…but it’s not that I haven’t been thinking about schools and how they could be.
A couple of weeks ago I had occasion to present at a large and well-known boarding school, an experience that was delightful and fascinating and that made me ponder the role of “flavor of the day,” as outside speakers often appear to be when they are dropped in as the main course for a faculty professional day. I’ve offered up my share of what I hope are rousing/inspirational/provocative pep talks, and I often wonder what the overall effect of these might be. As one who has been around schools for a while, I’m aware of the potential for disparities between what I hope for and what the reality might be.
I think about the school in the south where I was brought in to excite the faculty about a whole new professional development program and the professional evaluation system that was linked to it. The program sounded great, and I think that the faculty was cautiously excited. I was to address an early morning faculty meeting, with classes scheduled for a late start.
Alas, there was an early morning ice storm, and the school promptly canceled all classes for the day–but kept the faculty meeting. The rump of the faculty who managed to slip-slide their way to school that morning glared at me pretty much throughout my whole presentation, and I couldn’t blame them; I’m not sure I was really worth risking life and limb for–or at least fenders. At least the kids were able to sleep in, safe at home. Never have I been more happy to board an airplane for home.
I’ve been on the menu for opening faculty meetings, when new ideas presented by a stranger out of context are either too little, too late or at best an unwelcome distraction. At one boarding school my faculty professional workshop on a weekday meant that that students (and their teachers) would have to have class on a Saturday.
These human inconveniences are part of the world we live in, but my experiences do make me think that school leaders really need to provide a thoughtful and clear context for any outside professional development presentations–they need to link the “flavor of the day” with ongoing initiatives and ongoing work, so that the presenter is offering an interesting gloss or perspective on conversations that have been going on already.
I suppose this is relatively obvious, but it has dawned on me that de-contextualized or ineffective professional development experiences are likely to have the effect of live-virus vaccinations on faculties or at least on teachers disinclined to find value in the whole enterprise of professional development: it builds immunity to new ideas. If such folks were rare in our world, this wouldn’t be much of a problem, but I keep hearing that they are not as rare as I would like to think. In any event, what better way to build up resistance to professional development than to offer up seemingly random speakers, no matter how high-minded and earnest?
As I ease back into my consideration here of the best ways to improve schools, I guess I am making a plea for professional development–at least whole-faculty professional development programs–tied explicitly and logically to authentic, ongoing work within schools. Whether we are talking about invited speakers or anything else, the trick to making such work effective is to connect its element to important conversations and goals that are already a part of the professional culture and the professional aspirations of the school.