The Three Rs of Teacher Professional Development

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I was out boozing with a few of my colleagues recently (who’dathunkit?) and up came the topic of Professional Development. Just loped up to the table and parked itself; Before we knew it we’d stopped roaring at the football and, instead, were roaring about the sad state of what limpingly passes as Professional Development in most EFL colleges.

Most “sessions” consist of the DoS or a Senior Teacher or a Trainer droning on about The Lexical Approach as if it’s “the latest discovery” in cutting-edge, applied linguisticalised pedagogical fore-frontery. Or presenting whatever it is they’re writing an essay on that month for their MA - with real, actual classroom application quite possibly an after-thought. Or not even.

[On a sidenote, you might like to check out Sandy McManus's true-to-form, totally-hilarious post about The Sexical Approach!]

Now, not to be too disparaging – because I have, after all, given Professional Development sessions myself; some more successful than others (Haven’t seen anyone nod off, though…) And I have attended sessions and workshops at which I’ve learnt some pretty ball-tearing stuff – not all Professional Development sessions are a hopeless joke. Not by a long shot.

There are, however, some serious problems with the way most of what’s called Professional Development operates.


Teacher Professional Development

This has led me to what I believe should be the three minimum requirements for real Professional Development within an organisational setting. Harking back to that old axiom of “The Three Rs,” here they are:

1. Regular

2. Required

3. Remunerated

Here’s why…


Regular Sessions & Workshops

Regular sessions are a way of building an ongoing culture of taking the job seriously within the organisation/college/school.

When Staff Development sessions are done in an ad hoc fashion, all it manages to communicate is that it’s an add-on, an after-thought, not something to be taken very seriously at all. Something, maybe, that’s wheeled out once or twice a year simply to comply with the regulations of the certification body (NEAS, British Council, etc.).

A colleague once said to me (I won’t say who or where or when) “Directors of Studies always talk big in the interview about how much ‘P.D.’ goes on, but I’ve yet to actually see many such sessions materialise and, in fact, I’ve noticed that it’s a small group of teachers in staffrooms who have to actually push for it to happen…”

Once a month doesn’t seem over-the-top in my opinion. It’s likely that you’ll lose one or two sessions per year because of holidays/festivals/etc. so in reality, you’re only likely to get 9 or 10 per annum. That’s not even one per staff member per year at most colleges!

If this can’t be organised, then sheesh! An hour or so, once a month. 45-minute session with time for QnA and or other people to add their own thoughts, expand the idea, bounce it around, etc. Not staggeringly difficult in my mind.


Mandatory Without Being a Fascist About It

Required: Well, indeed, as I’ve just mentioned, Professional Development sessions (along with the records) are actually required in many places depending on the governing body under which the school is accredited or the current position of the Ministry of Education, etc… as the case may be.

I’m advocating, however, more frequent sessions than just the bare minimum to fulfill these legal obligations and suggesting that it should be compulsory for all teaching staff (and possibly some of the Admin and/or support staff depending on the topic) to attend. As above, I don’t think once a month is too outlandish or cause to run screaming up and down the halls waving your hands about above your head in dismay. (If you’d like to do this at any time, however, it’s a crackerjack way of letting off some steam and throwing off those students who thought they had you all worked out.)

The “problem” here, though, is that there exists a tension between Point #1 (regular sessions) and Point #2 (being required to attend sessions), namely that if it’s required, people may resent it and/or see it as an imposition, especially if it’s too regular, e.g. every week.

Which leads us to the third “R”…

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Show Me The Money!

Remunerated because if it’s not, there are plenty of teachers who simply won’t stick around for the session and in many cases if they’re on a casual contract, are under no obligation to do so. If they’re on a casual contract, they get paid only for the hours they teach. They can stay and prep at the school, or they can prep at home. They can prep on the bus or train on the way in each morning. Whatever. But if they’re only paid for the hours they teach and have to, say, be at another job (due to the appalling wages that pass for TEFL “salaries”), then what can ya do, eh?

The thing is, though, if the casual teachers “don’t have to go,” then it’s likely to result in resentment all round. If the DoS makes the casuals attend (unpaid), they’re unlikely to groove to that, eh. Wow, way to go on setting the right frame of mind for that P.D. session there! Someone goes to the trouble of preparing a great workshop and walks into a room of people, half of whom have already decided that it’s going to be a waste of their time. Hmmm…. not the best way to go, methinks.

Similarly, if the casuals “don’t have to go,” then the full-time staff are likely to see it as an imposition in a different way. “Why is it so unfair? Why do I have to go and not him?” et cetera. Fueled, of course, by a pre-existing idea (which we actually know is not necessarily true!) that it’s going to be a coma-inducing jargon-fest of little practical use to the average classroom teacher. Ummm… no cigar there either, I’m afraid.


What’s a DoS to Do?

Alternatively, if sessions are clearly announced at staff-meetings with plenty of advance-notice for all (especially casual staff) and held after what would be considered a “sufficient” amount of prep-time (especially for full-timers), but not actually outside of normal working hours – which would be asking for trouble – and actually paid (for casuals: an hour prep-time pay, say, plus an hour for the session), then I think there’d be far less animosity.

[Sidenote: I realise, here, that the full-time staff don't actually get any "additional" benefit like the part-time staff appear to be getting, but the point is that no one is getting special treatment and no one is being hard done by. Everyone is in the same boat: They have to attend and they're all being paid for doing so. They're also (hopefully!) getting useful instruction that will help them be better teachers!]

Combine these three points and you get a fairly egalitarian culture of sharing in which participants don’t feel unduly obligated or imposed upon and quite possibly look forward to the opportunity to learn more about their craft in a more collegiate sort of manner.

Or is that all sounding a bit too waffly, granola-eating, sit in a circle and feel the power of the crystal radiating through your eternal and omnipotent connection to the universe kind of bullshit?

What’s your take on teacher Professional Development and do you agree with my “Three Rs” or not? