Professional Development Opinion

Serial: A Free and Personal Professional-Learning Experience in Objectivity

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 28, 2015 4 min read
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How can an open mind and an open heart be maintained in the heavily contentious environments educators find themselves in these days? Professional development can happen in a variety of forms. It can come in structured learning from a instructor, reading a book, participating in a professional learning community or from witnessing an exemplar of a behavior and making a personal choice to employ that behavior or develop that skill. Here, we are writing about the opportunities to learn on our own, in our own way, without cost, and in our own time.

In its first season, the host of Serial, a podcast on NPR, Sarah Koenig takes the listener on a twelve-episode journey as she re-investigates the murder of a high school student, Hae Min Lee. Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Sayad, was tried and found guilty of her murder. He has been in prison for 15 years. Koenig’s investigative reporting presents a lesson in the struggle to avoid listening through filters and bias. As she reports the journey of her investigation, she also reflects on her struggles to side step potential bias. No conclusions were made and the questions raised were examples of true, open-minded investigative reporting. The show was objective and the conclusion of the series left the listener and the researchers with questions about the innocence of the young man, but no conclusions about his guilt. Throughout, the investigation done by the Ms. Koenig serves as a model of an objective investigation. We can all learn from it.

So often information is brought to school leaders that report a concern. A parent with concerns about a teacher’s or coach’s practices, a teacher with a concern about the practice of a colleague, a teacher’s or a student’s concern about the behavior of a student... we conduct investigations all the time. It is rare one receives an announcement for professional development in objective investigation strategies and practices. More likely the advertisements are for lesson design, curriculum mapping, policies, technology applications, the Common Core Standards, test implementation, data management, data driven instruction, and so on. Even if there were an offering for objective investigation techniques, in this time of stress in our schools, it might not be funded. And, it might not be chosen because of reluctance to take precious time away from the day-to-day demands of leading schools.

But what if objectivity can be learned, in a relaxed, personal way, in the car or on the train, going to and from work? What if it wasn’t a “how to”, but rather an interesting model of objective investigation? It is there for the listening. Of course, one can listen to the podcast as a story of a young man who is in jail because he was found guilty of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. And of course, stories are interesting...isn’t that what books and television shows and movies are? But this story has another layer, one that can both teach and model.

It is the investigator and the storyteller, Sarah Koenig. She explains the investigation as she is doing it, the story of this case unfolds, but most essentially, she shares her personal reflections and her honest questions about what she is finding out. She does not allow a position to take root. As an investigator she remains open, without conclusions forming, about each piece of evidence she unveils. True, the time she had to do the investigation is in no way similar to the time school leaders have. The tendency to “get it done” is necessary, usually urgent and, in some cases, dictated by policy. But it is the open mind and open heart with which Ms. Koenig investigates that is a remarkable example from which to learn.

Once again, we return to open minds and open hearts. Teachers and leaders can not be truly successful without both. The development and maintenance of open minds and hearts is not found in professional development brochures or district plans either. Yet, open minds and open hearts are more essential now than ever...as stress is finding a home in school systems, mental health systems and education need increasingly to be connected, as children and their parents, some of whom are gay and transgender, call for our attention and support, as tragedies strike around the world and affect those in our schools, as poverty and its related health issues impact so many, and as teachers and leaders and politicians battle over tests and evaluations, open minds and open hearts are needed.

This is a personal journey and it requires constant work. We are challenged daily to hunker down and push through. Some have places they go to maintain openness. For some, it is a place of worship, for others it is a walk in the woods, for some it is attending opportunities like Circles of Trust®. It takes thought, willingness, and courage to stay open in this work. For most, it is extremely private. It is with this in mind we recommend looking for places in which to engage and learn. For objective listening, we recommend Sarah Koenig’s Serial.

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