May 21st, 2014

Making the Most of Professional Development Days


I am on my way to speak at another professional development day at a college. I do these events with misgivings—frequently persuading myself on the way home that I really shouldn’t be doing them.

Some time ago, a colleague and I reviewed the literature on interventions to improve instruction. If I were to do that paper again, I would pay special attention to those changes that improved student learning. The research we looked at then did not give workshops very high marks. If teachers changed, they did so right after the event, but soon reverted to their old ways of doing things

A lot of workshops (mine included) have a kind of revival service feel to them. The faculty who are there care deeply about teaching; those who need to be revived don’t usually show up. So, the audience isn’t all that difficult to convert. If you’ve got an idea they think might be good, especially if it addresses a problem that concerns them, they write it down or key it in, often nodding with gusto and then following up with questions on the details. Give them five or six concrete ideas and they become true believers, whole new teachers who leave the session determined to lead new and better lives in the classroom. But it’s the staying power of workshop experiences that give me pause.

Even so, I’m still doing professional development days and here’s what I tell myself about why I should. Institutional support for teaching remains meager at most places. If the institution brings in somebody with expertise, feeds faculty, maybe buys them a book, those efforts, although modest, still merit support. And workshop events are one of the few times when faculty can pause and consider. Teaching is a treadmill. You start the beginning of the semester and you go to the end—preparing, presenting, grading, and advising for multiple courses and multitudes of students. It’s not until the semester ends that you realize just how much energy it has taken and how tired it has made you.

Professional development days can encourage teachers to reflect and take stock. I try to interrogate their practices, in gentle and constructive ways. “What are you doing?” So many of the “problems” teachers have with students are exacerbated, if not caused, by teaching policies and practices. We don’t submit what we’re doing to careful scrutiny as regularly as we should.

Then there’s the opportunity to explore the “how” questions. “Are there other ways it could be done?” Here’s where we lay out alternative approaches and ideas—and it’s these ideas that teachers seem to want most from teaching workshops. I am troubled here too, because of this persistent notion that there’s one right, best, always effective policy (say for cell phones, cheating, attendance, etc.). In reality, the problems and the solutions are complicated and vexing. Even so, teaching techniques, ideas, strategies, approaches, and policies are essential. You cannot make music in the classroom without good techniques, and given the speed at which that teaching treadmill runs, there’s little time to track them down during the semester. And finally, on professional development days, teachers can be encouraged to reconnect with the “why” question. “Why are you doing this?” It is easy to get comfortable with our teaching routines; to forget that teaching is important work, work that matters, makes a difference, and changes lives. Workshop days can give faculty the opportunity to renew and refill low energy reserves.

But a lot of faculty don’t attend teaching workshops, and those that stay away aren’t always the teachers who “need” to be there the most. Some don’t go because they’ve attended too many mediocre workshops. And then there are some of us who just don’t learn very well in those kinds of settings. Give me a quiet space, some good articles, time to write, and a chance to share ideas with my best colleagues—I’ll opt for that almost every time. Public events aren’t the only option for professional development. With planning and forethought, you can conduct your own robust examinations of what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it. Then you must spend the time it takes to reflect, explore, ask questions, and learn more about your teaching.

The summer can be the perfect time to tend to our teaching. Things often slow down, at least a little bit. Maybe this will be your summer to reflect and rejuvenate—either on your own or with others.

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