Just sit right back and you’ll here a tale…

I spent three days this week in Atlanta attending an International Baccalaureate training conference that was attended by teachers, administrators and trainers from all over the world. My next post, perhaps tomorrow, will deal with the content and learning that went on there but for now I want to reflect a bit on the paradox of professional development.

I say there is a paradox because while most teachers speak to the value of staying current and up to date on their own learning, there is an equal amount of voices that call for an end to all the PD and just allow teachers to stay in their classes to work with their students. There is a real tension here as I have seen for the entirety of my administrative career, and one that was even brought up at our staff meeting that we had the morning I was leaving for Atlanta. We were talking about our School Learning Improvement Plan and some of the stats that we were looking to improve upon and one teacher made the observation that he had a solution to all the problems that the many PD initiatives are trying to address: just let teachers stay in their classes and help the kids! This did solicit some head nods from the staff, (although not as many as in the past!), and sounds like a good idea but I have an issue with the premise.

As I am apt to do, I was trying to think of a TV or movie reference that may fit my issue with the common teacher premise; just leave me alone and let me teach. I have attached a clip that is from Giligan’s Island, a show I used to love to watch on reruns when I got home from school. The episode that I was brought back to is not at all politically correct. The premise is that the gang of shipwrecked friends come upon a Japanese soldier that has been hiding on the island since World War II. He has been completely cut off from the world so he thinks that the war is still on and so is rather aggressive and even captures many of Giligan’s friends. I have to apologize for the racially insensitive depiction of the Japanese soldier, but I would ask that you keep in mind that this is from the 1960s and take the spirit of the clip and not the actual insult to Japanese characterization. (if anyone has a more suitable reference please let me know).

The premise that the soldier does not know any better and so continues to do his job, even though that job is not longer relevant or needed, is the one that I am trying to get at here.

The educator that just dismisses PD off hand and demands to be left alone in his/her classroom is in many ways like this forgotten soldier. They both are unaware of the changes that have gone on around them and so continue to operate under impressions and with ideas that are no longer relevant or applicable. This is the danger of cutting yourself off from Professional Development. You do not get the chance to learn from people that actually have the time, (unlike a classroom teacher often), to think about pedagogy and conduct research to support their ideas.  The other thing that GOOD PD allows for is time to pause and reflect on your profession and gain some much needed perspective.  All of this is impossible if I teacher, purposely “shipwrecks” himself/herself in the classroom and refuses PD.

There is of course another edge to this issue. The complication comes when the PD that a teacher actually attends is not worthwhile, or simply a re-branding of ideas and practices that have long been in play. This is where school districts, boards and ministry are accountable. PD has to be teacher driven and in as many ways as possible, job-embedded. If a teacher can see immediate application to their classroom then there is a chance that it will have impact to their profession. If the teacher can identify a need or interest in their teaching and then direct the PD they experience to speak to these needs, then there will be the potential for real acceptance.

Both the professional developer and the potentially developed have a stake in making PD more relevant to the audience. There needs to be a rethinking of the style of PD delivery but there also has to be a willingness from educators to be open and participatory in their learning, (this goes back to my pet peeve of people who offer criticism without supplying or offering a solution!). I have heard a lot of people make the broad and attention grabbing statement that “The Education system is broken.” I DO NOT agree. I think that the education system still does a pretty good job of doing what it was designed to do.

The key is that last statement. One must look at what the traditional system of education was designed to do:

In my mind the problem with the traditional education system is not that it is broken but that it is OBSOLETE. Consider a typewriter.

You could be given a typewriter that is in perfect working order, but students of today would have absolutely no use for it. It does not do what they need it to do. The same could be said of a system that was designed for an Industrial Age in which factories and assembly lines needed only a few people to manage and be creative and needed the rest to be easily interchangeable, compliant pieces of a larger machine. The world does not need this type of graduate any more so the education system has to change.

That being said though, this means that traditional PD needs to change as well. Central training staff cannot see their job as training any longer. They have to be a support that is looking for in-roads into schools in the hopes of embedding themselves into teacher practice and truly impacting and supporting the change that teachers want to see.

There is a lot of work to do on this front, and I imagine that it will be the lion’s share of the rest of my career, but I am certain not only that real change needs to happen, but that is CAN happen.

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