Jared Scherz continues the series on what makes a teacher whole…

We read a lot about ways to improve the quality of student education through the invention of new policies, procedures, and theory that advocate improved teaching methods. Who can argue this as a worthwhile goal, especially with the backdrop of statistical charts showing the relative ranking of the U.S. with other first world countries? Even the recent emphasis on outcome measures to ensure accountability for basic standards seems to have its merits to lift up the lowest of the achieving schools.

Not one of these basic expectations however can be sustained if we are depleting our natural resources whose job it is to fulfill these requirements. When we focus on outcomes without considering process, we recreate an unhealthy pattern that can endure for years. We see this same type of issue in our food industry for example.  We are in a race to produce higher food yields to ‘feed the masses’ but in doing so we are taking steps that are eroding the quality of nutrition and compromising the health of millions.

Putting this into educational terms, If we are producing teachers at higher rates to fill the void left by the growing number of abandoned posts and retirees, but these newly trained educators are poorly prepared, then we are setting them up for failure. Or consider a more veteran teacher whose approach is compromised by a new set of parameters that dilutes the potency of their work. In either case, quality may be compromised by a lack of attention to the person behind the job.

While mentorship is available for these teachers, the focus of a mentor is nearly always content driven. Mentors are not trained in how to help, but more often experienced educators who are willing to take a new teacher under their wing. While this has potentially great value for the new teacher, it can also be a limiting factor when personalities clash or ideals aren’t aligned. Consider that more than 6 in 10 teachers say that time to collaborate with other teachers (65%) and professional development opportunities (63%), the two methods to get support and grow, have either decreased or stayed the same during the past 12 months.

It’s more than unfortunate that professional development (PD) is subpar in many districts. PD is the most perfect blend of balancing the needs of the individual while serving the institution. Useful PD can invigorate the tired professional, revitalize the veteran, or nurture the newest of educators. PD serves the school by ensuring the influx of new ideas so that educators can incorporate these concepts into their work in ways they deem most beneficial.

One issue is the term itself, ‘professional development’, a term whose meaning has been diluted. We aren’t using PD to advance the development of educators, so much as advancing the agenda of whatever consultant or Department of Education administrator, promoting the latest design or project.

While it may be necessary at times to use PD time to advance these agendas, perhaps a distinction needs to be made between school driven mandatory training versus the type that advances the skills or perspective of the individual.

The importance of growing a healthy educator cannot be understated as it may be the difference in a school with high versus low retention. With teacher job satisfaction decreasing 23% in the past six years, with professional development being a top cause, our educational system is at risk of being further compromised. We know that teachers are under duress but we aren’t taking the necessary steps to intervene. Half (51%) of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 percentage points over 36% of teachers reporting that level in 1985.

Professional development could be an answer to this dilemma, even if teachers have to take the matter into their own hands. To begin with, let’s redefine what PD is and what purpose it needs to serve. In order for PD to be fully valuable, it must consider the needs of the entire person. This means appreciating resistance to change, theoretical paradigms beyond learning, navigating relationships with colleagues, students, administrators, and life issue taking place outside the classroom. PD needs to be fun, interactive, and filled with experiential learning.

Considering how depleted an educator can be managing the behaviors of an entire classroom each day, facing unique challenges that can’t be solved with piling on more work. What they need are outlets, ways of coping, useful tools in sustaining the attention of distractible students. Teachers need help making them lives more efficient so they can maximize their preparation for new lessons. Educators need help in becoming reflective practitioners who can better evaluate their own strengths and limitations.

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