Haves and Have-Nots: We Must Prioritize Outside Professional Development for ALL Teachers
As I sat on a hard, red couch in the Houston Convention Center, the only thing I could think was how lucky I was to be there.
I had spent the last three days in Houston, attending sessions and meeting up with folks at the National Council for Teachers of English conference (#NCTE18). I had been inspired, pushed, and moved to action to change lesson plans and units and better prepare for the future. I had met people I had admired or considered friends for years in person (or "IRL" as some would say) for the first time. I had made new friends who asked me thoughtful, powerful questions about my work.
I was, very, very lucky , because I don't live anywhere close to Houston (I live in Honolulu), and it's the middle of November. NCTE is a wonderful conference, but, even despite presenting, I still had to pay $300-plus to attend. That didn't include flights, lodging, substitutes, and all the other logistics of getting to the conference.
So, how had I done it? Admittedly, it is only because I have quite a bit of privilege. I work at a very nice private school that values outside education and was willing to give me time off and cover as much as they could, and when I had to cover some aspects out-of-pocket, I was able to do so.
I know, it's generally impolite to talk about money, but it's important here, for the reason that teacher and writer Tom Rademacher shared with many of us in the midst of our work:
"I've never quite figured out how teachers manage to go to conferences. Don't get me wrong ... I'm so happy for those that do, and it seem good work gets done at many of them, ... but how are ya'll paying for that?"—Tom Rademacher (@MrTomRad) Nov. 16, 2018
Many had answers: Some lived in the Houston area and were able to be local. Some had districts that would reimburse them for some of the cost. Some, though, admitted they had to pay out of pocket, sometimes saving up to a year to be able to attend.
It is unjust that so many teachers are kept away from outside professional development, particularly for financial reasons. We know that professional development is vital for teachers to improve their practice. No Child Left Behind mandated professional development to a certain level; however, it is important that teachers be able to collaborate and learn from each other outside their school environment. It is equally important that teachers be able to share their knowledge and opinions with other teachers, especially to do so across divides of geography, culture, and socioeconomic status.
Attending professional-development conferences and courses outside of one's school provides growth in different and important ways. It allows teachers to meaningfully dig in and immerse themselves in the content they are exploring. While school PD can be powerful, it is easy to get caught up in all the day-to-day tasks while it is taking place (I'm sure more-than-a-few teachers have slipped out of a school PD for a few minutes to catch up on making copies and other tasks). By going into a space ready to engage, teachers are able to put themselves in a better mental space to process new information.
Professional-development conferences also provide the opportunity to expose and connect with lived experiences and ideas that we may not have access to. Hearing the experiences of a teacher in rural Alabama has certainly opened my eyes to educational ideas and struggles that I had not considered. In addition, teachers from communities—particularly those geographically isolated or historically oppressed—deserve to not only be heard but also to share their expertise and ideas as well.
Currently, many outside PD opportunities still separate the "haves" from the "have-nots" and uphold systemic oppression, whether they mean to or not. Because many places still require teachers to foot the bill, we miss out on hearing the voices of those teachers in historically disenfranchised communities. We lose out on an opportunity to help support teachers who are traditionally under-resourced and, in some cases, undertrained for the work needed to teach in low-income communities. In doing so, we further perpetuate cycles of inequality by denying those teachers and, by extension, their students, innovative or effective strategies that could further support their learning.
We also miss the chance to learn from teachers or students from communities often assumed to be lacking hope or inspiration, and further unequal systems by silencing those communities and students from a larger, national education conversation and allowing our assumptions about their absence to tell the story for them.
When I asked about reasons folks are unable to attend conferences, I was met with a variety of responses. It led me to a few things we must consider as we move forward.
- Ask your administration and districts about money for professional development. A few mentioned that money existed but that few knew about it or took the opportunity when presented, which made it easier for leadership to rationalize cutting those funds later on. Do your research and see what exists in your district so you can take full advantage.
- Reach out to conferences and ask if they offer financial-aid grants and scholarships to support teacher development.
- Look into outside grants that can help supplement or cover the costs.
- Consider summer opportunities for professional development, many of which will cover the cost of travel and/or even provide a stipend. I highly recommend the NEH Summer Seminars, which I found to be amazing.
- I'll also low-key push one in Montana about nature and the humanities, because not enough people of color see themselves in nature, and you might see a familiar face in the faculty section.
- Talk with your teachers and ask what kind of professional support they need. It can be easy to pull things for our colleagues that we look at and say, "I wish I had this!" However, teachers may actually need something very different (especially considering how the time of year can change our overall status as teachers).
- Prioritize professional development for teachers in your work and in your budgets. Preferably, find room for more than one teacher (many folks online commented that the "one-person-attends-and-gives-a-presentation" is their least favorite form of PD), so that a culture of change can be supported in more than one classroom.
- Encourage your teachers to apply for programs to attend outside professional development. Sometimes, it's hard for us to see beyond our classroom walls (or, at least, I know it's hard for me). We may need the outside, supportive push that validates that our work is professional and worthy of attention and care.
- If you are on a conference-planning committee, try and ensure that there is money set aside to try and support teachers from communities who may not be able to financially support their teachers. Also, conferences should move away from the idea that presenters should still have to pay to attend. Teachers are often not just working for free in those cases but having to pay to do work and share their knowledge with others. This is wrong.
As we continue to have difficult conversations around our work, we must push the envelope and ensure we are creating inclusive spaces not just with content or space, but in the actual, logistical execution of our work. Once we can provide equal opportunities for a multitude of folks to be part of the discussion, we can better begin addressing issues in our work head-on.
Photo: EduColor Members and Friends Sit On NCTE's Big Green Couch. Courtesy of Julia Torres.