Professional Development: We’re all in it together

The other night we had a great conversation at #NHED about professional development. There were great insights, encouragements, and ideas. However, many of the posts also highlighted frustrations, and I found myself at times on both sides of the fence. As a teacher I totally get that our PD should reflect our current assignment and be personally meaningful, and as a principal, I understand that school-wide professional development builds collegiality and moves buildings and districts in a way that nothing else can. Upon reflection, I don’t see these ideas as being diametrically opposed to each other, so why do they seem so far apart in practice?

When I started out as an assistant principal at a middle school in northern Vermont, the PD was organized by a committee of teachers led by an administrator (me at the time). Being a new administrator and fresh out of the classroom, I welcomed teacher input, and together we articulated what was needed for systemic growth. It was great because we could tie in personal goals with district and building goals, have team/grade representation in our discussions, and because teachers often led the work, we increased the investment our staff had in our PD days. Since then, I have seen that model change dramatically or disappear altogether.

I don’t know if it is due to the high stakes testing and misguided accountability programs, but it seems that district administrators (and at times principals) have taken over PD, and while they may gather input from a committee, inevitability they do what they feel is best to support a district wide vision. Similarly, I have known teachers who have taken an easier road or divergent path when left to their own devices around PD. Now I do feel strongly, and I wish all teachers and administrators internalized this, that the best of intentions are there. Everyone wants to move themselves, staff, and their school, forward. The reality is however, that for a variety of reasons, the disconnect between meaningful learning and PD occurs frequently. Starting a change in this practice means not throwing blame and pointing fingers; we must all accept and embrace that we all are coming from a place of best intentions.

However, change needs to occur, and to get the most “bang for the PD buck”, both teachers and administrators must be willing to cooperate and see both sides of the coin. Jumping back into the classroom after being an administrator for ten years has given me renewed insights into what teachers do every day and what they need to continue their good work. Furthermore, I empathized with the role my Principal played in guiding my school.  I was fortunate to be able to spend time back in the classroom before returning to administration.  I don’t expect that every administrator or teacher will be able to “walk a mile…” as they say, but if teachers and administrators could find enough common ground, if Principal’s could find the courage to share the responsibility and authority around teacher PD, and if teachers could see the value in systemic PD, then I know they would see great things happen.  It does not mean that principals can’t have a strong hand in setting building goals, and they certainly can set parameters that would require PD to link to building and/or district goals, and it doesn’t mean that teachers can’t hone in on areas that are important to them, but a differentiated approach put into practice by a well-run committee of teachers and administrators, could do so much to engage all educators in continued professional learning.

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