Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Professional Development Should Be Like a Runner’s High

By Peter DeWitt — May 13, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A long time ago I used to be a long distance runner. There were days, when I was much younger and lighter, that I would run 10 to 15 miles alone or with a group of friends. We would talk as we ran 6:15 per mile...and it felt effortless. Our coaches referred to it as “conversational pace.” It seems like so long ago that I could run without feeling as though my legs were going to fall apart.

Many long distance runners will talk about the “Runner’s high.” It’s the feeling that nothing can stop you. As the runner finds their groove, they can run up massive hills, through mountain terrain, or on well-wooded trails without the fear of falling out of breath.

There is just nothing like the runner’s high.

I often think professional development (PD) should offer the same kind of runner’s high for educators. After all, teachers and school leaders approach teaching and learning with the same kind of passion that long distance runners approach a daily long distance run. And let’s face it...educators have amazing stamina.

Unfortunately, as much as we talk about professional development, many districts still offer a top-town, one-size-fits-all approach. There seem to be the same barriers in PD that Sir Roger Bannister met with in the pursuit of breaking the 4-minute mile.

What Stops the Flow of Learning?

With the increase in mandates and accountability over the years, professional development has become a pursuit in compliance. School districts that used to offer more teacher autonomy pulled back asking, “How do we know they are really learning?” They required evidence, which makes sense because they want to know they are getting the most “bang for their buck.”

Mandates and accountability were not the only barriers to PD. After years of encouraging individualized learning plans, a fast moving train began to speed out of control. That fast moving train was having the money to pay for the professional development. Districts experienced budget cuts and had to rethink the way they were offering professional development, because it was getting too costly.

Educators were not innocent in the changes happening either. Many teachers spent hours and hours delving into professional development that helped them maximize the learning in the classroom. However, some educators took professional development sessions to move over a bracket on the pay scale. They were not completely engaged in learning as much as they were engaged in bumping up their salary. Everyone wants more money, but does it have to be at the sake of really learning?

Whether it’s because they are burned out, the district doesn’t offer anything new and exciting, or they just do it as a matter of compliance, there are educators who don’t put in an extra effort when it comes to professional learning. This, of course, is no different than school leaders who enter into advanced degree programs like doctoral work to get the title without doing a great deal of work to get it. It just seems as though that anything district-directed risks real learning.

In the May issue of Educational Leadership (The Trouble with Top-Down. ASCD paid article) Rebecca Van Tassell wrote,

In my experience, the vast majority of teachers are doing their absolute best, every day, to educate students. This makes us the solution to many of the problems of public education because we know our students best and spend the most time with them. The top-down flow of expertise and knowledge about teaching disempowers teachers for improving their own practice."

Is Running the Answer?

Running teaches us many life lessons that we can bring into our professional careers. I know that sounds odd, but as a former runner I needed to take the energy I used to put into running, and channel it somewhere else. It does not matter if we are talking about teaching and learning or professional development, running offers guidance for the best approach.

Some of the following concepts are universal:

Pacing - How we approach professional development matters. If the pacing is too fast, where districts throw too much at teachers at once, burnout will take place. Pacing, whether it’s learning to go a little bit fast OR slower, is highly important. That pace looks different for each and every teacher involved in the process.

In the same issue of Educational Leadership, Jim Knight wrote,

When it comes to change, the temptation is always to try to go faster and do more, rather than take the time to do things right. This can result in reckless implementation that doesn't lead to sustained change (What You Learn...When You See Yourself Teach. Paid article)"

Race/Practice - Where I sometimes failed as a runner was when I treated a practice run as a race. I pushed the pace during practice and it became more like a race among teammates than a conversational pace to build our stamina. Professional development can provide the same issues. Instead of used as a learning opportunity, some teachers try to win by doing the best job or looking at the experience as a competition instead of an opportunity for growth. In the long run, we are only in competition with ourselves.

Team Approach - As much as running may be seen as an individual sport it is also a team sport. Running, like teaching and learning, is a sport where teammates help you grow. Those colleagues around us can stretch our thinking and help us achieve goals we did not think were possible. Shouldn’t professional development inspire us to do the same?

Individual Pursuit - Like anything in life, we get out of our individual pursuits what we put into it. As much as group learning is important, so is the work that is done alone. It’s one of the reasons why Twitter is a new form of professional development that matters for educators. It allows them to go on a road of self-discovery.

Van Tassell (Educational Leadership) says, “When teachers investigate their own practice, they develop a deep understanding of their own teaching and of their students, with experts’ knowledge for practice acting as a resource to inform their work.”

4 Minute-Mile - In 1954, Sir Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile. Many had tried and failed. 46 days after he broke the elusive record, someone else went under 4 minutes. He broke a barrier that others thought impossible. Professional learning should be like that. It should not be about compliance, but about getting teachers and school leaders to work together to go past their limits.

We can learn a lot while we’re running...

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.