Ask a teacher and most of them would tell you the same thing – professional development isn’t useful; it’s just something that has to be done.
My last post, Why Workshops and Websites Won’t Work, gave insight into why teachers are saying this and why they will never be able to say anything different.
But why does it continue in this way then? Why isn’t there some evolution (or revolution?) in professional development? Will we just keep doing the same thing and expect a different result (see: Einstein’s definition of insanity)?
There are larger forces at play here than just poor decision making coming from school and district leadership. This is a systemic issue. Our paradigm of thought about how teachers develop is broken. It must be replaced by a new paradigm – a school of thought that is grounded in reality, results, and respect.
A Question of Purpose
As is common with so many things, what is trying to be accomplished is generally agreed upon even if how to achieve it is hotly debated. Professional development is no different.
To be clear about my argument here, I do not believe that there is any question about the larger purpose of developing teachers professionally. Teachers, administrators, and professional development providers are seeking to improve teachers’ instructional practice and content knowledge such that their students learn more from their classroom instruction.
This much is not in question. Let’s all agree that this is agreed upon. (Yes, subtle variances of language may change slightly from definition to definition but the core concept is the same. Arguing the semantics of the purpose of professional development is both unimportant and a fool’s errand. Let’s spend our energy on more important things – like figuring out the extent to which this purpose is being met and how we can meet it more consistently to greater and greater results.)
The Prevailing Paradigm: “Clock Hours” School of Thought
A recent change in Illinois state law made the prevailing paradigm guiding teacher professional development apparent to me.
Teachers have always been required to amass and account for a certain number of Continuing Professional Development Units (CPDUs) in order to renew their teaching certificate with the State Board of Education upon its expiration. By participating in various professional development (PD) opportunities, CPDUs were issued. (I remember picking up overly photocopied forms, each worth 1 CPDU, every time a PD session was held at school and storing them in a binder in my classroom. There was never anything different about any of the forms from session to session. Sometimes I even walked out with two copies… At off-site PDs, teachers impatiently waited in lines for CPDU forms that were smartly not distributed until the very end of the session – these forms often being worth more than 1 CPDU. I never did anything with these forms though, even upon renewing my certificate after it expired following my fifth year of teaching.)
The exact change in state law is a bit beyond my educational policy knowledge (or maybe it actually didn't change much of anything at all), but I was more interested in a very obvious change in the law. CPDUs are no longer going to be called CPDUs despite no real change in what they are or how and when they would be issued. Effective July 1, 2015, CPDUs would now be referred to as “clock hours.”
I laughed the first time I heard of the law change, not because it was funny, but because it all came into such sharp focus in that moment. Our entire teacher PD system operates under a “clock hours” paradigm. No question of quality of PD. No question of objectives and goals of PD being successfully implemented in the classroom. No question of impact on student learning.
In the eyes of the powers that be (and through systemic influence, in the eyes of teachers themselves), teacher professional development amounts to seat time.
It would be irresponsible to reduce it only to this. Certainly, time must be spent on professional development and, administratively, this is the easiest way to monitor whether or not teachers are continuing their professional learning. It is intended to achieve the larger purpose of professional development that we agreed earlier is broadly agreed upon. But it certainly elucidates the broader paradigm guiding decision making and the cracks in that way of thinking in en route to the larger purpose.
The “Clock Hours” School of Thought can be characterized by the following:
Success: Defined by time accumulated in PD activities. As along as a teacher accumulates enough time, they have been successfully developed as a professional.
Implementation: Fully owned and driven by the teacher herself or himself. If desired outcomes from PD do not appear in their classroom, it is the teacher’s fault and they must be a bad teacher incapable of learning and improving, or just insubordinate.
Location: Happens outside of the classroom (e.g., workshops, course work, sessions, etc.). This is where PD “clock hours” are accumulated so it is the only location that matters.
Perception: Viewed as a compliance-based requirement. Despite the best of intentions regarding its impact on teachers’ instructional practice and student learning, regulating PD through time transforms it into a bureaucratic task.
While other states may not use the terminology of “clock hours,” the paradigm is the same across state lines. Visit any school in the country and you’ll see professional development characterized in the same way.
Is it any wonder that teachers say professional development isn’t useful, that it’s just something that has to be done?
A New Paradigm: “Classroom Impact” School of Thought
Not every school or district is this way though. Some schools, including some that I have been affiliated with, are attempting to morph this prevailing paradigm into one that respects teachers as professionals capable of growing and improving and is grounded in the reality of how that growth and improvement results in improved student learning. (I don’t think anywhere has it figured out yet though and I hope that schools who are making strides in this area are humble enough to not claim anything other than this.)
This “Classroom Impact” School of Thought can be characterized by the following:
Success: Defined by qualitative progress in teaching practice towards a defined vision of excellent instruction and by qualitative and quantitative impact on student learning. Raising student scores alone is not enough to consider a teacher to be successfully developed as a professional, but neither can observational evidence of a teacher implementing an instructional practice that has no impact on students.
Implementation: Shared ownership between the teacher and the school with the school providing consistent classroom-based support, often through an instructional coach.
Location: Happens primarily inside of the classroom, with any outside of the classroom learning being applied directly in the classroom setting, accompanied by high-quality feedback on classroom practice.
Perception: Viewed as a competency-based requirement. Grounding PD in a vision for excellent instruction that is inherently an ideal (almost in a Platonic sense) and in its impact on student learning ensures that there is no “finish line” and continuous improvement is both expected and necessary.
Sound impossible? If you are operating under the “Clock Hours” paradigm, this certainly may sound far-fetched.
There are also all sorts of but how, but who, but what questions about what this looks like systemically. I have no solutions for how this looks at a system-wide level. I don’t have the answers for how best to measure this at a macro-scale (because systems require measurement to monitor how they are performing). To be frank, I don’t really care about those answers. I hope someone does, but I am interested in this paradigm on a school- and teacher-level.
At those levels, enacting this paradigm comes into much sharper focus and the benefits to teachers and students of this paradigm guiding our thinking outweigh any challenges that may be encountered.
Imagine this from the perspective of an individual teacher and how she or he experiences their professional development. Suddenly, PD is a part of their daily work since their own classroom is literally their own classroom where they are expected to learn as well. Gone (or significantly reduced) are time-intensive outside of school PD sessions. Nothing is divorced from its impact on students so no time is viewed as wasted or worthless. Efforts are personalized rather than blanket-mandated, respecting who and where each teacher currently is. Growth and development are coherent and consistent over time, not a new box to check or a fad to implement only when administrators are present. Skill development is prioritized and supported creating observable links between improved instruction and its impact on students. Teaching may even be sustainable given the acknowledgement that improvement must and will happen but can’t and won’t happen all at once and doesn’t rest solely on the teacher’s shoulders.
Isn’t that a paradigm worth pursuing? Just maybe this all-too-common response finally becomes the exception and not the rule – professional development isn’t useful; it’s just something that has to be done.