One way to destroy trust in professional learning

Hayes Mizell describes 3 ways to build trust in professional learning. This is all good stuff, but there’s at least one essential prerequisite for any of this to work: you do have to actually trust the professionals (in this case, teachers). And there’s nothing that says “We don’t trust you” like a professional learning requirement that is externally imposed, mandatory, and micro-managed.

To pick just one of the three ways: number 2 reads “[Leaders should] Organize professional learning that teachers experience as appropriate and helpful”. Let’s pick that apart:

  1. In a mature, self-regulated profession, there is no distinction between leaders and the rest. Rather, the profession as a whole is seen to be leading society. There are leading members of the profession, but they are rarely to be found organizing PL.
  2. It’s a subtle point, but training is “organized for” workers who are passive recipients. PL might be “offered to” professionals, but just as often they will define for themselves what constitutes PL.
  3. In a mature, empowered profession, no professional endures PL that is not appropriate and helpful – not for very long, anyway. Try to waste even five minutes of a senior surgeon’s time, and you’ll find yourself looking at a receding surgeon’s back. It’s a measure of a profession that is desperately disenfranchised that it’s even possible to waste days of teachers’ time on poor PL.

Perhaps we as a society don’t actually trust teachers? OK- then we must strictly regulate training requirements, remove self-agency, and concern ourselves with how we are using their time. But in that case we must also stop calling teaching a profession, and we must absolve teachers of responsibility for school outcomes. Personally, I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Note 1: I’m using Mizell’s post as an example of how the language around teacher PL reflects widespread contradictory attitudes towards professionalism in teaching. I’m not suggesting that Mizell himself is inconsistent or otherwise opposed to teacher empowerment.

Note 2: Mizell is writing in the North American context, but my direct observations of the teaching profession are all Australian.

2 thoughts on “One way to destroy trust in professional learning

  1. You have some good points. The schools in the United States are required by law to allocate a certain number of hours to “professional development”. Whether the teachers like it or not, they are “required” to be present at these sessions. Walking out of such a presentation impacts the rating of the teacher and that teacher’s future employability.

    I think there are several factors here. Teachers are running out of free time to devote to self-improvement. Teachers have meager funds to spend on self-improvement. Teachers have little incentive to pursue graduate studies.

    Teachers have little time during the school year to devote to self-improvement. Many people think that teachers have short work hours. They don’t. Very few teachers are able to complete their work while at school; most of them spend hours every night doing that work. The workload continues to increase because the bureaucracies continue mandating increased reporting requirements.

    Teachers have little money to pursue higher education. Teachers are historically some of the lowest-paid professionals. The average teacher makes about as much as an entry-level professional in a technical field. After ten years in the industry, the technical profession has far outstripped the teacher, even if the teacher pursues a masters degree and other certifications (like special education).

    Teachers have little incentive to pay for more education. A master’s degree is only worth about $10K a year. In some cases (if not all), a doctorate’s degree is worthless when you want a raise; you’d need to stop being a teacher and become an administrator.

    Teachers are masters of creativity. They love to see their children learn and this is what keeps them in the classroom. A good teacher understands that a curriculum is nothing more than a suggestion, a guideline. A good teacher can navigate all around that curriculum, using different techniques to teach the same concepts to different children as appropriate.

    Many teachers are leaving not because the job has no joy for them, but because the reporting requirements are overbearing or the evaluation standards are unfair. Teachers receive a lot more scrutiny than many other professionals and many of them don’t have administrative personnel to help them compile the requisite reports.

    I think what we are dealing with is a treatment of the symptoms instead of a treatment for the disease. If the various governments can find the solutions to teachers being too busy, too poor, and unmotivated to pursue self-improvement, they won’t have to require teachers to attend poorly organized professional learning sessions.

  2. Paul, what you describe sounds very much like the situation in Australia. When I mention in conversation that I work in professional learning, I’ve come expect that all of the teachers within earshot will react with anger, and frequently spend the next few minutes venting about how they are treated in this respect. That’s pretty sad given that I know how empowering good professional learning can be.

    I think the “solution” that is being attempted here is to increase the level of professionalism in teaching – meaning self-agency, responsibility for outcomes, and engagement with practice improvement. Not a bad goal-set, although I’m not sure the problem that this is supposed to solve has been well-articulated. Leaving that aside, there is an argument that growing a big-P Professional culture is a long-term pathway to better conditions and more say in how the system operates. In Australia, nursing has been pursuing this path with some success for about 25 years.

    However, in teaching, the large employer bureaucracies approached (and dominated) this agenda in their usual style – top-down, centrist control, measured by process rather than outcomes. All these things are antithetical to professional culture. So we end up with the situation you describe in your first paragraph, which is compliance training, not professional learning. Only often enough there’s not much training, so it’s just pure compliance.

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