How Do We Define “PD”?

When do teachers have time to develop themselves as professionals?

A colleague asked me this recently during a brief department meeting, “okay, what do we really mean by ‘professional development’?”. The question immediately sparked thoughts and urged me to respond by reaching for details to breathe life into such an important moment. The sad thing about our profession–as American teachers–is that we don’t ever get to talk about the big ideas we once dreamed about in school. We don’t get to the “why” or the “what if” during cram-your-breakfast-in-while-policing-the-hallway meetings. Our professional time is diluted by empty technical tasks while our hearts and souls are left (the bell just rang…)

I’m leaving that pause in to illustrate what I’m talking about. There really are not enough spaces for pedagogical thought between teachers; my plan yielded enough time for some deep breathing, a necessary trip to my mailbox, and the previous paragraph on this day. We are scrunched between hours, assemblies, impromptu mandatory conversations with administrators or district leaders, and all the while the kids need to be kept engaged and monitored in the background. We’re never really off the hook for their safety and that is reflected in our blood pressure, coffee intake, and personal sanity.

Yes, of course kids need to be taken care of at all times in school. No right-minded teacher would disagree. However, how often do we consider the professional atmosphere of the teacher? What kind of air does she breathe? What sorts of words does she swim through? And what is the general ecology of her professional environment?

These are questions ignored in every day practice in schools because they are too abstract, too theoretical, and too impractical to make it onto official dockets and agendas (especially those emailed at the last minute and with high importance). But really, what are we missing out on when we discount this ecological element of the teaching and learning environment? What is the cost of our current professional pace?

When teachers are given a space to take a deep breath, a sip of coffee, or even take a glance at a professional journal or article, an important psychological (and emotional) development takes place (that’s what I’m calling it at least). They are freed to leave the always-on mindset of the checklist high and email buzzing in your pocket, and can truly think of themselves and their practice. You read it right, teachers need more time to think of themselves. Ultimately, it’s that kind of focus that will lead to better serving the students and the school as a whole system.

What are your needs as a teacher? Principals, what kinds of time do you provide in your building to allow for personal growth and change amongst teachers? Is “systems thinking” a pervasive idea for those around you?

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4 thoughts on “How Do We Define “PD”?

  1. I’ve been struggling with this question for quite awhile as someone new in the administration side of things. I believe that teachers need way more time than we give them for development and reflection. I keep coming back to the same question… if we as administrators know how important it is (based on studies, blogs, articles, workshops, etc) then what is stopping us from making it happen? Is there a school out there that has eschewed all of the traditional systems and created a school that is truly built on the professional development needs of teachers? If there is, I would love to visit it and take the lessons back with me to try the implementation here!

  2. I used to teach at an alternative high school that had an arts partnership for its extra-curriculars in the afternoon. Every day, while the students went to those classes, we met as a staff and did whatever “PD” was necessary to function at our absolute best. Sometimes that meant just circling up and discussing the kids. Sometimes, it meant doing a book study or article review. And other times it meant very “traditional” stuff like bringing in an outside teacher, coach, or speaker to engage us in some new thinking. We had 90 minutes of staff “PD” every single day. It was beautiful and wonderful and I have never felt as empowered and professionally enabled to meet the needs of my kids as I did then. We served a 100% free and reduced lunch population in the urban core. We had gang members, homeless students, and most students had been kicked out of other schools in the area. We had zero fights and graduated a large proportion of our seniors. When teachers and admins get together to structure the true amount of time needed to be professionally active, amazing things can happen.

    This was a special circumstance, and I left because the school faced closure when my state didn’t grant it a charter (the sponsoring university did, but for political reasons the state did not). I DO believe that “normal” public schools can find pathways to this kind of “PD” environment if we try; but we have to try.

  3. Thanks so much for your input! That sounds like EXACTLY the type of environment I am striving to achieve. If you and I both believe that it is possible in “normal” schools, what can we do to make it happen? It seems like every avenue I go down to get more money for PD has a dead end. I’ve goen so far as suggesting a “hardware purchasing freeze” for next year to get money for teacher salaries so they can stay for PD (and I’m the tech director!), yet we can’t seem to move forward. Any other out of the box suggestions? :)

  4. The best thing to do is expose teachers to the kind of collaborative, constructivist environment that you hope to make time for. Give them exposure to the kind of “good” PD time that is restorative in as many small doses as you can. Make it clear that this kind of time is very valuable and not rocket science to do. It’s all about the right kind of leadership/facilitation and establishing an atmosphere of trust and collegiality rather than accountability and competition.

    Once this is valued (and created in part by each staff member), the sense of ownership will start to pay dividends. Teachers will start to ask deeper questions that make way for leaders (like you) to actuate more change higher up the chain (like changing spending/funding streams). But working to create this kind of environment by fiat or top-down policy change will only beget disdain.

    I’m a part of the National Writing Project. Their model for teacher PD is “teachers teaching teachers”, which creates the trusting professional and positive environment we all crave. I highly suggest looking into an NWP site near you for more info. That’s at least a place to start, they certainly don’t own the model, but they live it well.

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