Education Teacher Leaders Network

PD Pet Peeves: Teachers Misbehaving

By John Norton — March 04, 2009 9 min read
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Teachers have no time to waste on unproductive or unnecessary professional development activities. But what about those times when the professional development is good, but the professional behavior in the room isn’t?

During a discussion about the highs and lows of professional training, educators in the Teacher Leaders Network shared some of their “PD pet peeves.” A chief target of their criticism: their own colleagues.


“I rarely get irked,” Carol said, “but something that really irks me is ‘sidebarring’—those private chats that go on during a PD session. They seem to happen no matter how worthy the topic or speaker.” When she attends a staff development session, Carol said, she follows the advice she gives her own 2nd graders. “I avoid sitting next to colleagues who like to ‘visit’ instead of listening.”

Carol is a frequent presenter herself, so she is “aware of how distracting those who sidebar can be. The test of my patience comes at the end of the session when I’m asked by a Sidebar Queen for a copy of my notes. I share them, of course. But inside I’m wondering why you didn’t pay attention and respect my time and that of the others in the room.”

Kim agreed that “teachers can make the worst students. Some behave in ways that they would never tolerate from the students in their own classrooms.” While leading some recent training, Kim remembered, “I became so frustrated by the side conversations that I jokingly asked a colleague if I needed to call a ‘code blue’ on him (that’s our method of getting a disruptive kid out of a classroom ASAP). It was a risky move, but it worked. I know there were murmurings afterward complaining that it wasn’t very professional of me, but an equal number of teachers thanked me.”

Kim’s story triggered this memory for Claudia. “I was presenting to my own faculty, which is big enough that I was at a podium with a microphone. They were talking, ignoring me, being rowdy. I did exactly what I do in my classroom if kids aren’t listening. I waited. I finally actually said, ‘I’ll wait.’ I saw shocked faces turn to the front and start listening. I worried a tiny bit about looking rude, but my goal was met: I was able to talk to the faculty without having to talk over all the visiting and whispering.”

“I’m a visual learner,” Claudia added, “so I’m very aware of my audience. I know who’s doing the crossword puzzle, who’s reading, who’s listening, who’s talking about something completely unrelated…who’s napping! Body language is easy to read, and yet so many teachers don’t seem to care. Why are we such terrible audiences?”

Jane confessed that “as a newer teacher, I was one who might have passed a note or two during PD or brought in some paperwork I had to fill out. But I became a better participant after I began presenting myself and experienced what it was like to be on the other side.

“Now I always try to focus on the topic,” she continued, “even though it may not be the most important to me. I give the presenter as much eye contact as I can, because there is nothing more likely to improve your performance as a presenter than to see someone in the audience getting what you are saying.”

Patty also had a pertinent story. “I attended a workshop where the presenters asked for the sidebar conversations to stop while they were presenting. The following week I attended another workshop where these same presenters were now participants, and they were not only having sidebar conversations but were incredibly disruptive. They were so loud we could not hear. Obviously this is an characteristic of teachers in general. What do we do about it? We’ve mentioned calling teachers to the carpet, anything else?”

Anne, who has moved from the classroom into a full-time teacher support role, offered a technique from her bag of consultant’s tricks. “If I’m presenting, I tell participants about the ‘famous’ finger-tap approach. If someone at their table is holding a sidebar conversation, the participant can tap gently on the table with a forefinger. That represents a polite way of asking them to please hold that thought until the presenter is through. I explain that some people process out loud, and participants need a polite way of letting talkers know that their ‘processing’ is disturbing.”

Anne lets participants practice a couple of times by inviting folks to talk. Then she has someone tap on the table, and the talkers quickly stop. “It’s humorous when done that way. As the meeting progresses, the participants have a comfort level with handling the sidebars themselves. If I notice sidebars, I can ‘tap’ my finger in the air and wink, and the talkers generally stop. It’s not perfect, but it helps.”

Linda, another full-time teacher-support person, emphasized the “crucial” importance of setting norms or community agreements. “In our PD work, at the onset we ask people to reflect on what kinds of behaviors make them want to run away from meetings. Then we ask, ‘so what agreements do we need to make with each other so that those behaviors don’t happen here?’ We chart them. And refer to them frequently. Everyone is also empowered to hold us to them if they feel we aren’t doing as we agreed.”

Why Do Teachers “Misbehave”?

During our conversation, the inevitable question arose: Why do teachers behave this way?

