Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Is Bad Coffee the Problem with PD?

In class, we were challenged to think about experiences that have made us successful teachers after watching this TEDx talk. I suppose that for this exercise, I will have to suspend my questions about whether or not I am a good teacher, and assume that I am. This may be a topic for another journal entry, but shouldn’t it be clear to someone who has had essentially the same job for half a decade whether or not she is good at that job? I just can’t be sure. I’m not even sure what “good” at this job means right now. Does it mean that my students enjoy my class more often than not? That they pass state-mandated tests? That they come back to visit after they’ve graduated? Most days, the answer to these questions is yes, but there are days when the answer is just as resoundingly no.
On the days when I think my practice answer the questions that matter with a yes, I am usually leaning on two of my most treasured supports: classes and reading about teaching. For the past year, I have been a member of the Central Virginia Writers’ Project. This process-based writing institute has made me think about how to incorporate skills-based instruction in a writers’ workshop format. I have had the support of classmates and other teacher researchers first in a summer class and then in a weekly group meeting. I’ve taken other classes on the art of questioning student, cognitive science in the classroom, and executive functioning. All of them have left me feeling energized and in possession of new tricks for my teaching bag.
I also feel like a successful teacher on the days I borrow lessons from books I have read and loved. Linda Christensen’s work on teaching social justice in the English classroom contains assignment after assignment designed to get kids writing about what matters to them and their communities. Her assignments have resulted in improved student affect and writing growth.
My reading-teaching connection spills over into reading research that has implications for the classroom, too. I find myself able to breathe easier and speak with more patience after reading about studies suggesting that babies living in poverty are subject to so much cortisol flooding their brains that they develop differently. This research doesn’t make me want to hold my students to different, lower standards, but it does help activate my compassion.
I am not ready to make policy prescriptions out of what has helped me grow or be successful as a teacher. Maybe I’m too much of a control freak to imagine professional development that is completely teacher-driven. Maybe I’m too informed by my experiences of playing hooky from PD sessions in order to work in my classroom. Whatever the reasoning, I don’t know if having teachers select individual readings or classes at larger institutions is the answer to developing our teaching corps.
I do think that we could have professional development that was more tailored to specific contexts. For example, I’d appreciate a day once a month to create collaborative lessons with the other tenth grade English teachers. I would also appreciate a session with an outside speaker provided that speaker was brought in at the request of teachers or in relation to a specific, building-level problem. The bad coffee isn’t really the problem; feeling like time I could have spent in service to my students was wasted is. So, maybe the question for those designing group professional development is this: Will participants feel their time has been wasted? An honest assessment could provide teachers with time to work uninterrupted balanced with group learning that supports building-wide goals. Unfortunately, in my division, I get the feeling that we’re just adding sessions to the catalogue for the sake of numbers rather than meaning. I’d like to resolve to not be that kind of administrator. 

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