Professional Development – It’s Not All About the Kids

My series on education, The Educationalist Papers, is looking at a series of interconnected topics that relate to leadership, personal and professional development, and coaching and mentoring within the education profession. Drawing on my time in the Army and my active engagement within the profession, I am working with teachers and educators to examine the strengths and challenges faced in education today, and what is needed in education reform.

When talking with educators about professional development, one common sentiment I hear is that professional development is aimed at making you a better educator of kids, and that this is measured and assessed through the kids themselves somehow. After 20 years in the Army and a great career rich with great mentors and in being a mentor, I want to share that professional development should be more than just about developing skills, but should be about developing teachers as professionals, ready to take on their lives and careers.

One common peeve of mine is professional development within education that is along the lines of what I call buttonology. Sessions that pass along, often from one teacher to a group of teachers, the rote skills needed to do something. How to operate those new Chromebooks coming to the school. How to use Google Apps for Education. It’s a pet peeve of mine, because I don’t see this as professional development at all; I see this as coaching. This kind of side-by-side assistance, done once and then they have it, is the same kind of instruction I see sports coaches do with kids all the time. Show a kid how to hit a curveball and they remember it, just as you show a teacher how to use GAFE once and they remember it, too. There’s no monumental human growth involved; it’s the passing of a skill more quickly than they might otherwise have figured it out on their own.

So what, then, are we doing when we talk about professional development? It’s a little bit like the old Six Million Dollar Man / Bionic Woman TV shows, in that in order to help “grow” better teachers, professional development is actually about helping people to become better people. After all, working as a teacher is just part of what makes a teacher a teacher.

There is more to this, though. Humans are adaptive, they are learning animals, and they change. And this impacts how and why we should be using professional development in a broader scope. Part of this is due to our not reaching full maturity until sometime in our mid to late 20’s, after we’re already in the workforce and, in this case, likely already teaching. But another part of it is that studying education, and even having some limited exposure to it through student teaching, doesn’t guarantee that new and junior teachers know or understand either the role in education that is best for them – the grade, or type of school, or type of teaching, or even support role – or that their views on this will change. Because people change – their wants, their views, their opinions, their needs. And shoot, leaving the classroom isn’t always quitting – over the course of a great career in education, it’s an evolutionary thing for many people.

And truthfully, even if teachers knew what was a perfect fit for them within the education profession, what are the odds that they would be actually hired to do that? Teachers are hired based upon the needs of the schools, mainly, the vacancies they have right then. Knowing that you should ideally be teaching 6th grade science does not in any way mean you stand a chance of being hired to teach 6th grade science; you’re just as likely to be hired to fill a vacancy teaching 4th grade at an alternative school, because 1) that’s what is open and hiring and 2) you need a job because 2) you need a job.

I understand the argument, that focused and task oriented professional development sessions produce the biggest bang for the buck with tangible results. And I understand that these results can be seen immediately – because they are measured either in teachers taking these skills right back into their classrooms and applying them in their daily teaching lives, or, as too often happens, it can be measured by teachers burning through their cell phone batteries during the professional development sessions doing other things, because they are either bored out of their minds, or the sessions do not relate to them, or the sessions offer them nothing. Wasted time, wasted opportunity, is unprofessional.

These instances, of unproductive and wasted professional development sessions, only reinforce for me that notions that these pieces and parts are interconnected:

1. We don’t hire teachers for the positions for which they are ideally suited, we hire them for the positions which are vacant;

2. It takes time for the teacher to find themselves and learn enough about themselves, to know just what their role in education could and should be;

3. We as individuals grow and change throughout our lives, and that an individual’s personal and professional development should grow and change with that;

4. Coaching sessions serve their purpose, but they do not professionally develop teachers;

5. And the individual professional development needs of one – their personal professional development requirements – are going to be different than those of the person sitting right next to them or the person teaching in the room next door.

The totality of each teacher matters. Let’s bring professional development of teachers back to the teacher, where it belongs.

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