Who Owns Our Professional Learning?

Summer: ‘Tis the season of professional development.

We have immersed ourselves in conferences and seminars. We have played with new online tools. We have finished reading what our administrators assigned for summer reading (well, almost), and we have found time to read what we are personally interested in for our professional growth. We have met with colleagues to discuss collaborative projects. We have let our minds cozy up to the thorny issues of our teaching we just didn’t have time to address and reflect on enough during the school year. We have connected through social media. We have stumbled across new resources and gathered together the resources we know we need to revisit.
Professional Development or Professional Learning?
Throughout all this active learning, I must say, I’ve found the term “professional development” sticking in my craw. I’m not against the word “professional,” mind you. Rather, I’m all for nurturing a more professional mindset among teachers. But “development” clangs in my ears, as if it indicates some kind of stunted deficiency in my growth that needs immediate attention.
Not only is the term “professional development” inadequate as a description for what we do as professional learners, it also sends the wrong message. It only loosely infers the constant work that teachers do – not only in the summer – of looking for ways to meet students’ needs. It implies a top down, authoritative approach that we, philosophically at least, reject for our learner-centered classrooms. It just doesn’t measure up to reality.
The term “professional development” – I’m sorry, but it’s time for it to go.
The Other Side of the Fence
professional learningWhen I served as an administrator who sought on her best days to mentor teacher-leaders, I never liked the term then either. For the most part, it made the teachers I worked with cranky. It meant countable hours with limited funds — when I only wanted to open up new ways of thinking. Contrary to my good intentions, my efforts at “professional development” translated into twisting arms and facing resistance, and only occasionally into pointing a teacher towards something to ignite his or her passion for teaching. It meant being annoyed at the newspaper readers and paper graders and surreptitious texters who arrived already turned off when I invited a guest speaker to inspire our faculty or needed to lead a discussion on what we all agreed mattered most – learning.
It meant everything but what I wanted it to mean: empowered, self-directed learning to reach professional standards and goals the teachers embraced as their own.
What Can Be Done?
First and foremost, we need a new language for talking about learning that honors who teachers are and that recognizes their commitment to learning and improving as active members of their profession.
Next, we need to ask ourselves in each educational environment we design, who actually owns the learning? We spend a good deal of time coaching students in how to take ownership of their learning, because we know this makes a difference, so why don’t we do this with teachers?
We need to train ourselves to think of our teachers as self-directed learners, just as we do our students, and structure our professional learning programs accordingly.
We need to empower teachers in the process of planning all-school readings and programs, as well as to deliver those programs when their passion and knowledge can inspire others.
We need to nurture cultures of sharing, where teachers freely engage in discussions about their professional learning without encountering the “nattering nabobs of negativism” (thanks to William Safire for that wonderful phrase) in the faculty room.
We need to provide opportunities and guidance for teacher leaders to bring the nay-sayers among us back from the dark side and into more productive creative engagement.
We need to make time in our meetings and other gatherings for the kind of learning teachers can take back to their classrooms and implement immediately rather than put off and ultimately forget.
We need to remember that learning also involves play.
We need to open up our networks to social networking tools and teach our teachers how to use these powerful resources to crowd source information and to build effective personal learning networks.
We need to be aware of how we give mixed messages that depict teachers en masse as passive learners who must be told what to do and what to learn, when, in the same breath, we say we celebrate the promise of individual passion for learning in every student.
We need to see teachers as who they can become, so that they can begin to see themselves that way too.
Words Matter
Yes, I’m a teacher of Language Arts, so of course I think the language we choose matters. The language we use to define the learning of education professionals can limit as well as liberate. More than anything else, the right words can signal ownership of an idea.
If we can begin to see everyone in our schools as independent learners and stop using the kind of language that stifles learning rather than encourages it, perhaps the changes we so long for in education can begin to unfold.
My professional learning this summer has pushed my thinking and helped me grow tremendously. I hope to be a better teacher and a more helpful colleague as a result. I own it, and I am eager to share. I also want to know from my professional compatriots, what has your recent professional learning done for you and your school?
Photo Credit: torres21 via Compfight cc

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