So...before I dig in, a little background on my current situation. I am writing this in Wichita, Kansas, fresh off of an incredible one-day seminar through the "Teaching Literacy Through History" (TLTH) program of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History. This seminar was focused on Vietnam (hence the playful title of the post), and featured the tried and true "seminar + pedagogy" format that works so well. The seminar portion was presented by Dr. Frederik Logevall, the Harvard Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner. And it was awesome. I've taught history for twelve years, and learned more about the conflict in that 3 hours than I ever had before. I just finished typing up my notes, and have already considered ways in which my teaching of the war will differ next year. The pedagogy was fantastic as well- here is the information, now here is what you can do with it. Truly a great method. Seriously, if you teach history, and haven't been to a Gilder Lehrman seminar, you're missing out!
Now, to my point. During a break today I was looking over my notes, and it struck me just how much I was getting out of this experience. It isn't the first time I've felt that way during a professional development experience, just the latest. And I couldn't help but think of how many other teachers would benefit from this experience, from any quality professional development. This post will focus on the why, as well as the obstacles to professional development. First- the why.
I am a teacher. It is the best job in the world. But if one thing is clear it is that teaching is not a static job. Or at least it shouldn't be. Teaching is a career in which one must be committed to many things, one of the foremost being the importance of remaining a life-long learner. I've always kept, as a personal mantra, a belief that the moment I feel like I've figured it all out is the precise moment I need to leave the teaching profession. The truth is that there is not a single teacher who should ever feel this way. I've known and worked with amazing educators, award-winning educators who inspire me and challenge me. But none of them should ever feel that way. There is always room to grow, new approaches to adopt; there is always something new that we can learn to better serve our students. Professional development is not an option for the classroom teacher; it is a mandate.
So...why don't more teachers pursue these opportunities. Obstacles. Some of these barriers are self-imposed, others outside of their control. The self-imposed are the most frustrating for me personally, because it is likely derived from an excuse. Now, before I get chastised for not appreciating the busy schedules of a teacher, hold it. I'm not saying that a teacher should be attending some kind of training every week, or even every month. But I find it hard to believe that a teacher cannot miss a day, here and there, to grow as a professional. Once a teacher understands that pursuing professional development is a requirement for sound practice, then that particular obstacle is removed. But what about the obstacles placed in the way by educational realities, like money. Many school districts lack the money to send teachers to development sessions; others requires teachers to take personal days to attend these sessions. My message to teachers facing these obstacles is this: look harder. Many organizations have taken to pursuing outside funding so that not only are training sessions free, but often substitute reimbursement can be given. Today's seminar with the Gilder Lehrman Institute was sponsored, very generously, through the Koch Foundation; teachers did not pay a dime to attend, and subs were reimbursed. In some cases, especially with Saturday or summer trainings, teachers may even get paid a stipend for attending. My message to state or national professional organizations is, on a similar vein, to consider the dearth of money available to teachers for the pursuit of professional development. Asking a teacher to pay, out of pocket, for a training is becoming too much to ask. If I am going to tell teachers to search harder, I would also tell professional groups to search harder. Ask yourself- how can we provide development opportunities to our teachers at no or little cost.
In the end, here is my point- reach out, ask, research and find development. It's out there- I promise. And pursue it. If you can, provide it. Understand that our students are not the only learners in a classroom; so are you.