The Terrifying Nature of Teaching Teachers

Chemistry Teacher with Students in Class

I tasked myself with conducting some professional development for my school’s staff this past Monday just before the students returned. I asked for it. Really. I did. I suppose I was lucky that my admin team allowed me to do it, but the prospect of standing in front of my fellow teachers and try to give them a new perspective, tools, and ideas to play with in their classes and course teams is sort of terrifying. Not terrifying because I’m deathly scared of speaking in front of others–I do it everyday in my classroom–no, terrifying because as any other educator knows, teacher professional development has a stigma around it. Let me explain.

We seem to be at the pinnacle of teacher frustration with professional development. Too often teacher PD is presented as a pristine knight riding in on a white horse, saving the kingdom with his or her foolproof ‘save the princess’ formula, and then riding off into the sunset towards the next kingdom never to be seen again. Then what? In it’s worst iteration, teacher PD gets taken up as gospel and an entire school is forced to take it up in exactly the way it was presented leaving nothing but scorched earth behind after a year of frustration by all involved, realizing that the formula doesn’t work in all contexts. In it’s best iteration, teacher PD is flexible and offers a way of rethinking classroom tactics and allows for teachers to use its principles in multiple contexts. In a magical fairy tale world that–to this point–doesn’t exist, teacher PD could be used to shift teachers’ focal point away from a student deficit model to a student asset model. As a professor recently told me, if you’ve figured out that formula, let me know and we’ll take it on the road and get make some cash along the way. (But I digress.)

Moving on–

My school is using an academy model, and with that model is a focus on using project-based learning as an instructional method. Last semester we took on an enormous logistical task of asking 95 teachers and 1,700 students to all participate in a project focused in their academies all at the same time. The challenge paid off in many ways, but also left a sour taste for some. We saw all the possibilities–including some very successful projects that came or will come, to fruition–and we saw all the blemishes. This semester we’re taking the project, and bringing it to the classroom/course team level, asking our teachers and students to get more hands-on with the process. As you might imagine, there are some challenges that exist trying to accomplish this. The ultimate goal is take last semester’s experience and couple it with this semester’s going into next year and putting the giant puzzle together. To help in the endeavor, I took on the task of doing some project-based learning professional development. I knew it needed to be good; I knew it needed to be relevant; I knew it needed to be flexible; I knew it needed to be practical; I knew it needed to be genuine.

It took most of the winter break to really nail down my approach, but ultimately I settled on presenting my fellow teachers with a new approach to using essential and higher order thinking (HOT) questions to drive the focus of a project. Borrowing from some of the masters at Edutopia, I tried to help teachers rethink the relevancy of essential questions in their classrooms as to many it is just a buzzword and already a tired educational cliche. I tried to make the HOT questions flexible and practical by providing stems and a resource to aid in using them. I could not help but worry, though, that I would be a moving target on stage and be just another knight attempting to save the kingdom’s problems. The worry of letting down my friends and teaching neighbors is what terrified me the most.

The good news? I survived, and even more than that I got plenty of positive feedback from others about the experience. The real tribute to the PD having some success is how quickly some course teams moved in generating questions for their projects. While not a total home run, the experience reminded me we’re still ultimately all in this together. Below are some pictures of HOT questions teachers developed to go along with a possible project:

20150105_100532 20150105_100510 20150105_100522

In reflecting, I think the reason–as I just alluded to–I was terrified of creating and presenting the PD is because I give a damn. I care about how teachers will be able to take up the task and actually use it, and I certainly care that they feel as though their time has been valued.

I won’t know how successful the PD really is until the end of the semester when I can look out at the school and see how my suggestions were taken up and implemented by my fellow educators. I’ll wait patiently until then, and probably remain a little afraid–but hopeful. Definitely hopeful.

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