Teaching Profession Opinion

Take Back Control of Professional Development

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 21, 2013 5 min read
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When professional development plans are driven by the major changes in the field, it can feel as if yet another local and individual decision has been stripped away. The field is still working toward the best ways to implement teacher and principal evaluation systems in order to maintain fidelity with their dual purpose of improving practice and the achievement of all students. Not all agree that this is a sound process. The field is still working toward a full understanding of the Common Core while some are arguing its value and purpose. Learning something in an environment where the very thing is being reviled in the press and in some of our buildings and communities while it is mandated by education departments and school districts is a fracturing experience.

Educators are being asked to cultivate young, innovative, creative minds which simultaneously perform well on tests as the measure of compliance and success. Yet, we know others in other fields and other places have been asked more and survived strongly. It is why we are sometimes called complainers and whiners. We need to look within the maelstrom and find what is still ours to claim. Perhaps it is in our own development that we still have a voice, a hand and a choice to exercise. In this rush to implementation, honest, professional attempts to meet the mandates have filled our time for growth. All else has been pushed to the edges. What we can pull back to center?

Recent professional development has been focused on learning CCSS, evaluation systems, the nature of the new standardized tests, building valid and reliable assessments, and literacy across the curriculum. The tail is wagging the dog. But if we are to continue to develop an environment in which teachers can create the space for children to explore and discover (which is ironically part of the mandated shift), we must create the space for the teachers to do the same. It’s counter-intuitive. What is right for children must also be offered to teachers. So, lets grab that tail and think, on a local level, how we can help turn things around. While making sure that all involved understand what the changes truly are asking and then learning how to implement them, professional development has been focused on the national reform agenda. Is there space in the cracks for the emergence of a local reform agenda?

Professional development, in some arenas, has become ‘show and tell’, or even worse, just ‘tell.’ There are a plethora of websites, articles and books to be read, conferences and courses to be taken, ideas to be shared. The challenge is the sheer amount from which to choose. Most schools have professional development plans but funds for anything not mandate related have shriveled. But let’s not lose this moment.

Rick Hess, in Roland Barth’s article in Educational Leadership speaks of a reluctance “to publically call out mediocrity.” He also refers to something he calls “go-along-to-get-along” specifically referring to the “little that has been done to challenge wasteful professional development” (p.13). In the article, he was referring to what hampers teacher leadership and surely we need to unshackle those who want to lead.

So what might be possible in this flurry of conflicting beliefs about the reform agenda and diminished resources? A creative solution is required. This is an opportunity to ‘bring it home’ by working together to decide on local issues that need attention and attend to them. Policy makers are functioning under the seemingly logical association that if our students are not college and career ready, then our teachers and leaders must not doing a good enough job. Hence, the accountability hammer that critics say has been too long missing in education. It is also the antithesis of motivation and certainly does not promote creativity. So how do we motivate in this time of blame, fear, and exhaustion? Tim Walker, in his NEA Today article reports:

In schools where professional learning is centered around job-embedded collaboration with a focus on student results, teachers feel less isolated and experience a greater sense of confidence and job satisfaction--basically, the antithesis of the type of professional development that occurs outside the school, away from actual instruction, and away from students.

Taking control of how time is used is an overwhelming task, but can make a difference. Schedule building is difficult. It is frequently the bastion of an assistant principal or a guidance department or a small group of dedicated teachers. But, there is a leadership possibility here. Until we can create more time, how we use the time we have is paramount. The vision for creating opportunities for teachers to collaborate and learn together lies in the vision of the building leader.

Decisions about what ‘really matters’ are essential before even beginning. It is true that the list of priorities than run a schedule can be overwhelming, but stripping the schedule down to a blank slate and rebuilding it with what ‘really matters’ should get us closer to a newer use of time that allows for teachers to work together.

Once that is accomplished, it is important to make sure that time is used as intended. Unless there is agreement about the purpose of shared time, the possibilities for success will be diminished. If rules and boundaries are set and the meetings become safe places for teachers to take risks and share their students’ work, such professional conversations become rewarding.

We all know there are teachers and administrators who have expertise in areas others do not. So whether the focus is on learning how to use an online course software, use internet scavenger hunts, write up a scientific experiment, develop an interdisciplinary project, use an online gradebook...(the possibilities are endless) if the time is there, the learning can happen, and motivation and morale have a chance to be rekindled. However, the truth is, what motivates teachers most is the success of their students. Reviewing student work together allows for the opening of classroom doors and peering each other’s classrooms, learning from and teaching each other. It may even give rise to an awareness that a guidance counselor, special educator, administrator, social worker, psychologist or nurse needs to be included in the conversation. Using that time to focus on student achievement while having the opportunity to discuss the ‘whole child’ brings it all home. This is another kind of common core where teachers and leaders love their work and make a difference one child at a time.

Things can be reprogrammed but living things grow. If we lose professional development to mandate driven training sessions, we may be successful in having teachers who do things differently. We do need that. But, if we want to have teachers grow professionally and leaders, too, then we must remember how living things grow. We might also want to remember how adults learn best. After all, aren’t we supposed to be experts in these domains?

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.