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?

School Culture: Social or Academic?

Being reflective is a huge part of who I am as a teacher. I am continually evaluating my own sources of motivation. I want to know–really know–what makes me tick. We can all sense when we have a great moment of success in the classroom, with our fellow teachers, or planning a great lesson, but where does that come from? What makes those moments possible? What makes little innovations more frequent and visible to the community? I don’t know about you, but I want to know when the teachers down the hall or upstairs are having eureka moments and what they did to get there. For me, it comes back to writing.

Why Reflective Writing is Powerful for Teachers

When I take to the keyboard and screen, my mindset is open and searching for the roots of those good ideas. I see a million little things every day that inspire me and could grow into something bigger if only I nurtured them a bit more: times when you notice just how vital proximity is between you and a certain student during class, times when a well-placed joke or personal note just does the trick, and times when a little differentiation really turns the lights on for someone who’s just not getting it.

Writing is the way we unpack these moments and take up the task of examining their contents more closely. When the habit of writing to learn is established and practiced, eventually, it turns into the habit of thinking to write. When we carry a reflective thought process with us during the day, a new region of potential begins to emerge in our field of vision; we start to see new possibilities for capturing future great moments, and our thinking to write leads to teaching as a pathway to writing.

When any teacher writes reflectively, it is autobiographical, memoir-esque, and experiential. And so, the audience is wont to interpret such core experiences as imminently true. Now I can only speak for one author, but the intent of writing about classroom experiences in my case is always a mixture of the past, the present, and the transcendent. What I see and hear in my day-to-day is where my writing voice is rooted, but what I read and hear from others is always queued up to fill gaps. This way, I can enjoy the benefits of a writing style that I hope is personal and truthful, but also mindful of the outside world beyond my immediate experience. My purpose in writing is to discern, to explore thinking deeper, and to question what I’ve seen and done so I can better know what my place was and where I’m headed.

A Look at School Culture Categories

This week I was thinking a lot about classroom and building culture surrounding learning and thinking. The “honeymoon” phase has long since passed as most people understand it, and many are showing that look in their eyes. I think what I’m seeing is the loss of social capital between student and teacher during the slow but visible shift from process learning (rules, procedures, and expectations) to more academic content learning (topics, texts, and assignments). Teachers have a tough job to carry students through the getting-to-know-you phase of a new school year on to the let’s-get-down-to-business parts. My question has always been, why can’t this be more seamless? Why can’t our social and academic goals become more closely intertwined as we work to prepare students to be citizens of our world?

Surely a school’s civic culture has a strong connection with its academic identity. Some schools lean one way or the other strongly, but if both are not present and acted on by teachers and leaders, what does that look like? A school with no civic engagement is plodding through curriculum, advancing from A to B, one book to another, and doing little inspiring of students to do more than collect credentials, points, and grades. One with a mind to serve and work within its community may be more comfortable and personal, but where does it leave students when they graduate?

The school that misses both targets is what concerns me the most, that is what I hope no school has to become: a “custody school” as Jonas Hoog. terms them. In those such schools, success is just getting through the day. In this school, teachers count down the days to the next break and to the end of the year constantly as though escape were all that mattered. This kind of sentiment can be present in any school, but the more socially or academically focused a school’s culture is, the more quickly these sorts of attitudes are dispersed. Anyone is susceptible to the occasional fleeting bout of worry about survival through a particularly stressful day or class, but that emotion’s prevalence or predominance is a key indicator of a school culture that may be lacking in direction.

Where Do Teachers and Leaders Fit?

Leadership in a school is always decentralized, even when it is not. Principals and administrative staff may set the agendas, write the “do now” emails, and carry walkie talkies, but their ability to set building tone and cultivate an atmosphere of learning is only made possible through the permission of each active teacher, department, and stakeholder. These agents within the school do the lion’s share of the culture creating work in both the social and academic realms.

When a principal decides Priority X needs to be done, she had better understand a variety of scenarios for how her building leaders will embed their own version of her message into their daily practice. The principal should have a clear idea of what the teacher’s lounge and hallway chatter will sound like.

What will the doubters say?

Who will dismiss Priority X simply because it is an administrative idea and how persistent and pervasive will such attitudes be?

What will the department heads cover in their formal and informal modes of communication?

And when will thoughts of Priority X occupy the minds of every other teacher, busily hurrying through their necessary day-to-day affairs?

Will the delivery of it induce undue stress or panic?

Will they know who to go to for questions?

Is there a culturally established procedure for “getting answers” that leads in an unintended direction? Each of these questions, and all of their possible permutations, represent the complex thought process of a leader concerned with not just a message or mandate, but with school structure and culture.

It is the responsibility of school leaders to ensure that each member of their school body has the opportunity  and voice to carry out what they believe is right.

The Question I’m Left to Ponder:

How Do Leaders Build & Sustain Culture?