Teaching teachers is one of the greatest honors and most humbling, nerve-wracking experiences we can encounter in our profession. As a teacher and leader, I’ve spent nearly 14 years in education. I am married to a teacher; my best friends are teachers, and teachers are my absolute favorite people in the world. So though I adore you, I say this with love: teachers can be some seriously cynical, sarcastic, judgmental, downright brutal students to work with when given the right opportunity. And when better to test our collective critical natural than when first introduced to a presenter of a professional learning workshop?
To be fair, I think the vetting of professional learning leaders is a necessary evil if we are going to protect our field from the onslaught of strategies, gimmicks, gadgets, and programs that all claim to make a huge impact on student learning. The simple act of sharing new information should not automatically warrant its implementation. I would argue that educators are not suffering from a lack of theories about what to try in their classrooms. We are, however, suffering from a lack of trust in our leaders’ abilities to sift through said theories and offer us tangible, research-based practices that create long-term impact.
For the past five years, I had the honor (and maybe terror) of serving as the district administrator responsible for developing and presenting professional development workshops for our secondary ELA teachers. My job was to process through all of the data (both qualitative and quantitative), collaborate with other department teacher leaders, and design the professional learning trajectory for 45+ teachers each year. Many of these teachers were people I personally taught alongside, and I was convinced that the rest would surely be out with pitchforks if I wasted their time.
Knowing my teachers on a personal level was a great excuse to ramp up my anxiety regarding our PD focus each year. I knew what disconnected, jumbled, irrelevant professional development looked like (unfortunately, don’t most of us?) and I refused to create anything less than top of the line for my teachers. Still, though I didn’t question my ability to speak, present, or deliver, I did often ask myself, “How do you know this is the right path for the department? How do you know this will impact student learning?”
As an in-district professional development leader, I was able to draw on my daily observations and discussions with teachers to synthesize what areas of instruction most needed our attention. Through purposeful coaching and feedback, I built trust with my teachers and demonstrated my credibility in regards to sound educational practice. I spent a great amount of my time listening to their insightful ideas and then turning around and sharing those ideas with other teachers. For example, I made it a point to give credit to my sixth grade teacher, Seth, when I shared his impressive questioning techniques with our 9th grade PLC. Likewise, when Yvonne, one of my 11th grade teachers, wanted to observe effective co-teaching strategies, I had her visit Emily, a 7th grade teacher in a completely different building. With each passing semester, I realized more and more that my job as a professional learning leader was to connect–not project. Teachers are talented, hard-working professionals, and usually all they need is a nudge of inspiration or information, and they will make the growth happen for themselves.
I’ve come to believe that it was the day-to-day connection that allowed me to have any kind of impact during our professional development workshop days. Had I not developed a deep trust with and among my teachers, establishing my credibility would have been a much more difficult process.
As I write this article, I am three short weeks into a new role as a professional learning coordinator, not for my district, but for my entire state. I am in the transitional throes of learning new workshops that I didn’t create myself and reading professional books that need to make up my newly acquired educational cannon. As I imagine the faces of teachers who I will meet through my workshops, I cannot help but wonder: How in the world will I get them to trust me?
The secret to success in learning is trust. Leaders of professional learning–whether at building, district, state, or consulting levels–need to prioritize trust if they hope to make a positive impact on the teachers with whom they work. If not, may the eye-rolling and secret Amazon shopping commence.