Humanizing Teacher Professional Development Lets Us Grow Together
"In more than 25 years of teaching, this is the first time I have ever experienced a day of professional development in which I felt like a professional."
A colleague of mine said this at the end of a professional development that we call Teacher Summit—an annual day when educators at Harvest Collegiate High School present our intellectual work with one another. As a math teacher there for 13 years, I appreciate our school's push to have educators develop their own unique curricula, to collaborate with one another, and to think together about how we can teach more equitably.
On this day, one could have seen a social studies teacher presenting and problem-solving a civil rights curriculum he wrote; a science teacher guiding colleagues through an engineering design task about the physics of roller coasters; and a guidance counselor leading participants to build empathy and vulnerability for the unique obstacles that students must overcome.
"I came up in a time when there was a wall between personal and professional lives," my colleague continued. "But today, I felt like I grew in all kinds of ways and connected to you all on a deeper level."
Teaching is a physically draining and mentally taxing job. A student-teacher who is also a part-time farmer recently shared that she was more tired after a day of teaching than a day working in the field. By one count, teaching requires us to make at least one micro-decision every 15 seconds.
Yet, the biggest source of stress in my teaching life is the social-emotional exhaustion I face as I work daily with 100 adolescents. All of the students are experiencing the difficulty of growing up in a complex and fast-paced world, and many of them must process deeply traumatic experiences, such as abuse, neglect, loss, and other emotional pain.
I thought about these difficulties when my colleague shared her experience of a career without collegial connections and supports. I don't have a silver-bullet prescription for a school that is struggling to develop social-emotional capacities, but I can guarantee that adults who do not have a chance to connect and grow as a community will not help young people effectively engage in that work.
Teachers need time to talk to each other. They need time to solve problems together. They need time to grapple with difficult texts and conversations and experiences together. They need to be allowed to be humans together.
This kind of professional development is not easy to pull off. First and foremost, it requires a particular kind of school culture where teachers are valued. One cannot have a single transformative day after 179 others in which teachers feel attacked and underappreciated. It also requires teacher-leaders who can lead groups of adults through deep learning experiences and help them analyze this process to apply it their own classrooms. Those facilitators need skills and resources, including the ability to lead and challenge adults to learn and grow, as well as compensated time to create a plan of activities which will support that reflection and deep engagement.
After Teacher Summit, I spoke with another colleague who is in her second year of teaching. She was pleased with the way the summit had gone, but was taken aback by the other teacher's comment about never having had a professional development experience quite like this one in 25 years of teaching. She wondered why all schools aren't doing similar professional development.
Teachers, teachers' unions, and school leadership should fight for this kind of professional development and a school culture that connects us and supports us as human beings, learners, and teachers.
How will this young teacher's career be different because she has had these experiences? How different would our schools be today if all teachers had rich social-emotional experiences with their colleagues for the duration of their careers? As social-emotional learning for teachers grows, I, for one, am excited to find out.
John Troutman McCrann is a math teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. He blogs for Education Week Teacher.