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May 28, 2024
ASCD Blog

Putting the “Professional” in PD

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Creating a culture of professionalism starts with trusting teachers to guide their own growth.
Professional LearningLeadership
An educator stands in the doorway of a classroom looking confident
Credit: LinkedIn Sales Solutions / Unsplash
Lately, I’ve developed a tyrant complex: Holding staff to high expectations or monitoring their work in any way makes me feel like a monster. How can it not? With teacher burnout destroying morale and attrition threatening to destabilize schools, I, like many leaders, want to tread lightly and prioritize everyone’s happiness and well-being. 
But of course, there’s a line. There have to be some hard and fast rules, as there are in any profession. You don’t want a plumber going rogue while he’s fixing your toilet. You can’t have a nurse only chart the data she likes before your surgery. That’s the problem, though—we don’t view teaching as a profession. We certainly don’t put teachers on par with socially prestigious professionals, like doctors or lawyers, nor do we classify them as skilled professionals, like carpenters or stylists. It’s a well-known phenomenon that American teachers garner less cultural respect than their international counterparts, and that they are often paid less, comparatively.

Revising Our Language on Teaching

Look at how we talk about teachers: they’re either saints or scoundrels. When we want to justify their unpaid labor, we idolize teachers as selfless heroes; when we want someone to blame for low test scores, we condemn them as villains. Our discourse around the teaching profession is laden with unhelpful polemics and is conspicuously lacking in respect for teachers as professionals.
That disrespectful discourse impacts the education industry itself. We make teachers spend more time proving they are doing their job than they spend actually doing it. We respond to burnout with trivial measures, such as parties and spirit wear, rather than fixing the problems causing burnout in the first place. And then there’s the professional development, which too often amounts to irrelevant lectures and patronizing workshops.

The Problem with PD

Much of our traditional PD treats teachers as empty vessels waiting to be filled with life-giving wisdom. It’s often hypocritical—long lectures ordering staff to teach innovatively, for example—and usually not relevant to the entire audience. A standard “workshop” is a one-off event, and leaders too often expect radical change after a simple one-hour slideshow. Teachers themselves often attend PD begrudgingly—not because they don’t care about their own growth, but because they’re never going to grow without meaningful opportunities for application, feedback, and reflection throughout the school year.
Professional development worthy of the name must inherently start with the belief that teachers are professionals. As leaders, this involves continually examining and even challenging our assumptions about who teachers are, why they teach, and what they need to succeed. We must also respect the complexity of the profession without promising simple solutions to complicated problems. To show such respect and to take into account the complexity of teaching, PD must have a single aim: to cultivate and honor teacher agency. 

Professional development worthy of the name must inherently start with the belief that teachers are professionals.

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Professionalizing PD

Both structural and attitudinal shifts can help districts uphold teacher agency through professional learning. Teacher-centric professional development involves choice and personalization. “Choice” here doesn’t simply mean letting teachers make surface-level decisions, such as where to sit or which minor task to complete. It means trusting them to decide both what and how they learn, on the assumption that they should propel their own professional growth. The what may be represented through a mix of topics—imagine a catalog featuring everything from reading strategies to social-emotional learning. As for the how, consider the many alternatives to traditional, didactic workshops: problem-solving teams, group coaching experiences, work-study groups, action research pods, and more. 
The ability to choose sends a powerful message. The subtext behind a typical, mandatory session in which all teachers are made to do the same thing is: You’re not individual learners with unique interests and needs; you’re identical hirelings. Nevertheless, I expect you to treat students as individual learners with unique interests and needs. The message behind a choice-based repertoire with multiple options for teacher PD is: I trust you, as a professional, to make the right decision for yourself. I believe that you deserve to explore a topic that interests you, and I believe you know what will best serve you in the context of your job.
This can feel risky, especially for school leaders trying to drive specific innovations or meet rigorous improvement goals. You can thread this needle, however, by filling your PD catalog with a range of options that address school goals. For example, if your school improvement goal is to enhance equity for students, you can provide PD options that connect back to equity: a problem-solving team devoted to diversifying reading lists, an action research group collecting student perspectives, a coaching crew seeking to combat implicit bias, and a workshop on creating safe environments for student discourse. This way, teachers still have choice as to what and how they learn, but they are automatically engaged in equity work within your school. 
Moreover, offering teachers choice while still focusing on specific goals necessitates listening to teacher voices. While they may or may not actually facilitate sessions, teachers should have a seat at the planning table, helping administrators construct relevant options. Teachers can offer input as to what they need to meet school goals, and they can suggest ideas for differentiating PD options. This is another way in which professional learning structures can cultivate teacher agency. PD that responds to teachers’ stated wants and needs honors their perspectives.

PD based on teacher perspectives sends the message: 'You are professionals, and we listen when professionals speak.'

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In the equity example above, for instance, the building leaders may ask teachers what learning they need to provide a more equitable environment for students, then use teachers’ answers to create a relevant catalog. Unlike prescriptive, perfunctory training, PD based on teacher perspectives sends the message: You are professionals, and we listen when professionals speak. 
Anyone who leads professional learning—administrators, teachers, corporate trainers . . . literally anyone—should also scrutinize their attitude. All too often, facilitators approach a session with a paternalistic demeanor: I’m here to shore up your deficiencies. You’re welcome. Or they might employ “magical thinking” by oversimplifying complicated issues in a way that suggests teachers are to blame for not working miracles. 
I once watched a presenter advising teachers to prevent problematic student behaviors simply by building better relationships. Again and again, participants agreed that relationships are essential, but reminded the presenter that post-pandemic behaviors are unprecedented and may require more skillful intervention. The presenter blithely repeated her point while I wanted to shout, You’re not listening! My colleague and I spent a solid hour being hit, kicked, and bitten by a student last week. Could you coach us instead of blaming us?
On one hand, I get it. Some issues, like the one above, are brain-burningly complicated, with no easy answers. On the other hand, ignoring teachers’ concerns because they’re hard to fix is just plain wrong, and propagating simplistic solutions to complex issues is disrespectful; it suggests teachers are faulty tools, rather than experienced professionals with valid perspectives. Professional learning, therefore, might need to evolve from a didactic model, in which an expert imparts wisdom, to a discovery model, in which practitioners brainstorm, analyze, theorize, debate, and co-create a plan. In the student behavior workshop, for example, I would have loved for the presenter to ask us about our experience: What prevention and response techniques have you tried? How often have you tried them? What was the result? What training did you have? What would you like to modify about these techniques? This might have led to a richer discussion than, “Just build better relationships.”

Creating a Culture of Professionalism

At the end of the day, we can never find the right balance between maintaining expectations and respecting agency until we view teachers as true professionals. If our professional development actually did what it should, there wouldn’t be a conflict between these two seemingly opposing factors. If we treated teachers like experts who continually sharpen their skills and exercise ever-wiser judgment, we wouldn’t worry about giving them agency. What’s more, we would feel less guilty about holding them to high standards, with no danger of “tyrant complex.” 
Imagine a world where you’re not afraid of “breaking” teachers, but instead, are confident that they, as professionals, can handle the most challenging job in the world. It sounds like Utopia, maybe, but school leaders have a clear path to making it a reality: focus every interaction with teachers, especially those involving professional growth, respectful of their wisdom, skill, and potential.

Elizabeth Dampf is the director of professional learning at a large unit district in the Chicagoland area. She holds masters degrees in educational leadership and English Literature, and she has authored several print and online articles in Educational Leadership and The Learning Professional.

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