It’s always felt a bit strange to me that schools would designate a particular timeslot and location for a Professional Development (PD) ‘session‘.
So, when we are not in this ‘session’, what is it that we are doing – if not developing professionally?
I wonder what would happen if we could transition from a concept of traditional PD ‘sessions‘ to ‘ongoing‘ or ‘permanent‘ PD? Would this help us shift to seeing ourselves as constantly growing, learning and developing?
But perhaps we’re too busy for this? Easier, probably, to just keep professional development contained in its little ‘session‘.
The celebrated management consultant, Peter Drucker, once described by BusinessWeek magazine as “the man who invented management”, rightly had a lot to say about growth and development.
But one of his clearest and most poignant messages was this: ‘Don’t confuse motion with progress’.
Schools are busy places. And in amongst all the organisational and relational ‘noise’, and sometimes-vague performance criteria, even the most experienced educators are at risk of conflating efficiency with effectiveness; motion with progress.
This is why clearly agreed goals and professional accountability are so pivotal. By marking a bearing and checking in regularly we have the best chance of moving forward systematically.
The lazy, wishful alternative is to cross our fingers, set off and hope that things work out. And it might. Or we might spin our wheels, go around in circles, or worse, go backwards.
There will, of course, be occasional detours and bumps in the road to navigate. But as educators, with such precious cargo on board, progress isn’t just the preferred option. It’s the only option.
Putting a pre-made frozen lasagne in the oven on a really low heat so that that it takes five hours to warm up doesn’t make it ‘slow food’. Slow food isn’t as much about the time it takes to cook as it is about the traditional, structured methods involved. Unlike fast food, slow food requires patience and commitment, over an extended period, to a proven strategy that produces a qualitatively better product.
Similarly, implementing an evidence-based, self-sustaining, whole-school approach to wellbeing requires a slow, systematic approach. The slow part – expending a bit less energy today – is easy. The hard part is the long-term commitment to a carefully designed sequence and strategy.
You can’t make a delicious, rich, creamy risotto by letting it sit on the back-burner – it requires constant stirring. And you can’t transform a school’s culture and behavioural norms without a lot of carefully planning and methodical execution over time.
A typical classroom educator will deliver between 800 and 1,000 hours of teaching in a year. That might equate to around 1,000 lessons. Whilst each of these 1,000 lessons is unique, it is also relatively similar in many ways, to all the others. The structurally repetitive nature of teaching provides a wonderful opportunity – more than in many professions – for iteration.
The English word ‘iteration’ derives from the latin ‘itemum’ – meaning ‘again’. Doing something again and again is the foundation of skill development.
However, I type on my computer keyboard for a couple of hours everyday and I’m not getting any better. I still make the same number of mistakes. This is because repetition doesn’t guarantee iteration.
Iteration is enabled when we do something repetitively and we have a specific focus on improvement towards a goal and we learn from the previous trial.
As a classroom educator, iteration is a choice. The alternative is stagnation or, worse, decay.
One of dilemmas faced by dynamic professionals is where to focus and prioritise their energy. This is often the case in early and mid-stage educators. And it is certainly the case for outstanding educators who tend to be pretty good at, and passionate about most areas of education. There is an increasing smorgasbord of options available for growth, professional development, specialisation, and post-graduate study.
But there’s a danger here…
There’s an old fable about a donkey who is both very hungry and very thirsty. He is standing halfway between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. He keeps looking to the left at the hay and then to the right at the water. He is equally attracted to the hay and the water but is unable to decide on an option. Eventually he falls down and dies of both hunger and thirst.
There are many exciting, emerging opportunities and platforms for education practitioners to make an impact both in their classrooms and beyond. But real impact requires expertise. And expertise requires a choice and a commitment. And this, in turn, requires courage and a long-term perspective.
Otherwise, the three alternatives for enterprising and progressive educators are:
- Deciding to remain more of a highly-skilled ‘generalist’ rather than an ‘expert’ – which is perfectly fine.
- Deciding to try to become expert at many things and burning out in the process – which isn’t fine.
- Not deciding at all. (But that didn’t work out well for the donkey.)
As an educator, can you ever become good enough?
Last week, I met a career teacher in his final year before retirement. He was one of the most engaged, interested and committed participants in a high quality professional development workshop.
