Flip The Switch for Professional Learning

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Ask a teacher about professional learning, she will tell you exactly what she needs and why she needs it. You will then hear how she expects to learn through the same robust, relevant, and collaborative approaches that she uses everyday with her students. Ask the same of other teachers you will get similar responses.

Well, most of the time. That was not the case yesterday. When I asked a teacher friend about her professional learning she blindsided me with an account of her nightmare  the previous night.

The nightmare begins with a teacher standing in darkness, no light, not one iota. She extends her arms forward, nothing there; reaches up, nothing, reaches behind, a wall greets her hands.

As she touches the wall, a bell rings. A disembodied voice booms, “Please proceed to the other side of the room.” The teacher cries out, “What am I doing here? Why go to the other side? How far is it?” No answers meet her questions.

Cautiously she takes a step forward. Then takes another step. Halfway through the third step, her right knee hits a big, firm object. Using her hands, she determines the object to be waist high, horizontal, a few feet wide, and somewhat smooth. She crawls over it. Then stands, takes two steps…whack! Her left shin rams a hard, object approximately 18 inches high, feeling her way around it, she continues moving forward, step after tedious step. Memories of the night maneuvers she endured at scout camp percolate in her mind.

Fifteen minutes later, the teacher bangs into the wall on the other side of the room. Instantly a light comes on. Breathing hard and sweat drenched from the objects she overcame, she is angry as hell about the bumps, bruises, and humiliation she endured. Through eyes, adjusting to the painful brightness of the room, she views the trail just traversed—over a couch, around a coffee table, into and around a pillar, by a floor lamp, and the wall, the blessed wall.

The booming voice says, “What took you so long?” She pauses, and then says, “If I’d known where I was, what I was supposed to do, and why it mattered that I do it…I would have gotten here quicker and with less damage…and I wish I had known where the light switch was.”

I often hear teachers speak figuratively of being in the dark about things happening in their school or district. However, a nightmare is a first for me. Nonetheless, I am not surprised when my friend has a ready answer as to what the nightmare means .

After taking a deep breath, my friend describes how poorly designed PL puts teachers in the dark by giving them no choice of learning opportunities or instructional approaches. Moreover, it saddles them with expectations unrelated to their daily work with students. Then she painstakingly explains how the darkness of PL sessions and other school activities—like the disembodied voice above—often evokes feelings of humiliation, pain, inadequacy, and anxiety within teachers when not performing to expectation. Those feelings, left unaddressed personally or professionally, can contribute to sleep, health, and mental disorders…and ultimately burnout and turnover.

Professional learning should be dreamlike, not nightmarish. Making it more self-directed (aka teacher agency) enables teachers to switch-on their learning, develop capacity to see pathways for growth, and identify and overcome obstacles. When this is the case, teachers hold themselves accountable. The booming voice asking, “What took you so long?” goes away. As do the educational equivalents of couches, coffee tables, and walls.

Teachers know what they need. Let them flip the switch for their professional learning. Make the nightmares go away.

Mark


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