Education Opinion

Who’s Developing Whom?

By Nancy Flanagan — January 28, 2012 3 min read
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Why don’t schools routinely tap their best teachers to organize and deliver custom-tailored professional development to their peers?

Interesting question.

It seems like a no-brainer, actually. It’s standard operating procedure for most professions--the master litigator advising and modeling for researchers just out of law school, the CPA counseling junior partners about weathering tax season--or bright newbies offering training on technology tools veterans haven’t yet utilized.

There was a mini-conversation at Twitter over this question:

@BreaktheCurve (Craig Jerald): Never been able to figure out why teachers don't revolt & protest against time-wasting PD.
@TeacherBeat (Stephen Sawchuk, of Education Week): I wrote a whole series on this last year. PD terrible, districts don't even know what they spend on it
@Csousanh: (Chris Sousa) Cycle school's expert teachers as this, 1/2 teach load keeps them fresh. It's cheaper, can build trust and confidence too.
@nancyflanagan: Nearly 100,000 NB Certified teachers are anxious (and vetted) to serve as coaches. Just for starters.
@TeacherBeat: So why aren't districts using them?

Well....lots of reasons. And the question applies to all those with recognized signals of teacher proficiency, not just National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs).

First--it must be said that some progressive school leaders do regularly seek out teacher expertise and leadership in building a community of highly skilled educators. It’s not unknown. But it’s not part of the traditional school culture; the idea represents a sea change in ordinary practice and thinking.

Teachers typically don’t determine and access their own professional learning needs. They’re learning and growing all the time, of course--but their formal development is marked by credits, units and workshops: seat time.

There is a dominant mindset that Professional Development (caps intentional) is something delivered to teachers, rather than cultivated by them, as practitioners striving to improve their practice. Professional Development assumes that someone knows better than a teacher.

Who is that someone? Often, it’s an administrator, a curriculum or human resources director. I’d be the first to say that these are necessary jobs--curriculum and instruction are the core purpose of schooling, after all--but central office administrators have a tendency to “know best” when it comes to teacher development. Because it’s what they were hired to do, and are held accountable for.

This involves a level of suspicion and mistrust-- the administrative monitoring function kicks in. Will teachers really learn something new if it’s not fed to them by a talking head in front of a room? Would they waste time, if it wasn’t structured for them?

In my district, this boiled down to a fight over whether “working in their rooms” could constitute valid teacher professional development. Would teachers take this time to simply get out from under their accrued paperwork and grading? How would administrators monitor and evaluate teacher behavior? How would they know that teachers had learned?

Actually, uninterrupted time to get organized is an incredibly rare and valuable commodity to American teachers. Especially if it frees a teacher up to read professionally at home, research new ideas on the Web, prepare materials for a demonstration, or meet with other 5th grade teachers after school to talk about good writing prompts.

All of which are also “professional development,” BTW.

There can also be a false elitism around teacher-led professional development--the “who does she think she is?” syndrome. While teachers are perfectly willing to swipe good ideas and practices shared by colleagues in the lunchroom, a teacher who’s put his reputation on the line for a respected credential standing in front of the room violates some teachers’ sense of egalitarianism. Here’s another way to think about it: Are NBCTs promoting their own expertise in self-created PD opportunities? If not--why not?

There are really two big factors at play here. Number one, teachers aren’t considered true professionals--and policy is leading us further away from a professional work model. We’re still talking about “training” teachers, rather than drawing on their wisdom.

Finally--probably the most significant reason--professional development is an education market. What would happen if teacher development happened internally, entirely site-based and tailored to particular schools and populations? It would require demonstrated, deep teacher expertise in instruction and curricular issues. Which could shift the balance of power. And it would cost very little.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.