Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Who should control teachers' professional learning?

The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) announced today that they do not support the proposed agreement between the Government of Alberta and Alberta Teachers Association.

There are lots of reasons to support this deal, and there are lots of reasons to critique it. Like all complex problems, the solutions are equally complex. This post isn't about the proposed agreement. Instead, let's take a moment and focus on one of the concerns from the CBE. They state:
We are concerned that the proposed agreement gives individual teachers exclusive control over their professional learning.
There's so much wrong with this that quite frankly it's hard to know where to start. But here goes:
  • There is a big difference between professional development and in-servicing. School Boards can still have their own focus and priorities via inservices. However, in-servicing is not professional learning. Professionals determine their own growth and efficacy. 
  • The heart of local autonomy is with the child, and the best decisions for the child are made by the child in collaboration with a safe and caring adult who actually spends time with them. Those adults are not trustees and they are not administrators -- they are the classroom teachers.
  • The problem with employing teachers to empower students to own their learning is that teachers might want the same treatment.
  • If School Boards are concerned about individual teachers having exclusive control over their professional development, they are going to hate the Edcamp model of professional development where teachers teach teachers. Calgary is hosting #edcampyyc and Red Deer has #redcamp13 and they are exclusively ran by teachers for teachers.
  • For too many teachers, the P in PLC doesn't seem to stand for Professional or Personal. Too many Professional Learning Communities (PLC) operate in a manner that places standardization as their primary function. Some PLCs meet for no other reason than to arrive at a "consensus" for how all the teachers will instruct and assess their students. A kind of pseudo-democracy driven by majority rules is enforced to justify a consistent (read: standardized), one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning.
  • I summarize my worse learning experiences as top-down, externally mandated, out-of-context, irrelevant to me and little to no purpose events that I am expected to play a passive role. I own my learning. Who owns yours?
  • Who owns a teacher's professional development? And under what circumstances would the answer to the above question ever be someone other than the teacher? To avoid cultures of compliance, teachers need autonomy.
  • Many school boards have convinced teachers that professional development simply means do more. For teachers this has come to mean more curriculum, more testing, more classroom management, more hidden curriculum, more personalizing, more better, harder, stronger... No wonder many teachers have come to see professional development as a four letter word. Too many teachers are so busy teaching that they don't have the time or effort to learn how to be a better teacher. 
  • Mandate teachers to attend one-size-fits-all, "drive-by" professional development events and you teach them that professional development is something done to them rather than by them. Too many teachers wait for the next externally imposed professional development day that their school board dictates and then complain that their needs weren't met by someone they hardly know. If we want our students to move beyond the idea that learning is something that is provided for us or done to us, then we need to change our attitude towards teacher professional development. 
  • You don't make change by simply making those who have less power than you do what ever it is you demand. To believe otherwise is to ignore what research has been telling us for a very long time. The proper question is not, "how can we motivate teachers?" but rather, "how can we create the conditions within which teachers will motivate themselves?"
Don Braid from the Calgary Herald wrote a fantastic column here. Here is my favorite part:
The CBE’s objections strike me as a perfect reflection of its self-protective, bureaucratic character. 
They aren’t really about students. They’re about systems, control and power, the specialties of the shiny new headquarters on 12th Avenue S.W. 
The CBE fears the teachers will take over “much of the decision-making for student learning.” 
Well, if that means the teachers do the deciding about how kids should be taught, good.
Aren’t they the ones in the classroom? If teachers can’t figure out how to get the job done, no bureaucrat will ever do it for them. 
Next, the board finds it appalling that the agreement gives “individual teachers exclusive control over their professional learning.” 
Excellent teachers, the board argues, “benefit from the support of visionary leaders who see the future of education.” 
Teachers are incapable of vision, apparently. So they need board bureaucrats to tell them what to learn. 
The board goes on: “If individual teachers solely direct what becomes their personal learning, how does a school district advance a common vision for student success?”
The best teachers I ever had (and yours too, I bet) were always right in your face, inspiring you, moving you, challenging you. 
The last thing on anybody’s mind at such moments is a school district’s vision. Great teaching is deeply personal, but very vulnerable to its natural enemies — meetings, visions and systems. 
All this makes the CBE’s final fear bleakly hilarious. The board worries that “the proposed agreement creates excessive and expensive bureaucracy.”
The irritant here is new committees that will hear teacher complaints about workload.

But the real cause of the CBE’s reaction, one suspects, is that overall funding for bureaucracy is going to be cut, thus threatening officials already on the job. 
There may indeed be some weak points in the teachers deal. The CBE, unfortunately, has only revealed its own.


  1. Great leaders inspire others to lead. When this is replaced by compliant pedagogical approaches, teaching "what" we were taught often conflicts with the "how" we, ourselves, were taught. This applies at any stage of development (k-12, higher Ed, and "professional")

  2. Teachers need to fight for professional autonomy. Until the advent of mass communication in blogs etc., teachers like your self Joe, remained powerless professionals. I can imagine that this blog makes many an administrator squirm.

  3. Great post, Joe. Why is it so hard for some to imagine that public administrators should serve teachers? We've got to get rid of this notion that wisdom is something that is passed down, or even on,from the "C Suite."

  4. This is really a great information to all students and teachers out there. I am really lucky to read such a great information. I will share this great Idea to everyone specially to my co-teachers. Thank you for sharing this wonderful royal essays post.


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