As teachers we are expected to engage in professional development to better our skills and better serve the changing needs of students. How does that shape our personal professional development goals exactly, and how does it feel being on either end of this process?
As a teacher I have been lucky enough to receive some great training and also train teachers in a number of different roles and contexts.
These are my observations…
‘But this doesn’t suit my students!’ is probably the most common complaint I have both made myself and received from training teachers. I started teaching while studying for my BA and often felt like the theory was all good and well but didn’t apply to the students I taught.
I thought as if there was some magical classroom somewhere where this magical theory was pertinent to all students, and following this process would keep all students bright and happy.
‘If only’ I thought, ‘If only I could teach in that magical classroom without behavioral issues where these theories would actually work. If only I could actually use this cognitive theory stuff.’
‘All this stuff only helps those lucky teachers who work in privileged schools,’ I thought.
Then I worked in a privileged school and again, ‘this doesn’t work for my students!’ is all I could think at every professional development seminar I went to. It was almost as if, in my class, I was nurturing a rare species of child found nowhere else and at no other time than Block 3, room A, 10:00 – 11:00.
Putting Professional Development Goals into Practice
In my early years of teacher training, I was determined to make the experience of the teachers as useful as possible. I was determined to have teachers engage with professional development goals that they could apply to their classroom.
I started with the obvious statement that every class is different, and thought, by making things broad, teachers could think of what applies to their students and adjust accordingly. The response was that it was too vague. The teachers wanted more concrete ideas of things to do in the classroom: things they could just apply to the classroom.
‘People want concrete examples’ I thought. I knew that it was impossible to provide enough scaffolds to cover all bases. I could hardly be expected to observe too many classrooms and create different scaffolds for different teachers; at the same time I knew that teachers would be oppositional to anything too theoretical. So I made a few example lesson scaffolds based on the theory of ‘active learning‘.
The feedback was mixed as I expected. A small minority of teachers were very vocal about how the examples would not work in their classroom. ‘This wouldn’t work for my students,’ they said.
So I had come in a full circle, from thinking that teacher training was too theoretical, to delivering teacher training which was too broad, to delivering teacher training which was too specific. All along the way I was unable to solve this conundrum. ‘How do we make it relevant to all teachers?’
I am not sure whether there is an answer, but I came up with an interesting point of comparison which convinces me that teacher development should be in our hands.
In class we try to get students to think for themselves. We wouldn’t just preach the theory without giving some sort of examples or context to make it more relatable. Instead, we might do one of two things: provide a broad framework from which students can get their own ideas, or give a range of examples and have students adapt those examples for their own goals or vision.
Ideally we want students to engage in deeper learning and critical thinking: we want them to think for themselves. We do not want to give them so much structure that they just copy; nor do we want to give them no structure and confuse them.
We might go somewhere down the middle and respond to students individually when something is too vague and give them extra guidance, only if we think they need it. We would hope that students are able to engage in a certain degree of critical thinking.
Why is it that we as teachers find it so hard to enact the skills that we want our students to practise when it comes to their own professional development goals?
We as teachers should have critical thinking skills and be adaptable, because that’s what we want of our students.
These days many people are getting into the practice of writing curriculum and other teachers are paying for it. These services save time but are a bit hypocritical. Why teach students to think critically for 12 years of schooling, if we think it would be acceptable for them to just copy someone else’s work when they become adults? At the end of the day, we are teachers and we should be able to think and adapt accordingly.
If teacher training is just theory, that’s one thing; if it is clearly explained, broad, and encourages one to adapt the theory whilst helping with this process where needed, I think it is doing its job.
From now on I am going to avoid complaining about the teacher training seminars I attend and be less harsh on myself when I get negative feedback for the seminars I run.
It is an attitude of adaptability that defines whether teacher training is relevant to us and our students or not. If we as teachers think it is even possible to receive a step by step guide that automatically fits our students, we may need to explore whether we hold this bias in how we teach our students too.