Professional Development: A Love/Hate Relationship Part I

I have been on somewhat of a hiatus with regard to blogging, but I am hoping to turn that around to some degree.  Since thelast I posted, I have begun a new endeavor which includes a new title Instructional Coach II.  Rather than coaching teachers, I now spend my time working directly with instructional coaches.

While instructional coaching has been around for awhile, there are few districts to my knowledge that commit to providing teachers with the type of  job-embedded, needs-based professional development that can only be offered through instructional coaching. My point isn’t to condemn other districts; with the financial crisis our state is in our district leaders are forced to make extremely difficult decisions.  An effective instructional coaching program is, unfortunately, a luxurythat many districts can’t afford.

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In this post I want to talk about professional development practices.  What is the best way to increase the capacity and effectiveness of the adults in a school district? I want to examine some of our traditional practices and then discuss how instructional coaching is a more effective alternative.

Traditional Professional Development

There are two types of educators (I know this is a gross over generalization but bear with me) Those that LOVE PD! and those that would rather go to the dentist and get a root canal on PD days… There are both good and bad educators in each group. This will be important later so remember the two groups.

  1. People who love PD (small group)
  2. Everyone else.

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For me and probably most of you reading this. You are in the first group.  That doesn’t mean we are better educators than the other group.  In fact, there is probably something wrong with us.  At least that is what my colleagues tell me. Why on earth would a sane, educated person actual ENJOY pd?  I will answer this question with a brief anecdote.. digression from my early days as a teacher.

It all started on a cool January morning almost 12 years ago.  I woke at 4:00 am to get ready for my first job as a school teacher.  I had been waiting for years for this day to some.  All that time I spent watching Head of the Class, Dangerous Minds, and of course Dead Poets Society, had me convinced I was about to start changing the world one student at a time.  Whistling, I grabbed my coffee, kissed my wife, and sauntered out the door… Okay actually,  it wasn’t anything like that. I didn’t dpshave a clue what I was doing; I was so scared I would fail I didn’t sleep much and woke up a lot later than 4:00, my wife was still asleep because she was up all night as result of being pregnant with our first son who was born two weeks later, I hadn’t really discovered the necessity of the morning coffee, and there was no “sauntering” – more like a hesitant “panic walk” toward my car. You know the kind of walk you do when you are lost in an airport; you don’t know where you are going but you are in a hurry. Yeah – that was it. 

Oops! I forgot I am supposed to be talking about PD… Okay so that is basically how I spent my first semester teaching.  Sleepless and clueless.  I was not a good teacher and questioned many of my life choices up to that point. Starting mid year didn’t help, and I didn’t have much help in the form of coaching from colleagues because they couldn’t watch me teach; they could just hand me resources and say this is what I use – leaving me to make sense of it. I needed help.  My principal had suggested that I attend an AP institute in Norman – led by the legendary Brook Meiller.  I did and it probably saved my career.

I recently got to tell Dr. Brook Meiller how it was because of that time I spent in Norman that I became one of “Those people who actually like PD.”  The pd she offered was fun, engaging, and, relevant to my classroom.  We DID stuff.  We didn’t just listen to her talk about doing stuff. Or listen to her list the best ways of doing stuff.  She would explain something and we actually did that thing.  We participated in inner/circle outer/circle discussion, we practiced annotation strategies, we analyzed poetry. Then we talked and discussed how we could use these in our classrooms with our students.  She listened and answered questions in a way that communicated that she did not consider herself to be the “holder of the right answer.”  She encouraged us to try these strategies and change them until they work for us and our students… And that’s how I became one of the people in the first group.

Professional Development – to some teachers these two words have a negative connotation. When they hear the words together, you can see the eyes rolling towards the back of their skulls, and the Napoleon Dynamite-esque sigh “Gahh! Why do I have to do this!”

