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You Don't Know How Much I Needed This! Six Ideas about Professional Growth for Teachers

The film ended, the panel discussion was over. The crowd had moved across the hall for coffee and desserts. I was gathering my tote bag, when approached by a young woman, who thanked me for an "amazing" evening. I began to demur-- explaining how small my part was in the success of the program --when her eyes grew shiny, and she exclaimed "You don't know how much I needed this!"

She explained how lonely she felt at school, how refreshing it was to be part of an upbeat, engaged group of teachers that evening, listening to professional dialogue. She wanted to talk to someone about issues that had been raised, to ask questions, share her own thoughts.

She was a second-year teacher, full of promise, but disillusioned by what she felt was an unprofessional atmosphere in her school--one focused on the pressure for teachers to raise achievement data. Lounge conversations were marked by bitterness--even fear. I felt sick for her, knowing that frequently the best growth stimulus for a new teacher is having lunch chats with generous, like-minded colleagues.

I asked about professional development and she rolled her eyes. After-school workshops, selected and mandated by the district, honing teaching techniques in pursuit of "results." She was a new teacher and not in a position to express her own needs, set her own goals. And therein lies the problem.

Here are six ideas about changing our conception of professional growth for teachers:

Ask teachers what they need. Asking teachers what they want to learn next, what their own skill gaps or passionate interests are, should be part of every formal evaluation. What if teachers routinely created their own professional learning objectives? A reflective teacher should be able to identify and articulate areas for improvement. What if a principal's job was helping teachers find the information, skills and colleague networks they needed to help them improve?

Keep working on the right descriptors.
Forty years ago, teachers went to in-service days, "make and take" workshops and trainings. For awhile, we agreed that what we needed was professional development--and that morphed into formal professional learning communities. We keep searching for the right labels. What the young woman I met was seeking, however, was renewal of her teacher spirit, and a little professional conversation. If we're having a difficult time investing in genuine teacher quality, we can start with clearer definitions and language.

Get rid of the PD verb "present." Teachers share ideas with colleagues and networks. The value of those ideas and techniques is whether and how they're used. There's no such thing as a fail-safe instructional strategy, a perfect lesson plan, the ideal way to teach a concept. The only productive thing listening to a pre-packaged instructional presentation will yield is a rough idea of how the material might be adapted to fit your particular class. The crucial factor is always teacher judgment.

Invest in teachers as valuable social capital. These days, conferences are construed as a very expensive place to send an envoy to capture current information and skills, then bring them back to base camp. Professional organizations keep holding conferences and seminars however--and people keep attending, because there is value in professional networking and making connections with talented colleagues. Perhaps we should re-think conferences and other face-to-face experiences for teachers. Time spent regenerating is a long-term investment in teacher capacity, a source for rekindling enthusiasm and creativity.

Build more personal learning networking opportunities.
Sure, teachers have created or joined on-line groups that feed them inspiration and support. There are virtual communities around subject disciplines, Twitter #edchats and on-line Ed Camps But they're reaching a small percentage of the profession. How can we show teachers how valuable it is to have a gang of physics-teacher compadres to talk with--or how to use the English Companion? Why not encourage interaction by providing in-school time to peruse blogs or participate in online discourse? It's the most cost-effective professional learning available, and controlled by the teacher-learner.

Demand that professional organizations give us what we want. We need to stop thinking of professional development as something done to teachers. We need to insist that our unions and disciplinary organizations attend to our real professional learning goals, around our core work. We can't complain about how useless mandated professional development is if our own associations aren't dishing up top-quality programs, new thinking and research.

All of these ideas presume that teachers are a professional resource, an investment in better educational futures, rather than interchangeable technical workers. Big money is again flowing toward "training" teachers--even highly skilled veterans-- on "new" Common Core standards, assessments and curricula. There will be in-service presentations and teachers who need to be "developed." The cycle continues, feeding the professional development industry.

Where are teachers' voices in planning their own growth? Is anyone saying "You don't know how much I needed this!?"

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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