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?

Everything Must Go!

I’ve always believed that the ability to work with bad news is a test of character. When you’re dealt a situation not to your liking, the best thing to do is focus on solutions. This past weekend while I was on Capitol Hill talking with legislators on behalf of the National Writing Project, my character was given a #2 pencil and set at a desk alone. 

Meeting with the legislative aides and Congressmen was as exciting as it was frustrating. I feel as though the ears were open in DC, but the legs were unable to take related direction from the brains. I’m no professional lobbyist, but I felt I was missing some piece of truly vital information required to make full connection with the legislators. 

Should I need a JD or an MPA to feel like I can start a productive dialogue with my own representatives in Washington? Should I feel cheated by what someone assures me is a pragmatic approach to our problem? I don’t have an intimate knowledge of how policy–or sausage–is made, but I can attest to feeling somewhat shut out. 

I passed on letters from my students to Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II of Kansas City’s Fifth District, imploring him to support schools focused on learning and care for each student. I spoke about how we can support the professionalization of teaching, cultivate talent of those within the force, and then keep dedicated teachers in hard-to-staff schools like my own. 

As an oddly-shaped political football, education is being kicked around by both parties, but neither seems to want to run it to the end zone. We kept saying, “we need a champion, that champion could be you,” but no one seemed to think it was their role. They’d say: 

We like what you’re doing. 

What you’re doing is vital to our students. 

You have strong data to back up your claims. 

You’re even inexpensive. 

Forget it, we’re not just “inexpensive” or “cost-effective,” the National Writing Project and many of the other earmarked and authorized programs cut by Congress last month are pieces of legislation sitting on the top of the bargain bin under flashing red “SALE!” lights. “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” must mean something different to this Congress. If you don’t support these programs, they will GO away. After they do, you’ll be scurrying around in a year or so asking “why isn’t there a nationwide effort to support the teaching of writing?”

We aren’t a cost, an expenditure, or a burden; we are an investment in infrastructure. We don’t ask for handouts in order to buy fish; we ask for the time and resources so we can teach others to fish and feed themselves, and we’ve done it well for decades while always encouraging innovation and growth.

Inervess Research even alluded to a certain literacy promoting professional organization as the most cost-effective of almost any federal program, not just in education, but ever

Cutting programs with such support, history, and results as the NWP is not just disheartening to teachers and their students, it is a physical blow to our democracy’s integrity. It shakes my confidence in our leadership at every level. If teachers, parents, and students can’t believe that the government will keep its promises to promote such rich and widespread investments which are accountable and autonomous, what on earth will they believe? 

I think this about sums it up.