“Like others who have posted on this strand,” Louisa wrote, “I have been frustrated and dismayed at the rudeness displayed by some teachers at PD and other meetings. I have said, not always jokingly, that teachers learn from the ‘best’ in this regard. That is, their behavior is often identical to that displayed by students who are disruptive.

“But I wonder—is this a visible way to express the anger many teachers feel at having to be in a meeting they have deemed worthless (too often before any evidence is in)? Does their lack of control over how PD time is spent make them feel powerless or afraid to express their feelings more directly?”

“I would guess that the answer in most cases is yes,” Sherry replied. “Which then makes me think of the students we mimic. Is it likely that those students who do puzzles, doze off, or text-message during class deem it worthless and feel powerless to express their feelings more directly? Does this tell us that both the PD provider and the classroom teacher should be reflecting on the experience and the level of engagement it provokes?”

Jane suggested that teachers are less likely to act out during training experiences “if they are involved in deciding what they need and are actively involved in the creation of the PD itself. I also believe it needs to be interactive, differentiated by content and grade level when needed (something we don’t do at my school), relevant to our student population, and focused on student data.”

Kim agreed, up to a point. “It’s true that teachers will usually ‘misbehave’ because the PD is not engaging, but I’m sure sure that I could so easily excuse their bad behavior. I know that my lessons are not always completely engaging and don’t always seem relevant to the students, no matter how hard I try. But, as adults, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to higher standards and show common courtesy to our colleagues? I have to attend a session next month on a topic that I know well enough to teach myself. I would really rather not go. But my plan is to sit politely and look for opportunities to collaborate with my peers.”

Nancy told this story about audience behavior at a Washington conference of National Board Certified Teachers, where a former governor was delivering the keynote address. “Teachers, wearing their NBCT ribbons, talked constantly and loudly through his entire 20-minute speech, even laughing and moving from table to table,” she said. “It was the single worst example of bad teacher-audience behavior I’ve ever witnessed.”

Nancy remembered thinking, “Why are we whining about policymakers not paying attention to the good ideas of teachers? These teachers, who are supposed to be accomplished and reflective, are proving beyond a shadow of doubt that they have no IDEA how to engage or respect policymakers.”

As to why, Nancy suggested that “teachers have been conditioned to understand that they are the most important person in the room--to talk over kids, to ‘grab the microphone,’ to speak without thinking. It’s the way we work. We’re in charge of the interaction, all day long, so it’s not surprising that we are not silent or intimidated when we become the ‘class.’ But I agree with those who say that old-fashioned courtesy trumps anybody’s desire to be entertained or catch up on conversation.”

Poor PD a Factor

Teachers have been told so many times that most professional development is useless time-wasting, Nancy said, “that we often don’t believe there’s anything new and good out there to learn. My school once had Heidi Hayes Jacobs come to teach us how to do curriculum mapping. It was a new idea, and perfect for where we were in developing a solid, coherent curriculum districtwide.

“Jacobs is very engaging and had a great presentation,” she continued, “but our teachers seemed to regard her ideas as makework—just another thing ‘they’ were making us do. I hate to say this, but sometimes teachers are flatly unwilling to consider the fact that no teacher is ever totally ‘developed.’ At lunch, someone commented that the day was a waste of time, that we could be working in our rooms, getting our grades done early.”

Often, Ellen mused, teacher behavior in PD sessions “is mostly out of the presenter’s hands.” The chief determinant may be how much effort has been invested in giving teachers ownership of the experience and tailoring it to their real needs.

“Professional development is so often ‘done’ to people with a one-size-fits-all approach,” she explained. “In a previous job in an inner-city school system, I had to sit through no fewer than 15 workshops on how to write a constructed response question, even though my principal publicly used my own questions as high-quality examples. I’d mastered the content but others hadn’t, so we all sat through the training again and again. ‘We can’t make exceptions,’ my principal said.”

“I love PD,” Ellen was quick to add, “but I hate having no choice or being forced to participate in something because those in charge don’t know how to differentiate PD or don’t trust that I’d replace that session with something valuable that would push me. So, in those situations, I am sure that I have been less than a stellar audience member. I have graded papers; I have sent text messages to colleagues who were in the same situation; I have drawn pictures and gone to the restroom multiple times, spending extra minutes there with a book that was applicable to my real PD.

“After all,” Ellen concluded, “we teachers ARE human, and when we feel like we’re being disrespected, we often respond like humans. Just like our students.”


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