There was an “official” agenda for that Professional Development session yesterday; I know, because as a presenter, I received an emailed copy. But apparently the agenda never made it to the teacher-participants, or if it was sent out, a lot of them had “forgotten” to open the emai. We presenters and participants were to sit at designated ‘table groups” by academic subject area; the various Powers That Be in attendance had assigned places, too. But much to the distress of one relevant Power, she couldn’t initially find two of the World Language people, including the one Latin teacher for whom my presence was “needed.” Having not received the agenda, or something, the two didn’t know where they were supposed to sit … so sat where they could find a place. “Wasn’t it obvious,” fretted the Power, “that they needed to sit with the other language teachers?” Probably not, I thought, especially since they didn’t know those other language teachers. My Power’s main concern, though, was to collect required signatures on the Special Form. With that accomplished, her concerns about seating dissolved.
To continue the metaphor from yesterday’s post, the hiccup was just a temporary annoyance. So was the other hiccup, when the session started ten or fifteen minutes late. Soon enough, everything was back on schedule.
Greater Powers Than She gave an introduction and welcome, asking the teacher-participants if they were glad to “be back.” Unenthusiastic-looking teacher-participants clapped and cheered, just like they’re supposed to. There was an introduction to the Important Themes of the upcoming school year, an introduction of relevant, but lesser Powers That Be, a brief presentation about a new technological initiative. Then, with random-colored cards, participant (and presenters) were dispersed to several classrooms where, in smaller groups, they watched a pair of remotely-delivered presentations (interactive ones! using a new teleconferencing system that will surely solve everything and provide endless new opportunities for students!).
There was one about New Technology, and how it will solve the problem of student engagement. There was another about Writing, and how it (in all content areas, as a tool for learning and not a polished end product) will raise test scores, help with Implementation of the Common Core Standards, and help students achieve their fullest potential. The four teacher-participants in my small-group room agreed: “we’d better answer yes” to that Power’s question about “excited to be back.” They agreed again:Writing is Important, and we don’t have students write enough. They had good plans, good intentions, for improving the situation, too.
But, having not received the agenda, they weren’t sure where to go next, a;fter the break, when the Content Area Sessions began. “Do you all know where to go?” asked a Very Minor Power in the hallway, and they all politely smiled and nodded affirmatively.
My one (!) content-are participant had been surprised to see me, she said. “Why is he here?” she asked the Relevant Power. She was also aggrieved,fearing that she’d be subjected to a Dog And Pony Show or worse, when she saw the Relevant Handouts in the session room. But we ended up with a good, positive talk about important issues … and about the Many Things that had been going on in her life over the past several months. I’ve known Ms. Q for well over a decade, and we’ve helped each other through painful situations: her husband’s slow painful death at an early age, my own life transitions. So there’s a basis of community, and that helped. A lot. It also helped that, even without the Official Focus on Writing, on Technology To Engage Students, and on Language Proficiency, she’d been thinking about those issues anyway. Yes, she said, she liked the draft proficiency assessments I showed her. Would it be possible, she wondered, for us all to sit down and really firm up the Official List of vocabulary and structures we wanted our students to be familiar with at the end of each level? But what if Extremely High Powers change everything once again and undo all our hard work?
A really good, productive conversation … and yet it, like the whole morning, left me cold on the inside despite the surface warmth I showed, despite my real feeling of happiness for Ms. Q. The whole structure of the day, you see, was about efficient processing. Teacher-participants were to be moved smoothly through disconnected assembly-line stations, each bolting on a new, disconnected bit of knowledge or information to the final product, the “professionally developed” teacher. Half of the group did the curriculum-focused sessions first, half the distance presentations, because that was logistically easier … or something. Like cars leaving the Big Three auto plant right before the Energy Crisis, they’d presumably be correctly assembled at the end, an in turn, they’d go on to Correctly Assemble their students. Hiccups, if they happened, couldn’t be that bad, could they? The Power who conducted the Writing session from afar, even included pauses for questions, answers, and interactions — interactions she couldn’t hear, because participants were to mute the microphones on computers in their session rooms. “I bet you all said wonderful things,” she said. And maybe some participants did.
I wasn’t surprised at all to find this thoughtful piece about Professional Development and “burned-out” teachers in my Twitter feed this morning. And I wasn’t surprised to find this related one, inspired by Teach Like a Pirate, that Ms. Sackstein wrote a day later. It’s good to find enthusiastic, energetic teachers like her, folks who have the passion to take on the Old System, to try to change it from within as I’ve tried to do for the past two decades.
But do I still want to do that? Do iI still think it’s possible? And even if the answers to both of those questions were “Yes,”” is my path still taking me in that direction? There’s a thoughtful comment on Ms. Sackstein’s professional-development post, one that talks about “burnt-out” teachers of various kinds and how she, as an enthusiastic young teacher who still believes in the power of Professional Development, might respond to them without alienating them further. Some, says the wise author, say negative things around their colleagues but are still amazingly effective in the classroom. Others are negative everywhere, but their joy might yet be rekindled. Some never had any joy at all, and they need to go do something else. Many lost their joy and enthusiasm after years of broken promises, of Initiatives that offered everything but delivered nothing. Remember that, says the wise author of the comment, and tailor your responses (and your professional-development plans) to the needs of each person. Differentiate, in other words, just as I encourage the participants in the online professional-development course I teach. Don’t see monolithic groups of teachers or students; see individuals, or at least smaller groups.
And that’s true, and valuable to remember and act on … especially if you want to try to change the System from within. If I did, I’d be looking for those seemingly-negative teachers, the ones who still do great (or at least good) work with their students. I’d bring them together with the enthusiastic ones, those whose fire to Change Things is still blazing, and see if we could build a joyful community together. I’d do the “unscalable” things that actually cause things to scaleas George pointed out when he shared this Paul Graham piece on Google+ last night.
But that’s not what I want to do anymore … or is it? And even if I wanted it, I’m not sure systemic change is possible …. or am I just too tired, too jaded, to want to try that again? Am I where Josh Kaufman was when he realized that, for all the excitement and value he’d gained working in a huge organization, that’s not what he was shaped and called to do?
Where are the threads and hiccups leading me? Is the picture still totally unclear? Or is it clear, but I’m not ready or willing to see it? And what are the implications for all of us builders and sustainers of joyful community when we’re in this situation, when everything is almost clear but nothing is?