Professional Development for teachers is a topic that seems to be widely misunderstood. Part of that stems from that fact that PD days are days away from school for students. Teachers work on PD days, although not always at their usual workplace. Other times, teachers might be called to the board office for training during the regular school day, and a substitute teacher will fill in for them in their classroom.
Sometimes, teachers seek out their own professional development opportunities. We are teachers because we love learning, and we seek out workshops and conferences that speak to our own strengths and weaknesses as educators so we can better serve our students. Sometimes these happen on our own time, and sometimes we can get permission to attend during the work day.
I am going to describe two very different Professional Development days for anybody struggling to understand why we continued to participate in teacher-directed PD during Work-To-Rule while declining to participate in board-initiated PD .
In April of 2015, I went to a teacher-organized PD day with Rick Layton and Jacque Schrader, some well respected experts in elementary music education. This PD took place on a Saturday morning. I paid my own registration fee and gave up a day out of my precious weekend because I believed attending this day would make me a better music teacher.
As part of a session, each participant took a balloon and kept in in the air using xylophone mallets. After a few minutes of exploration, we sat down in a circle and played rhythms on our balloons, eventually working up to playing rhythms in canon with the other half of the circle.
I realized that playing games with mallets would reduce many of the issues my young students were having when playing xylophones—a tense or awkward grip, overreliance on their dominant hand, and letting mallets rest on the bars instead of bouncing not allow resonance.
I expected that my students would have a more satisfying experience of playing the xylophone if I took care to build good habits through these mallet games before ever asking them to play on a xylophone. This was perhaps fifteen minutes of a full-day workshop, and my handout is full of scribbled epiphanies directly related to the work I do in the classroom.
Fast forward to another school year, and a very different PD day.
In November of 2015, HRSB brought Dr. Kimberly Mcleod from Texas to speak to teachers working at priority schools. This was on a board-scheduled PD day.
Teachers from priority schools around the HRSB gathered in the Bingo hall of the Halifax forum for the day. I know these teachers, and they work hard; their classes might have multiple students with IPPs and adaptations, students who need behavior plans to try and regulate behavior categorized by the province asseverely disruptive, and students struggling with mental health issues directly related to poverty.
And what were we told by this expert? That it was our fault if their students didn’t achieve an outcome; that even one student failing is a failure; that we need to work together as a team and not accept failure. To demonstrate this, Dr Mcleod gave each teacher a balloon to inflate, and then had groups of teachers work together to keep their balloons from falling on the floor.
Cute metaphor, right? We all need to work together. Everybody smiled awkwardly and started to sit down when she insisted that we didn’t get it: we had to keep going until we could keep the balloons in the air. Then she might take a partially inflated balloon and throw it to a group saying, “you have a new student who didn’t have breakfast, don’t let them fall.”
If you search twitter using #culturalwakeup, you’ll find plenty of images of teachers across the continent engaged in the same activity.
The intended lesson seemed to be that we need to work together, but there was a fury simmering within me. For one, if we are comparing students to balloons, then each teacher doesn’t have one, we have up to 27 each at the elementary level. And it’s fine to say that we need to support each other, but if one “balloon” is in danger of falling, the other teachers aren’t available to help, they have 20+ balloons of their own to keep in the air and the VP might be helping in another class where one balloon has started screaming and throwing things, requiring the teacher to stop teaching and direct all the other balloons into the hallway for their own safety.
I saw the anger that I was feeling reflected on my colleagues’ faces as the activity continued for what felt like an hour. It actually might have been an hour—I didn’t think to note the time when we started. This was precious time that we could be using in a way that would benefit our students. We could have been planning lessons, creating learning materials, or even going over data on student achievement.
We knew that our students needed help, and so did we. We needed smaller class sizes that reflected the complex needs of our students. We needed additional EPAs available to help students who needed support behaviorally, physically, and academically. We needed funding to purchase books and learning resources, since our communities possessed a limited ability to fundraise. Instead, the board spent money to bring in an American expert who told us to “work harder” and “support each other.”
Teachers should not be held personally accountable for the cycles of poverty and racism that plague our province (at least, not any more than any other citizen) We are fully aware that public education should be an equalizer, but we cannot do this work alone, and should not be expected to.
Two PD days, two school years, and two rounds of keeping balloons in the air. One left me feeling inspired and energized, the other left me feeling condescended to and belittled. Which do you think was of more value to my students?