The Devil Uses a Venn Diagram: The weird world of “Professional Development”

We could all use a little improvement now and then.

A ballplayer in a slump gets sent to the minors to “regain his focus.”  A golfer goes to the driving range to “improve his form.”  Couples go to a therapist to “work through their problems.”  I am learning ESP in order to read my girlfriend’s mind so I can “be a good boyfriend.”

So it’s no surprise that teachers often participate in programs designed for improvement, or to “establish best practices” in the local lingo.  We call it “professional development”, and the universe of “PD” is as diverse and dangerous as a Marine outing in the Mekong Delta.

In the world of No Child Left Behind, PD has become an industry in it of itself.  Since the NCLB world assumes all teachers are “deficient” or “need support”, the solution is a legion of “experts” from academia, other districts and the Byzantine array of companies that sell schools everything from textbooks to the tests that decide the future of your little darlings.

Like so many heads of the hydra of education, PD can be subdivided into various categories:

(1)    The “pseudo” PD –this is when your principal decides to call teachers together for what seems like PD.  Actually, it is meant to inform teachers about more work they have to do, thanks to what the “experts” suggested to the administrators at their PD—principals need improvement, too.  It’s never couched as a mandate, but rather as a “strong suggestion” for “more accountability.”  In other words, not doing it can lead to “temporary reassignment”—often to a class full of maladjusted toddlers who like to stab each other with pencils. 

(2)    The unveiling of a new product—look at what the school pissed its money on now!  Like a two-hour infomercial, this PD involves the local rep from some new-fangled company “introducing” a product that makes teachers’ lives easier.  The “facilitator” (no one leads anything in education, they “facilitate.”) is often a kid a few years removed from college, full of whiz-bang enthusiasm and cute phrases like “teachers have such a tough job” or “technology should be your friend.”  He/she usually responds to your questions with “excellent question” followed by a circular answer further enforcing the facilitator’s lack of preparation.  Try not to stab this person with a pencil.

(3)    The “follow-up” of a new product—even more insidious than #2, the follow-up usually occurs when the school gets a large grant for a new reading/math/writing/multicultural dodgeball program.  Instead of that plucky kid, the company sends a snotty automaton in their late 20s-early 30s who “models” how to use the system “correctly.”  This person will assume he knows more than you because of an Ivy League education or equivalent.  If you do not have such an education, it’s best to let the blowhard finish his work and exit quietly.  Since my education is at least equal to Mr. Know-it-all, I have every right to stab him with a pencil.  Besides, with that education comes plenty of classmates who are lawyers—you’re off the hook.

(4)    The “in-house” PD—this is also known by the sinister term of “turn-keying,” as if we’re all morose Yalies entering the secret building and getting inducted into Skull and Bones.  It’s less exciting and only slightly less demeaning.  A teacher who had the gumption/bad luck/lack of an excuse to go to another workshop now has to present what they learned to their fellow teachers.  Everything that can go wrong will go wrong—the lights won’t work, the projector burns out, the computer crashes.  Most yawn through it, to be followed by a private bitching session about why they have to present this crap in the first place.  Never stab them with a pencil, for that unfortunate soul can be you someday.

(5)    The District-mandated PD—like a Hezbollah hostage, sometimes a teacher is forced to go someplace that is uncomfortable for a torture that is excruciating, and usually involving a long negotiation before he/she can be released.  This is the district-mandated PD, where teachers are forced to hear the local “expert”, either from a company, the district administration, or some university’s education department that peddled their bullcrap-du jour on the top brass.  That expert can range from a weathered retired teacher to a fresh-faced lad who claims his two years in Teach for America make him “experienced.” This balloon head is usually shadowed by a district bigwig, to make sure no one stabs the “expert” with a pencil out of blind rage or sheer boredom.           

There is no doubt that the knowledge, skills and strategies imparted through PD are supposed to improve a teacher’s practice.  One common failing amongst educators, me included, is developing an entrenched, stubborn attitude toward innovation.  Teaching has to change with the times; otherwise we’d still be reading from hornbooks in one-room schoolhouses.  We’d still shame children into a corner with a “Dunce” cap for not knowing their arithmetic or the timeline of the Civil War—a practice much too maligned, in my opinion.

However, if you wrap a diamond in shit, the gem is rarely memorable.  The problem with PD is that it’s presented in a way that doesn’t convince teachers of its value.  Too often, most workshops are shown as just more work piled onto a teacher’s already burdened schedule, hence the apprehension.   The administrators are no help, either—their misinterpretations of your PD often lead to wild-goose chases.  No wonder most PD audiences sit catatonic and glassy-eyed: they have the best anesthesia in the world, with a Powerpoint presentation and charts, to boot.

Yet even with the best workshops available, it’s never useful if it’s forced upon you.  The mandatory nature of most PD has the effect you would expect of anything you “have” to do.  The younger faculty takes notes, sitting wide-eyed and asking all sorts of questions, just like they did when they annoyed the shit out of you in college.  The older teachers know better; they won’t perk up until the words “free lunch,” “early dismissal” or “happy hour” are announced.  At least some people have their priorities in order.

How can teachers improve their practice and still maintain their sanity?  By picking workshops that interest them, not by having others force improvement on you.

 This summer, many teachers will be doing some form of PD.  Most will do it for some extra money, which is nice.  It’s more important to choose programs that you find useful for your classroom.  The best PD experiences I’ve had were in programs that suited my interests and needs.  Thankfully, they also had knowledgeable facilitators and eager participants with similar concerns to mine. 

And if you don’t like your PD experience, let them know about it.  Instead of pawning some useless scribble on that evaluation form, let the facilitator feel the rough edge of your pen.  Here’s an idea of what to write at your next workshop:

“This workshop stimulated my ideas about improving my practice and better differentiating my instruction to meet the needs of all learners…in an effective PD, I’d have written that.  This was not one of them.”

There’s a term for ineffectual seminars and workshops that are self-serving, condescending and a waste of time.  Watch cattle after a large meal to find the correct terminology.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Devil Uses a Venn Diagram: The weird world of “Professional Development”

  1. I know this post is a few years old, but you are my hero for today – and maybe even tomorrow! Honest to Dog, if I have to sit through one more session of “think-pair-share,” or making a giant post-it KWL chart, or “find someone who’s wearing the same color shoes as you, and discuss how you plan to use this crap in your classroom,” I will lose my mind! I am, as they say, a grown-ass woman. I don’t want to make up silly songs with my table mates, or role-play, or do ANYTHING with colored markers; I’ve already passed kindergarten, I swear!

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