I still remember my first experience with “professional development.” The year was 1966 or 67 and I was a new high school teacher, working with 10th and 11th grade students. A couple of years out of undergraduate school, I was thrilled to have a “real job” at last. So there I was, with a string of 30+ classes and tattered hand-me-down Warriner’s books, supposedly teaching “world literature” and “American literature.” I was a reasonably good reader and writer myself (stress on “reasonably”), and I’d been lucky enough to get an NDEA Fellowship to take summer courses on dramatic literature that offered some “development,” but I had very little understanding of how to teach others. In short, if anyone ever needed professional development, I was that person.
So I was looking forward to an afternoon program on one of our teacher days—but not for long. Once there, our principal announced that we were going to take up “behavioral objectives” and would learn how to do so that day. There followed an incredibly tedious lecture by an “educational expert” about what in fact turned out to be an incredibly tedious and unrewarding task. For every class, every day, we were to write behavioral objectives (immediately referred to as BOs) describing each expected outcome in learning—in behavioral terms. These were to guide all of our classroom activities. I was too green at the time to understand why this process seemed so counterproductive and completely beside the point to me, and I didn’t yet have the knowledge to know why one might resist a behaviorist approach to learning. So I learned to crank these things out in no time at all—and then set them aside to make my real plans for each day. From that day on, I took a fairly dim view of “professional development.”
But times have changed, and sometimes for the better (though not always). I’ve long been associated with the Bread Loaf School of English, which I regard as the best professional development program for teachers in the country. For six and a half weeks for five summers, teachers at Bread Loaf take a series of heavy-duty content courses that focus on helping young people read, write, listen, and speak with growing sophistication and depth. We live together, study together, eat and party together, and spend our time doing pretty much nothing but reading, writing, and talking about learning and teaching. I’ve seen this program change teachers’ lives and ripple out to affect tens of thousands of young people.
Of course, not everyone has access to such in-depth professional development; while Bread Loaf has quite a bit of financial aid, it’s still an expense—and it demands being on campus for all those weeks during the summer. Fortunately, teachers have other good opportunities. I think of all the Writing Projects around the country, for example, and of how successful many have been. Most recently, I have had a chance to meet and talk with teachers who are part of Stanford’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching’s Hollyhock Fellowship Program:
The Hollyhock Fellowship Program aims to help stop this revolving door [for teachers] by encouraging, supporting, and recognizing highly motivated early-career teachers and providing them with rich learning opportunities with colleagues nationwide. The program brings 100 teachers from high schools across the country with low-income student populations to Stanford University for two weeks of residential workshops -- for two consecutive summers -- that feature courses caught by university scholars and expert practitioners. Fellows also receive online coaching and mentorship for two school years. Teachers are awarded a stipend for participation, and the program covers all travel and boarding expenses.
So almost fifty years ( ! ) after I started teaching, I am encouraged to see such programs—and I’d like to hear about others you know of. But in my ideal teacher world, these programs would be ongoing—not just for two weeks during two summers. Rather than being regulated to the nth degree and boxed in with testing, testing, testing, teachers today deserve not only gratitude and a living wage: they deserve opportunities for ongoing and truly professional development.