I imagine that some of his colleagues do think that they’re good enough. But I can’t be sure, I didn’t get to meet them. They weren’t at the workshop. They gave up on commitment to systematic growth and development the day they decided they were good enough.
Feedback, especially critical feedback, often isn’t pleasant to receive. And it’s really hard to hear it when it’s about our work. So why do we put ourselves through it? Why do we go out of our way to seek high-quality, genuinely constructive feedback from peers or mentors? Because it helps us grow. Feedback drives learning.
But when you give feedback, your intention matters.
Is your intention to deconstruct a performance from the past and give your view on what would have been better or what you would have done instead? Because that’s hard to listen to. That’s the kind of feedback that can easily demotivate someone or make them defensive.
Or is your intention to help illuminate someone’s future by highlighting inherent strengths and tools that can help them be even better? When we show that we genuinely care by walking beside someone in the process, helping them see a new path, that feels really different.
Some people call this feedforward instead.
Systemic changes, fundamental shifts, philosophical pivots – these are all big journeys to go on. And so a comment we often hear from school leaders and educators who are attempting to adopt a whole-school approach to wellbeing is: ‘I don’t know where to start’.
Although we now have a pretty well-honed roadmap that provides support and direction for schools, each journey is different because each school is unique. But each of these journeys always begins the same way: with a first step. This is often the hardest and most important step of all because it leads to the next step.
The poet Rumi perhaps said this best when he wrote:
“As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”
I was reading Steven Kotler’s book, Stealing Fire¸ recently and I loved an old bit of “southern folk wisdom” quoted that says:
“you can’t read the label while you’re sitting inside the jar.”
This is why coaching and other intentional reflection strategies are increasingly being embedded into performance development plans in some of the most innovative schools in Australia and internationally. These kind of processes enable us to gain such an important perspective and view of ourselves as professionals.
If you don’t have a deliberate, regular, meaningful ‘feedforward’ process that enables you to ‘get outside the jar’, it’s unlikely that you are growing as an educator. And if your professional skills aren’t growing, they’re either stalling or dying.
As we develop experience in our profession, we are able to become more independent. Our experience serves as a reference to help guide decisions. We recognise familiar situations and know how to respond. And we draw on experience to adapt to novel situations.
This independence, however, can lead to an experienced educator going to work, surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of other humans, and enjoying close personal connections, but still feeling lonely, professionally. Once we reach a certain level of experience, a kind of self-imposed expectation can set in that causes us to feel that we should just be able to ‘get on with it’. It is surprisingly rare for experienced, skilled educators to seek help with fine-tuning their skills. Sure, there might be different teams or networks designed to encourage supportive collaboration, but day-to-day, many experienced educators feel reluctant to (or don’t know how to) ask for help.
But here’s the thing. High-quality teaching is very, very complex. There are so many different interconnected skills required – everything from advanced computer skills to relationship counselling and a thousand others in between. Despite what you might think, every educator you meet is better than you at one or more of those skills. And even if you have some super-star, legendary teacher at your school who you hope to be like some day, you are better than them at one or more of those skills.
Imagine what the profession might be like if we were all able to demonstrate just a little more vulnerability and growth orientation – to be a little more willing to ask for skill-based help, guidance, and advice from each other.
Imagine if you played a computer game for 1,000 hours or practised playing the piano for 62 days straight and only took breaks to sleep. You’d improve quite a bit wouldn’t you! Your development would certainly be noticeable and measurable.
This year, if you’re a classroom educator, you will complete approximately 1,000 hours of teaching practice. How much better will you be at the end of the year? Will your development be noticeable and measurable? Are you a significantly better teacher than you were this time last year?
Here are four of the most critical variables that research has identified will determine your development:
- Your motivation and attention. How much do you want to improve? How much are you focussing on becoming even better as an educator?
- Focus on specific ‘micro-skills’. What precise, targeted skill are you specifically working on? Teaching consists of hundreds of different skills. Pick one. Start there.
- Your willingness to seek and respond to feedback from a mentor or coach. Do you have someone you admire, someone more skilled than you who can critically analyse your skill and guide your growth.
- Repetition. How many forehands do you think Roger Federer hits each day? Work out how you can practise and practise the skill you are developing until you master it. Then move on.
Those factors don’t just predict teacher development, by the way. If you’re a lawyer or a chef or a police officer, the same fundamentals apply.
Wouldn’t it be cool to look back in January, 2020 and think, “Wow, I really am 1,000 hours better!”