Wednesday, August 24, 2016

13 Deadly Sins of PD

In my neck of the woods, this is the magical week in which teachers go back to balance their time between finishing room preparation and sitting through year-launching professional development sessions. Some sessions can address useful topics, and some are unfortunate choices (my wife's district decided to welcome their teachers back for the year by starting their first day with a session about suicide).

If you have to sit through PD, then you know the drill. But if you are PD presenter, here are the Thirteen  Deadly Sins to avoid:

1) Don't Read Us The Power Point

Frankly, if there's power point at all, I'm not that excited. But if you are just going to read us the power point slides, do us all a favor-- put those slides in an email attachment, send it out, and let us all sit in front of our own computer and read the presentation to ourselves. Seriously-- what is reading it out loud supposed to do for us? You're going to unlock new levels of meaning by the use of your vocal inflections? You want to give us a chance to close our eyes without missing anything? You're one of those edumalpracticioners who not only believes in scripting, but thinks scripting is more effective when your students can see the script you're reading? Or this isn't actually your presentation and you have no idea what the hell you're talking about, so you'll just read what's there and hope that gets you through the hour?

There is no good reason to read power point slides to an audience over the age of five. Stop it. Stop it right now.

2) Don't Wave Around Sort-of-Teacher Credentials

Introducing yourself is a legit good idea, but just be honest. Especially don't try to fake us out by trying to connect with us professionally. Here are honest introductions that we never hear at PD sessions.

I was a classroom teacher up until about five years ago when I decided that I'd rather get into something easier and cushy like textbook repping. I have some vague memory of what teaching was like, but frankly, I scrubbed that out of my brain as soon as I took my first ride in my sweet company car.

I taught for about two years and realized I couldn't hack it, but there I was with an education degree, and what the hell else was I going to do. Thank God there were consulting jobs opening up.

Oh, yeah! I was absolutely a teacher, by which I mean I did two years with Teach for America, trying to make up for all the terrible work you so-called professionals were doing. But that let me put "teacher" on my resume, which gives me the credibility I need to come tell you yahoos how you should be doing things. You're just lucky I'm willing to lower myself to enlighten you slobs.

Look, you're correct in assuming that many of us walked into the room with a chip on our shoulder on which is printed, "Yeah, and why should I listen to you, anyway?" But trying to relate to us based on minimal teaching background, or trying to pretend that you're teacher breathren or sistern when you never really identified with the profession-- well, nobody is fooled.

Particularly nowadays, when everyone who ever looked at a school claiming the mantle of Education Expert, you need a real answer to the question of your qualifications. Nobody walks into a hospital and lectures doctors on how to perform surgery "because I used to play Operation a lot."And when you open up by faking your teacher cred, we have to immediately wonder how much of what you're going to tell us is also baloney.

3) Don't Throw a Party

Are you presenting in a group with some colleagues? Pro tip: a good way to draw us in is not to toss inside jokes back and forth and generally yuk it up as if you are at some party that the rest of us wandered into by mistake. If you have something to say to us, talk to us. If you have something to say to each other, y'all jus6t keep talking while I head back to my classroom.

4) Don't Be Bad Time Managers

Start on time. Every minute we sit there waiting for you to get your act together is a minute we're thinking about all the work we could be getting done if we weren't waiting for you. Oh, and don't wait for us to sit down and promptly look up you expectantly. First of all, we're teachers, and that means that on PD days, we are terrible students (sorry, but there it is). We will give you our attention when you give a clear indication that you intend to do something with it. Don't run overtime unless we're demanding it. And quitting super-early doesn't make you seem cool-- it makes you seem like someone who came unprepared to do the job.

And while I don't need a canned and scripted presentation, do know what the heck you're doing and how long-ish it will take. It is amateur-hour annoying to sit through a presenter whose first 45 minutes are rambly and unfocused and then followed by 15 minutes in which she tries to cover another 45 minutes worth of material. Watch the clock. Know how long your stuff takes. There's no excuse for blowing this-- remember, this is what we do every day, bell to bell. Failing to manage your time in front of a bunch of teachers is like repeatedly dropping your pencil in front of a bunch of jugglers.

5) Don't Present To People Who Aren't There

I get that this is not always your fault, that whoever books you may give you a lousy advance explanation of who, exactly, you're presenting to, so it may not be entirely your fault that you're explaining primary reading techniques to a bunch of high school teachers. (Pro tip-- at in service, elementary teachers, who must usually dress for scrambling around and up and down their room, will dress up, while high school teachers, who must usually dress like Real Grown Ups, will dress down).

6) Don't Treat Us Like Dopes

Oh, boy, do I hate this one. Some presenters are just so proud of their own great stores of smartitude that they assume they are the smartest, most well-informed person in the room. Why, yes, I believe I have heard of Bloom's Taxonomy. Or--oh, my favorite-- "ice breakers" so we can meet the people we've worked with 180 days a year for years.

7) Don't Use The Sucker Question

You're neither my mom nor my boss. Maybe some presenter school told you that a good way to draw your audience in is to ask questions, but when you ask a question just to try to get us to either provide the one right answer you have in mind or to provide an expected wrong answer so that you can have a yeah-but-eureka moment-- well, I don't want to play. If you want to have an honest-to-God discussion, that's just fine. But if you know exactly what you want to say, how about you just go ahead and say it?

8) Don't Throw a Child's Birthday Party

We're educated grown-ups. If the "activities" you've planned for us are appropriate for a child's birthday party or skit night at a summer camp, then they are probably not appropriate here. No wacky fun games. No role playing. No toys.

