The following report from the Brisbane English Teacher' Conference (AATE) will be appearing in the ACT English teachers' journal (ACTivATE Vol 25, No 2)
Breathing life into professional development: thoughts from the AATE conference in Brisbane
Some time ago, I received an email from a former student, describing to me his experience as a first year teacher attending two days of compulsory professional development.
I have felt all sorts of frustration. We keep being told stuff I actually already know!
Yes, I know teaching is a noble progression.
Yes, I suppose bad teaching will break and ruin the children and crush our society into a fiery ball of failure.
Yes, I agree that I must engage the kids and capture their interest in schooling.
Yes, believe it or not I have actually read the Hattie statistics.
Yes I accept the fact that it involves time and effort.
Of course I think that the fundamental point of my life as a teacher is to get the best for my students.
You are preaching to the converted here. Hours of my life wasted, never to be returned to me. And, during the final session today, this gem has just been delivered - did you know that "everyone has a responsibility to teach numeracy and literacy"?? Gosh!
And there’s more.
We are, we’ve been told several times, teaching the leaders of tomorrow; if our students are bored they will switch off; technology is the key to engagement; encourage our children to be responsible for their own learning; assessment for learning and as learning is key - tests should not be about failure.
I knew these things before being told them again today.
Please, those in charge of professional development, give me something I can use.
I was reminded of this email by an excellent keynote from Terry Locke. It was called Developing writing teachers: Implications for teacher professional identity, and my former student would have been on the seats cheering had he been present.
Terry drew from his extensive professional life (as an English teacher, a poet, a researcher and teacher educator) to suggest that we could be doing a much better job with PD. We could, without too much trouble, move beyond the current top-down practice, which sees too many PD sessions offered and attended more for the sake of ticking boxes for mandated professional standards than for genuine and useful teaching and learning). Furthermore,
Teachers are positioned primarily as users and not producers of knowledge, and dependent on the expertise of knowledgeable others to improve what they do as teachers. (Kerkham & Hutchison, 2004, p. 89)
Instead, Terry suggested, why not move towards what he called ‘the democratisation of professional development’.
What, specifically, did he mean by this?
The picture he painted was very different from the model which has someone out the front telling teachers stuff they already know, frustrating teachers like my student.
Instead, Terry asked us to visualise a professional development program that was based around teachers being actively engaged in action research on problems and issues of vital concern to them. As I listened to him, I imagined a professional development leader – a good listener, someone able to get teachers talking about what most concerned them – skillfully guiding teachers in individual and small group projects. The participants would be helped to draw on relevant research as they tried to make sense of their experience. They would formulate plans of action, and then carry them out, as part of the professional development.
I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen the enthusiasm it generates. I wish there were more of it.
Central to Terry’s vision was a notion of teachers as writers: writing to help make sense of what they were experiencing on the ground, writing to grapple with the research they were reading, and then writing to produce useful and grounded articles and reports.
I described Terry earlier as an English teacher, a poet, a researcher and teacher educator. It seemed part of his vision – and an exciting part, I thought – that this is how he saw all of us as well. Certainly when professional development engages all of these different aspects of ourselves, it becomes a thing worth doing.
When I got back to Canberra, I told my former student about Terry’s session. He then sent me a poem he’d written after sitting through yet another top-down professional development session:
With apologies to Milton
When I consider that my time is spent
At workplace training feeling dull and tired
I long to feel alive and thus inspired
But end up in frustration and torment.
It isn't that I don't respect the time
Or effort that has gone into this course
But I object with vigour and with force
To policy and buzzwords intertwined.
I think it is unfair to just assume,
That none of us are competent or care,
That we ignore responsibility
You can instead, I think, perhaps presume
That what we'd really like is time to share
And apply new ideas most properly.
Kerkham, L., & Hutchison, K. (2004). Teacher researchers – sustaining professional learning. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 3(2), 88-98.