Education Opinion

Questions for Professional Development

By Peter Greene — November 05, 2014 5 min read
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Once upon a time, when teachers and outside presenters gathered together for PD, there was a sense that we were All In This Together. We were there, as teachers, to provide a public service through educating students, and the presenters at PD were there to give us some tools to help do that job.

Those days are gone.

Now we are surrounded by people who view public education not so much as a public service but rather as a giant money tree waiting to be pruned, and here they come to professional development sessions, shears in hand. We’ve always had our share of PD run by people who served up heaping plates of condescension with a side of contempt sauce, but PD increasingly resembles a sort of unarmed assault on teaching staffs.

This creates a new professional dilemma for teachers. Instead of asking “How can I apply this in my classroom,” teachers are asking themselves, “How much longer can I keep from saying something unprofessional and rude?” Unfortunately, some teachers don’t want to be impolite, and so PD behavior often runs to vacant smiling and nodding, with honest reactions to be reserved till afterwards.

Some presenters are just trying to do a job, but others really are the barbarians at the gate who deserve to be met with resistance. Here are some questions to ask in PD to separate the wolves from the sheep.

Which company is producing this product, and how do they expect to make money from it?

It’s not that the desire to make money is automatically evil. This is not a gotcha question. But the question goes to motivation and long term costs. We used to assume that programs and materials came from kindly gnomes that created it all in workshop somewhere and gave it away because it made them happy to do so. Nowadays virtually every program or tool that comes into a district is somebody’s proprietary product, and we need to remember that their primary purpose is not to make our lives swell, but to make enough money to make the business worthwhile.

If you are making money from the sale of widgets, I have to cast a dubious eye on your claim that it’s really the widgets that will revolutionize learning. If you’re giving me free software that will require us to renew licensing every two years at full cost, you’re not really giving me free anything.

If you’re here to help, that’s great. If you’re pretending to help when you’re just here to sell us something (or to sell us on something the district already bought), I reserve the right to treat you like the huckster you apparently are.

What is your teaching background? Do you have any other special expertise in the material you’re presenting?

There is apparently some sort of law requiring all PD presenters to work the phrase “when I was in the classroom” into their presentation, as well as some claim to having been a teacher at some point. Unfortunately, those phrases can be thrown around by both of the following presenters:

Presenter A: Taught a couple of years, possibly as TFA temp. Couldn’t hack it. Couldn’t wait to get out and start real job.

Presenter B: Taught for a couple of decades. Enjoyed the work but eventually decided to move on to a new career.

The distinction is important, because Presenter A doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about. Furthermore, Presenter A has tried to claim a kinship with the audience of teachers that she hasn’t earned. Put these together and you get Presenter Whose Word Cannot Be Trusted.

What proof can you offer that these techniques/programs/materials are actually effective?

If you can’t get a straight answer to this, that’s because the straight answer is most likely, “None.” If you get an answer such as “research says,” it’s fair to ask exactly which research and exactly how did the researchers arrive at this conclusion.

The other teachers in the room may hate you for prolonging the session. Tough. Too many teachers still think that if something’s being pitched in PD, it must be legit good practice. Hell, there are too many teachers who still think that the Common Core was written by teachers and based on solid educational research. One of the side effects of reform has been the removal of any sort of quality-based filter between profiteering companies and the rest of us.

If we are going to be champions for our students and their educations, we have to stop accepting the judgment of people with barely an iota of our professional expertise. We have to start casting a critical eye on every program that tries to slink through the door.

Why don’t you answer that question now?

This must be part of PD 101. When somebody asks a difficult question or raises an issue that the presenter was hoping wouldn’t be brought up, just say, “That’s a really good question, and I’d like to talk to you more about that at the break.” The goal is to avoid dealing with any contentious issues in front of the whole group. They might get the wrong idea, you know.

A person who can’t give you a clear answer either doesn’t have one or doesn’t want to. Neither is acceptable. If you want to implement your stuff in my classroom, you need to give me an answer.

In many schools, PD has become an assault on teachers’ standards and practices, and we should no more sit politely through the worst of it than we would politely sit through an explanation of why our minority students are inferior. Simply ignoring the people who come to coach teachers in educational malpractice isn’t working. Standing up and telling them to go to hell is probably a poor employment choice.

But we can always ask questions, and we should, pointedly and repeatedly. If that makes PD sessions a little uncomfortable, so be it. We have a responsibility to our profession and our students to call out powerful baloney when it presents itself.

It may not stop the baloney advance. Pennsylvania years ago shifted state level PD from an attitude of “We want to win hearts and minds” to one of “Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told.” It’s hard to slow down a steamroller, but we don’t have to lie down and make it easy on the destruction crew.

Ask the questions.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats 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.