9) Don't Take a Power Trip

This is really implied by several of the above, but it bears explicit repetition. Many of the worst activities in PD are built around reinforcing a power differential, the notion that the presenter is the Boss and while we're in the session, we are working for her. A PD session can be a great place to track all the hundreds of little ways that a person in that situation can send the message, "I'm in charge here, and you are not."

If you're wondering if you do this or not as a presenter, ask yourself this question-- if you were in a group of peers, equals, in a situation in which you were not the designated "leader," could you sell whatever activity you're attempting simply on its merits.

Oh, and if you are a teacher watching this happen in a PD session, use it as an opportunity to think about how often you do the same thing in your own classroom.

10) Don't Assume We're On Your Team

"Women and their crazy emotional instability, amiright?"

I cannot tell you how many times I've sat in a PD session and heard somebody say something jaw-dropping. Racist, sexist, politically tone deaf-- this is a room filled with a cross section of people, and you would have to be the densest kind of dope to assume that everyone agrees with you that Donald Trump is going to make America great again or that we all think that women are the only people who can (or should) cook a meal or that everyone in the room is a married heterosexual.

11) Don't Play To Your Weaknesses

I know that everyone is taught that you should work some humor into a presentation, but if you are not a funny person, maybe you just, you know, shouldn't. You will do best as your authentic, honest self (and if your authentic self is someone who breaks every rule on this list, then find another line of work). Don't just yell at odd places because someone once told you that you have to get riled up to work an audience.

12) Don't Pass Up a PA

All right, this one may just be me, because I'm the stage crew adviser at my school. Most of the time someone comes to present in out thousand-seat auditorium, they will tell me, "No, never mind the microphone. I don't need one." 99% of the time they are wrong. You are probably not as loud and clear as you think you are, and your audience appreciates not having to lean in and hold their breath to catch what you're pitching. If it's a biggish room and a PA system is available, use it.

13) Don't Refuse Dialogue

If people want to ask questions, answer them. If they're a jerk, answer them anyway-- the rest of us will appreciate your grace. Do not try to shut them down or up. We work with them, not with you. We know them. If they're a jerk, we already know that. If they aren't a jerk, you aren't going to make them look like one on the strength of our 60 minutes of acquaintance with you. When you refuse to give an answer, we have to conclude that you either don't have one or you know we'll hate the answer you have. Better to just answer. Also, see #9. If the point is really dragging on, invite the person to talk afterwards. Definitely do not, as one presenter once did to me, suggest that anyone who asks THAT question probably shouldn't be a teacher.

If you can avoid these deadly sins and also have something useful to say, this might not be too painful for either of us. Otherwise I guess we'll all just grit our teeth and wait for the students to arrive in a few days.


  1. This is outstanding. I start next week. We start with a lawyer filling us in on LGBTQ Bathroom law and then risk factors for kids, including suicide, depression, substance abuse, and bullying. So, you know, we should leave that totally geeked about the upcoming year.

  2. My "favs" from so-called PD:

    Debbie Hamm literally reading us verbatim from her overhead slides about 'motivating students'. She was the assistant super of Richland 2, Columbia SC at the time IN CHARGE OF CURRICULUM. Nice lady...but had no idea how to teach, present or speak in front of teachers. Of course she eventually became the super for R-2.

    2nd: "Lesson plans written as behavioral objectives" presented by some nameless-bullshit Ed.D who really couldn't explain 'standard deviation' to herself.

    3rd: "bell-to-bell" from another nameless Ed.D. The concept is totally refuted by actual brain scientists.

    PD is almost useless...

  3. Why is it that the people who arrange for these presenters don't seem to care if they are wasting teachers' time and precious cash from the school's budget? Who is accountable?

  4. My all time favorite was a three hour presentation on Tomlinson's version of differentiated instruction given in an auditorium to the entire K-12 faculty of all subjects, all levels. The irony was lost on our administration. I had never seethed for three consecutive hours before. I did get some lesson plans done, though, as I recall.

  5. The only PD presented to me that I got anything out of at all was a presentation on cooperative learning that at least gave me a glimpse of how it could work because it was presented using that method, but it was too short to really go into the depth and breadth I needed. I need to understand the theory behind something to be able to make it work for me, and I was never able to find books on theory in this area, only on strategies. There was one other presentation on a methodology specific to my area that was helpful, but I was only able to use it once I read a book explaining the theory. What helped me the most was reading and research I did on my own (which is what studies say most help you), on methodologies specific to my area and on multiple intelligences, learning styles, cognitive learning theory, and learning disabilities.

  6. I have been out of teaching for ten years now - - - it was called "in-service" back then. You forgot about the chairs - as in, for the love of gawd, please don't have us sit in the cafeteria on those benches, or in Kindergarten chairs in someone's classroom, or on hard metal folding chairs . . . for four hours . . . with nothing to eat by dry pastry and bad coffee.
    And now a joke:
    A teacher dies and, as all good teachers do, she went to heaven. When she got there, St. Peter checked her in and then drove her around in a golf cart. The first mansion they passed had a swimming pool out in front and people were lounging and swimming and drinking cool refreshing beverages. "Who are they?" she asked.
    St. Peter replied, "oh those are nurses."
    They drove past several mansions with differing amenities, serving social workers, serving firefighters, etc.
    Finally they pull up to a mansion with huge trees shading a lovely lawn with chairs, benches, chaise lounges, but no people. "Here you go," sez St. Peter, "this is the mansion for teachers."
    "But where are all the teachers," she says.
    "Oh," replies St. Peter, "they're all in Hell for an in-service."

  7. Well done.
    I think that the motto for PD is, "Just because it's stupid, doesn't mean we aren't going to do it."

    When we are sitting in a PD session, I look around and if the administrators didn't bother to stay, I know that this is just filler.

  8. Yes, yes, and yes.

    I have come to view PD as institutionalized mansplaining.