Tom Whitby, in his excellent Blog of 6 August 2011 asks searching questions about Professional Development and whether it translates into student success. These are valid questions, and I’m not taking issue with Tom, indeed we seem to agree on most points, but I do have a slightly different take on the matter. To my mind Professional Development (PD) has nothing to do with students, and it never should have. Teaching is a funny old game, and the one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the single most important factor in creating the successful classroom is the commitment, passion, and involvement of the teacher. Period! You can add electronic whiteboards, and iPads, or whatever the newest thing on the block is, and they do make a difference, but the single most important thing is the teacher. Are they passionately engaging in the classroom, or are they following routine?
Routine is the death of Education. Any lesson, no matter how good today, if it becomes routine, becomes the kiss of death as soon as it is repeated too often.
To my mind then, the single most important investment is the teacher, and the key is keeping their passion ignited. The good news is that this generally does not involve spending a great deal of money. I’m not arguing in favour of lower salaries. Teachers should be paid well, and be held accountable for delivering the goods. What I mean is that I don’t think teacher passion usually correlates with expensive workshops and courses.
I have undergone very little formal PD in my career as a teacher. Most of it has been on my own initiative, and at my own expense. Most of it has been in my own time, too, in my PJs! Most of it has been on the Internet, researching things that interested me. Those passions kept me engaged in what I was doing, and gave me new perspectives which helped me to constantly re-evaluate what I was doing as a practitioner in the classroom. Tom argues that Social Media are key tools in engaging teachers in the teaching and learning process, and he is spot on. But I would argue that the content of the PD is almost immaterial.
As teachers we usually have to justify any PD in terms of relevance to our subject areas. I believe teachers have a right to any form of PD. If a Science teacher wants to explore, I don’t know – Spiritual Healing – I believe they should not have to justify that to anyone. I’m not arguing that schools or school districts ought to pay for it – teacher salaries should be at a level where teachers are always able to fund their own night classes and short-courses. Sadly this is not the case! Often, however, school administrators deny permission for certain forms of PD on the basis that they are not considered relevant and because they feel the teacher would be studying for the course rather than, say, marking student scripts!
There are teachers who abuse PD, but those teachers should be taken to task. We need a culture in our Education systems which sees PD as an absolute right.
It should be an absolute right for students as well. At the first school where I taught, Phambili People’s Education College, which was situated in a squatter camp in Durban, we ran a wonderful Enrichment programme. The last two periods of every Friday, teachers were required to offer an Enrichment Course for students. The choice of content was left entirely to the teacher, the only requirement was that it had to be something the teacher was passionate about. One teacher offered a course in electrical wiring. Another ran a course in ballroom dancing. My own humble offering was a sketching course.
We need to encourage a culture of Life Long Learning, and to do so we need to stop being proscriptive about what it is that anyone wants to learn.