Friday, July 14, 2017

Pondering the Point of PD & A Professional Dream Come True!

Thirty years ago, I was grieving the end of 3rd grade because I would no longer have Mrs. Sheila Barnes as a classroom teacher. At 8 years old, I decided I wanted to follow in her footsteps, and I became stubbornly determined to have a classroom of my own someday. She'd come to Lefors, Texas in 1985 from Arkansas, and she spent over 20 years pouring life into the children of the community. Little did I know, our relationship would transcend time and help me become the educator I am today.

One of my fondest memories of Mrs. Barnes was when a Chrystal Springs catalog would arrive in the mail, and she would scour the pages looking for new professional books to buy. I remember her annotating classic texts like In the Middle by Nancy Atwell and Jim Trelease's Read Aloud Handbook. Our rural elementary school had only one class per grade level, and although she would occasionally find a colleague who shared her passion for literacy, she set herself apart by constantly seeking ways to improve her classroom instruction.


Region 16, an Educational Service Center in Amarillo, offered a meager number of workshops throughout a school year, so her professional growth was really up to her. She was a quintessential learner, and she could hardly contain her fervor and excitement when she'd discover a new instructional strategy hidden in the pages of a book. I was lucky enough to be her teacher's aide from 7th to 12th grade, and I recall many memorable trips to A & D Bookstore in Amarillo where she would stock up on new titles and comment about how she hoped her husband, Bob, would understand the necessity of the purchases. He always did, and she would spend the next few months digging deep into professional books designed to help her improve her practice and make school an inviting place scholars were born and reading and writing flourished.

Not long ago, I took a position at Region 11, an Educational Service Center in Fort Worth, Texas. I've watched countless teachers sit through professional workshops this summer, and I've been privileged to share my expertise and experience with others. During a recent state reading academy, I littered the tables with a plethora of professional titles that are part of my educational cannon. Throughout the session, I would reference various authors and explain how these books had changed my teaching life. One participant raised her hand and incredulously asked, "Did you really read all of those?", and I admitted to devouring some, marking up the margins of most, and skimming a few. Another person commented they just didn't have the desire to read regularly and blatantly stated, "You're an anomaly. Teachers just don't have that kind of time." Instantly, I thought of Mrs. Barnes, and I realized how incredibly blessed I've been to have had a mentor like her who sat the bar high and continues to challenges me to keep growing and improving my practice. 

A troubling trend has surfaced among educators, and I often hear teachers talking about how PD feels like something that is done to them. In order to earn an exchange day in the fall, they compliantly sign up for workshops and begrudgingly attend, zoning out on their devices or half-heartedly participating. Some find a nugget or two to take back to their classrooms, others get geeked up and downright giddy about new strategies they can't wait to share with their students, and still others passively endure what they perceive as pure torture.

Now don't get me wrong. I've sat through some pretty miserable PD sessions, and I completely understand why some teachers might approach staff development with a skeptical outlook. I recently heard Cornelius Minor say, "Mandates are a soft form of tyranny", and our poor teachers are mandated to death. They lack autonomy. They are asked to do impossible things. And they are often expected to teach with their hands tied behind their backs because the pedagogy and assessment practices are misaligned.

I am a champion of teachers, and I understand their weariness. Initiative fatigue, unfunded mandates, and an ever-growing achievement gap threatens to suck the life right out of us. In a world where everything feels like one more thing, it can sometimes be tough to stay hopeful. However, the one thing I believe we will always have control of is how we feed ourselves professionally. Mrs. Barnes is still in the classroom after almost 35 years because she took charge of her own professional growth and made a concerted effort to pursue new learning even when it wasn't readily available.

Upon arriving at ESC Region 11, I read a published research paper called, The Mirage Study. It really made me wonder why institutions like the service center exist in the first place. According to the TNTP study, traditional sit-and-get, spray-and-pray professional development has limited or no impact on learning outcomes. This is frightening, and I've wondered how much of the research is because teachers have become almost as disengaged as the students they serve. This reality can be discouraging, however when I hop on Twitter and read about carloads of teachers who drive half-way across the country to attend #nErDCampMI, I am reminded about the importance of staying connected to my tribe. Weekly chats online and live events of Facebook put teachers back in control of our learning, and I am deeply grateful for connected educators who have helped reshape my teaching landscape in indescribable ways.

This weekend, I get to live out one of my professional dreams. Thanks to the support of colleagues, I am honored to attend the annual International Literacy Association conference held in Orlando. I've already downloaded the app and struggled to budget my time between all the literacy giants I've admired through the pages of their books. In a few days, I'll be able to mark ILA off my buck list, although I suspect I will want to return every summer. I'll go back home with a few new author signatures, a renewed spirit, and suitcase full of books. The words lucky and blessed seem inadequate, but one thing I know for sure, I am definitely grateful.

During my plane ride to Florida, I turned the final pages of Shawna Coppola's book, Renew. Although I usually mark up the margins in most of my professional reads, this book begged to be swallowed whole. Her final words resonated deeply and affirmed the message Mrs. Barnes lives out every day. 

"There's one thing, however, I have promised I will never do, and that is to become complacent in my work. Because the truth of the matter is, our students deserve better. Our profession deserves better. We deserve better."

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