A common theme is starting to emerge from my recent professional development experiences: I usually don’t know what I need help with. Of course, I have some things I can identify if you ask me where my weak points are or what my problem is today. But I’ve found that in addition to “answers” or “solutions”, going to conferences and workshops is also about getting some distance from the hectic regularity of school and lessons — but not so much distance that I’m on vacation.
From Educon at the lovely Science Leadership Academy (SLA), I got three major take-homes:
1. Chris Lehmann is a great principal in large part because he can articulate what he thinks is important and he puts effort into structuring the process of getting there with his team. Sounds simple, but it’s harder than you’d think and his dedication shows. Some choice quotes from the conversation he led:
“If you have to lecture about it, you’re probably not achieving it.”
“You can not bully teachers into caring for kids.”
“Every good teacher knows how to outlive a mandate.”
“Don’t pretend to care.”
2. Nancy Caramanico has a incredible success story working to overturn an overly-strict and repressive internet filtering policy in a conservative environment. She and I met because we were both trying to attend a session that had been canceled. Since Educon is supposed to be about the conversations, we decided to have a conversation anyway, and I’m really glad we did.
3. I still learn so much by watching another teacher interact with her students that I’m not sure why this isn’t the primary mechanism for improving teacher practice. The SLA students and teachers are thoughtful, warm, and generally impressive in the level of interactions they have. I listened to some students talk about a reading group they did in their English class and the conversation they had with us was above the level of some college undergraduate discussion sections. Over the course of the weekend, I became convinced that these were representative students from the SLA population and not some kind of special show put on to impress people. Which made it all the more impressive.
From the AP Workshop yesterday, I got some specific tools that will be helpful and also remembered how nice it is to be able to talk (face to face, in this “real life” thing) with other teachers who teach the same subject. Teaching CS is lonely in most high schools, including mine, and being in isolation with an academic subject isn’t great for developing new ideas unless you’re a genius — which I’m apparently not. The session was really valuable for me in thinking about how the AP test questions are graded, how I grade, and what I need to help students understand about the scoring process. Michael is a generous and dedicated teacher, organized and willing to share his materials in a way that’s very practical and useful.
Overall, I can feel my perspective on PD changing. In the past, I measured every workshop and session by how much explicitly actionable pedagogical content knowledge was being offered. And I’m still picky about that stuff. (Presenters: Have a thesis.) But it also seems like having unexpected prompts, hearing the questions that other people are asking and how they’re thinking about the work we do, and thus being reminded about aspects that I’ve neglected are also valuable parts of “professional development”. I must be getting soft in my old age.