairs, so I sit on the floor with my back against the room divider and open my notebook. My initial optimism wanes when the presenter suggests an “icebreaker.’' Twenty minutes later, having heard an exhaustive account of all that’s wrong with my neighbor’s school, I am relieved when the speaker begins.

His first words are always, “I’m sorry, but we’re short of handouts.’' He explains that the airlines lost his other bag, that FedEx went into Chapter 11 this morning, or that “they’’ (a cabal of inept conference organizers?) told him not to bring any. So he starts a sign-up list to have one mailed to you, but I’m wise to this little scam. We floor guys know that no one on these lists really receives anything. Presenters actually compete to see how many names they can get. Winners sell their lists to telemarketing sweatshops. It’s true.

It turns out the handout doesn’t matter much, though, because when the lights dim, it’s up on the overhead and will actually be read aloud for the next 45 minutes. When the opening sentence contains the words “empowering,’' “sensitizing,’' and “impacting’'--strikes 1, 2, and 3--I’m out of there, or would like to be, but I’m wedged in by a big pile of nylon tote bags stuffed with exhibit-hall freebies. Resigned, I make lists of things I have to do when I get back to school until the lights come up.

I’ve sworn off conferences for a while. Lately, I read thought-provoking books or watch good teachers work when I feel I need to. The school is nice enough to pay for my substitutes and books. That’s plenty of professional development for me.

Robert L. Fried is an associate professor of education at the University of Hartford in Hartford, Conn.

It was the mid-1970s, when the words “school’’ and “reform’’ were linked only to describe the place bad boys were sent and “staff development’’ meant a smorgasbord of unrelated presentations that teachers were obliged to attend several times a year. As a consultant in “community/school partnerships’’ for the state department of education, my duties included being part of the buffet. That I came for free and was willing to travel to remote corners of the state made me a real hot item.

The first few times I offered myself, under a listing like “Improving Partnerships Between School and Community,’' I looked forward to an audience of seasoned practitioners who would help me spread the message that the schools can’t do the whole job by themselves. Here was a place to discuss the need to forge school, home, and neighborhood cooperation in a state where class differences and high property taxes often provoked tensions between schools and towns. I would march in at 1:30 p.m. with my handouts, overheads, and a joke or two at the ready. No big lecture here--what I wanted was their participation, some real give and take. After introducing myself, I would look around at my audience.

The scene before me was one that any experienced teacher can readily identify: Twenty or so people spread out across the room; lots of empty seats in front; several polite ladies sitting closed-mouthed in the third row; bunches of men in the back with legs thrust out and hands folded across their chests. Then the stragglers would arrive. Having been given a rare chance to eat lunch in a restaurant, they would be in a boisterous mood, not a bit guilty about being tardy. Someone would always thrust a head in the door and ask, “Is this the make-'n-take session?’' I would stop and point the way down the hall to where other teachers were happily cutting out pictures of bunnies and daffodils and laminating them for their bulletin boards.

In my room, instead of dialogue, I got mostly stony silence or indifference. When I asked for questions, the first one would likely be, “Will you sign my attendance form now because I need to go get my car fixed?’'

After a few such sessions, I began to get it: Staff development was not, in teachers’ eyes, a time for intellectual engagement. It was a chance to metamorphose into the very students who frustrated them the most. And as their embodiment of the substitute teacher, I was fair game.

Maggie Rosen teaches English as a Second Language to 2nd and 3rd graders at Glen Forest Elementary School in Alexandria, Va.

Seven years ago, I quit teaching for four years, and nothing has made me a better teacher. Resigning hardly seems like valuable professional development, but I thought I was doing the profession and myself a favor. Cynical, bored, and burned out at the age of 26, I left my job as a high school English teacher in the rural Shenandoah Valley after only two years. I had turned off to students and colleagues and was tired of trying to motivate unmotivated teen-agers. I had stopped learning.

I moved to Alexandria, Va., and began a new career researching and writing about successful school programs. I learned about teachers who cared for kids as individuals within communities ready for change. Slowly, I shed some of my cynicism about teaching and students.

I may have thought I could choose or reject teaching, but it had chosen me. In my years away from teaching, I helped my company start a partnership with the local high school, sneaking back into the classroom now and then. And I began to tutor a student learning English, easing into my current role as a teacher of English as a second language.

I have a new resolve that this is where I want to be. Sometimes, I see teachers who are missing the spark. I tell them if teachers do not love what they are doing, they need to leave, at least for a while. This may be the best professional development they ever give themselves.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Buyer Beware