Professional Development Opinion

When Top-Down Professional Development Doesn’t Work

By Ariel Sacks — October 16, 2018 4 min read
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I know a teacher. She’s been teaching for approximately five years in a New York City Title I school. She’s at a point where she’s developed a range of skills and is beginning to figure out something equally important--a sense of who she is in her classroom. That is an exciting place to be. She’s on the cusp of becoming a great teacher.

On the other hand, identity is one of her biggest struggles. She recognizes the complexities of teaching, relationship building, and leadership of a group of young people. She thinks carefully about her decisions and wants to do it all well. Sometimes she feels overwhelmed, uncertain and doubts herself.

On it’s own, that feeling is part of learning. The problem arises, because alongside her process of skill building and identity formation as a teacher, her school is in the midst of its own identity crisis, and this is making matters more difficult.

Like many schools, hers was founded on a vision of a dynamic, empowering education for students: students will develop 21st century skills; they will learn to think for themselves, question texts and the world around them; they will voice their ideas, collaborate on projects, contribute to their communities, etc. I’m paraphrasing here. The language of this mission sounds a little fuzzy today, because language and reality in education too frequently have not matched up.

In my friends’ school, though, substantive efforts to implement the mission have fostered a generally collaborative, supportive culture. My friend has been happy teaching there and has felt like the school has been a good place for her to learn to teach.

Over the last few years, though, which is more than half of my friends’ career, the school has been under external pressure to raise test scores. This pressure is nothing new for most Title I schools, but for some reason, the heat is suddenly on now at my friend’s school. Since I only have access to her perspective, I can’t offer more insight into the reason for this change.

In the past, she explained, her school leaders would introduce annual professional development focal points that encouraged mission-aligned teaching practices. The tone of these was friendly, and teachers had latitude in how to implement them. Some of these annual initiatives included student-driven discussions, interdisciplinary planning, and school-wide reading practices. My friend always took what she learned from the professional development sessions into her classroom and used them to expand and improve her practice.

More recently, the annual professional development initiatives from administration have taken a more urgent, coercive tone--they have also been less cohesive from year to year, and less clearly mission-aligned. In effect, my friend has felt compelled to make major changes to her curriculum each year that she herself doubted would improve student learning.

One year it was differentiated instruction, writing detailed plans for small groups of learners that were time consuming and cumbersome to carry out. Then it was “text complexity.” She was urged to abandon several class texts that were considered too “easy” for her grade level, to decrease the amount of time for students’ choice reading, in favor of more challenging, teacher-guided texts. (I’m going to temper the urge to go off on this particular nation-wide trend here.) Sometimes this seemed to contradict the previous year’s work of differentiating text choices and instruction for individual students. The next year it was fiction and non-fiction pairings--she was urged to integrate a non-fiction piece into every lesson sequence that included fiction or poetry.

None of these initiatives would have to be problematic, but the implementation has been heavy handed and not clearly connected to a shared vision among the educators involved. My friend takes it all to heart, though, and has implemented each one diligently. The amount of time it takes to do so is substantial, limiting the time she has for other worthwhile work.

The results have been confusing. She is pulled in a different direction each year, and she’s had trouble building coherently on her own experiences. That’s a big loss. She is ready to rise to a level of greatness I’m sure her students and administrators would appreciate, but instead, a muddled version of this teacher is struggling along.

Many experienced teachers refer to this kind of initiative as “flavor of the month” professional development, and don’t take it seriously. They may come off as jaded or obstinate--but can we blame them for such a stance? My friend is at the opposite side of the spectrum, but I’m wondering how long will it take before she gets fed up and stops trying so hard. Who actually wins in this scenario?

For teachers stuck in this situation, I have some thoughts I will share in a subsequent post. For administrators who want to avoid this kind of situation, here are a few good reads:

What advice or articles do you recommend for teachers and/or administrators to avoid this unproductive situation?

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