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Fixing Bad Professional Development

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One of the biggest challenges schools face is not just finding time for professional development days, but also finding common ground for making effective use of them.

I hear from all types of teachers, from all types of schools, decrying how pointless and boring such meetings are—and how much they wish they could use that time for something (anything) else. But I also hear from all types of administrators, from all types of schools, wishing that teachers would show much greater pride, enthusiasm, and interest in learning about their profession.

As I see it, both sides share equal blame for making professional development something to dread, rather than embrace.

Administrators falter when they...

1. . . . return from an education conference, and without skipping a beat, call for a professional development meeting (or two, or three, or four) to share and inspire others with their newfound enlightenment—all in the hopes of instituting drastic and immediate change. It’s great that they’re excited about sharing, but attending one or two annual conferences does not make one an expert, and acting or being perceived as such only fosters animosity and doubt in their leadership ability. They’re much better off taking time to digest their thoughts, and speaking with others before making any sudden calls for a meeting.

2. . . . expect, after one or two professional development meetings, that teachers finally make effective pedagogical use of their school-issued iPads. Technology is definitely transforming education. However, administrators shouldn’t be naïve or foolish about holding unrealistic expectations. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and a few meetings sprinkled throughout the year won’t do the trick. In all likelihood, otherwise great teachers will continue to struggle, while complaining (and rightfully so) about the lack of vision, leadership, and administrative support. Administrators should consider appointing educational technology specialists, and reducing those individuals’ course loads to work one-on-one with the most needy teachers.

3. . . . rely too heavily on outside education firms or “experts” to run professional development meetings. Certainly, those individuals can have much to offer. But too often, they are former teachers and administrators who have been out of the classroom for 5, 10, 15, or 20-plus years. Simply put, they’ve lost touch with being in the trenches. For the same reason, I place less stock in education authors who aren’t also currently teachers. At Palmer Trinity, an independent school in Miami, Florida, Bruce Musgrave, my former assistant head of school, would ask his teachers to lead workshops and discussions. Accordingly, my colleagues and I felt not only greater respect for the presenters, but also for Musgrave, who entrusted us with being wise enough to educate each other. He often said, “Professional development begins at home.”

Teachers falter when they...

1. . . . always think that professional development meetings are worthless, and that nothing can be gained from attending. Teachers do themselves no favors by behaving like their most apathetic students, and they would be foolish to think that administrators don’t take notice. I have heard of and seen teachers who text, doodle, e-mail, and watch movies, more concerned with any type of distraction than real engagement. They may very well learn nothing. Perhaps they could make much more productive use of their time. Still, not even feigning interest makes them look rude and arrogant—and no matter how many years they have under their belts, here’s a reality check: They’re never above learning something new. Never.

2. . . . assume that professional development days are all the support that’s offered or available to them. As in life, sometimes you need to be proactive and even a tad aggressive in seeking help. Don’t simply assume that help will always come to you. Try as they might, higher-ups can’t read your mind, nor can they always acknowledge your difficulties. If you need help, make an appointment with the respective administrator. If he or she is unhelpful or unresponsive, ask a colleague. If you’re both too busy during the day, find a time to meet after school or, dare I say it, over the weekend. If you’re still too busy, you need to reconsider your priorities or time-management skills—perhaps both. You should want to be the best teacher possible, and that means making some sacrifices, especially if you’re new to the profession. Trust me, it will pay off in the long run.

3. . . . complain rather than offer ways to improve professional development meetings. At most schools, walls have ears. Unless you’re very careful, whatever you say will eventually make its way back to an administrator. This almost always creates more damage than improvement. Be the wiser person by meeting with whoever oversees professional development. Politely express your feelings, but also offer ideas to advance your school’s professional development program. Administrators worth their salt will appreciate your honesty, as well as your interest in helping the school cultivate even better teachers.

How could professional development days be improved at your school? Toward that end, what roles should teachers and administrators play? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Friday, 21 October 2016