This reaction is understandable.  It is a result of years of top-down PD that do not include any voice, choice, relevance, or ownership. PD has become a chore for staff to attend. It is a result of attending “death by Power Point” sessions given by admin who may have good intentions, but haven’t had training in giving engaging presentation. It is a result of being put in a room with a team of teachers and told to “PLC” without ample direction or training.  It is a result of an education system that provides no reinforcement or incentive for teachers to build their capacity by attending pd and incorporating their learnings into their practice.  I get why many people balk at PD; I don’t get why many schools/districts continue these practices.

I think we sometimes get our prepositions confused. Sometimes PD is done TO people rather than WITH people. 

Anyone who has been in education for at least 2 or 3 years has probably noticed that teachers are bombarded with many new initiatives that  will solve all the problems  in classrooms.These initiatives come in many different packages, in fact many are simply older initiatives that are re-packaged and called something different. Some are great – but none contain a magical solution for every classroom.

In the good ‘ol days, districts would choose which initiatives they wanted and send teams of teachers and other staff members to cities like Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, or (if you are really lucky) Vegas. Today, this doesn’t happen as much; we can’t afford it.  Now pdmeme1we may send 1 or 2 people and then expect those people to learn so much that they are able to provide the same quality PD they received from professional consultants over four days to the entire district, but you only have a 4 hour half day (which really turns into 3.5 hours because if you don’t release early for lunch you will be dealing with an angry mob).

Don’t get me wrong, these conferences can be really great. Oftentimes the presenters are engaging, you get to network with other educators, and you get a Per Diem! I’ll never forget when I learned this I told our financial secretary “Wait, you mean I get to go learn stuff, travel to a cool city, and the school pays for me to eat 3 meals a day!  How many of these can I go to?!?” (It was the food part that really sold me).  But remember, I am in the first group of people; I enjoyed the PD part of the conference as well, so attending conferences actually does impact my practice. However, that is typically not the case with most educators.

Here is how I think educators approach PD.  They filter the information from PD into two categories:

  1. Things I do in my classroom
  2. Things I don’t do in my classroom.

This filtration is not a bad thing; I think most people do this; I do.  But where the difference comes is what do they do with the two lists – especially the “Things  I don’t do list”.  People in group 1 ask a lot of questions to themselves.

  • Why don’t  I do this?
  • Would doing this help my kids? How would  I know if it helped?
  • How do I make this fit with what I am already doing?
  • How can I change this to make it work for me?
  • What do I want to accomplish by doing this?
  • When should  I start doing this?
  • Where am I going for lunch today?

Some of our group 2 friends approach the “Things I don’t do List” a little differently. They want to validate the things the are already doing and are slightly skeptical of things they don’t do.

Why should I bother with this because…

  • i’ve been doing this other thing for ___  years.
  • it wouldn’t work for ____ (insert subject, or grade level, or socioeconomic status).
  • my students are different.
  • lack of time.
  • this is just another fad – it will go away soon.
  • it will be hard to implement.
  • no one will be able to help me do it and give me feedback.

To be clear. I am not criticizing this train of thought. There is a lot of truth in these statements. I think everyone should be skeptical.  I am clarifying that certain types of pd aren’t effective with some people.  These are the hurdles that stand in the way of typical Grab ‘N Go PDs actually making an impact.

Those that love PD may also be skeptical, at least they should be, but they move forward anyways.Call it resiliency, call it idealism, call it naivete or call it annoying if you want. It can be any of these things.    Sometimes we just like doing new things  for no other reason than they are new. We can sometimes get tunnel vision and thing anything that is different than this “thing” that I learned about is damaging to kids.  The danger here is to figure out whether these new strategies are actually making an impact.  Are you doing something just because you saw it in a book, or are you doing it to help kids learn stuff.  Was the old thing you used to do working better than the new thing?   These questions provide a great segue way into the main reason I started typing this morning – instructional coaches.

Instructional Coaching as a plan for PD

I would encourage schools/districts to consider a different approach to providing professional learning.  An approach that works for both groups of people.  In part 2 of this series I want to go into more detail on how Instructional Coaching may do just that.