Those who know me the best always think it’s hilarious when I’m asked to make staff development presentations because I’ve got a history of resisting even the most well-intentioned reform efforts.
Heck, the closest that I’ve ever come to getting fired for insubordination was when I put Kool-Aid and Dixie Cups out on the snack table in a Jonestown-esque reference to the cultish feel of a Stephen Covey presentation that was serving as our formal staff development plan one year.
Not exactly one of my more professional decisions!
But in a lot of ways, I’d grown tired of the way staff development was chosen in our building. Rarely were teachers involved in any of the decision-making, rarely did the selections have any direct impact on teaching and learning in our school, and rarely did the selections stay around long enough to become a part of our school’s culture or driving philosophy.
We were on the Merry-Go-Round of professional learning, and my head was spinning.
What made the ride even more frustrating was that most of the “programs” we were exposed to were drawn directly from the latest cliche-craze sweeping the business world. We read Who Moved My Cheese, studied the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and tried to move from Good to Great. We had Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations.
While most of my colleagues recognized that these programs were a huge waste of our time and our building’s resources, they were largely unwilling to challenge the status quo. “Nothing’s going to change,” they would say, “This is how professional development has always been chosen. Just bring a big stack of papers to grade and you’ll keep busy.”
But I’ve never been real good at “just keeping busy.” In the context of today’s high school reform efforts, I’m driven by relevance—always questioning the decisions that influence what happens in my classroom. In fact, my peers call me “The Why Guy” because I ask the same three questions over and over again when reflecting on school-wide decisions:
Why Bother? (Usually uttered in hushed tones under my breath. I may be borderline belligerent, but I’m not stupid!)
What gets me in the most trouble is that I don’t go away easily! If my school’s leadership struggles to answer any of my three whys, I automatically go into attack mode. “If we can’t answer these questions legitimately, then we’re wasting time,” I’ll say. “And I ain’t got time to waste! Do you know how hard classroom teaching really is?”
Having gained notoriety as a somewhat surly cuss, most everyone was surprised when I emerged as an active proponent of professional learning communities as a form of staff development. In fact, many would consider me to be on the Varsity PLC cheerleading team—a huge digression from my typical pattern of behavior when it comes to PD.
Why have I finally decided to embrace a staff development initiative? Because PLCs answer my three whys better than any effort I’ve seen in over 15 years of teaching:
Why This: PLCs are the right staff development initiative because they inherently value the knowledge and expertise of practitioners—as opposed to the knowledge and expertise of heavily paid outsiders who may or many not have any experience working in schools or with children! In buildings functioning as learning communities, teachers working together are empowered to find solutions to challenges interfering with student growth and development.
That kind of confidence in the ability of teachers is just plain refreshing in an educational environment where outside experts have become the in-thing!
Why Now: Education stands at a critical juncture. In an increasingly flattening world, our students are going to have to compete in a global marketplace for gainful employment. Estimates show that the largest English speaking nation in the world will be China in the next decade—creating a sense of competition that we have never had to wrestle with as a nation until now.
These new realities have introduced fear into nearly every conversation about teaching and learning. Many members of the general public question the ability of teachers and schools to produce meaningful learning results. Scrutiny and criticism increase exponentially each year, resulting in greater restrictions and controls on the work we do in the classroom. Standardized testing and scripted curricula are direct responses to the lack of confidence that decision-makers have in the ability of educators.
Isn’t it time that we show what a committed group of teaching professionals can do when given the freedom to explore their practice in a meaningful way?
Why Bother: The moralistic, high-minded answer to this question would be, “PLCs ensure that every child has access to the best instruction regardless of instructor—and every child deserves our best.”
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
Sure, but as a practitioner who is already swamped by the day-to-day demands of a profession that can be simply overwhelming, I couldn’t give a rip about moralistic, high-minded answers!
Good thing, then, that there’s a more practical reason that educators should embrace learning teams: Collaboration done right helps to lighten the load for everyone. In the past few years, I’ve actually seen the time that I invest in planning daily lessons go down as I’ve taken advantage of learning experiences and materials shared by my colleagues. We’ve even gotten creative about regrouping students across classrooms during the school day to provide the kinds of remediation experiences that I used to deliver in after school tutoring sessions.
Now don’t get me wrong: Learning communities aren’t all sunshine and daffodils. In fact, for the first few years, I even wondered whether collaborative work in schools was possible. Having spent the majority of our careers working in complete isolation, my team struggled to learn the skills necessary to work together effectively and spent a significant amount of time “storming” our way through meetings.
But I’ve never been more energized or more effective in my entire teaching career either. I approach professional development with an unusual zeal because I know that I’m going to get to explore my practice with my peers. Together, we learn more about instruction that works and we polish the things that we do best. We have a commitment to one another and to our students that is nothing short of energizing—and that commitment brings us back year after year to work together again.
I guess I finally drank the Kool-Aid, huh?.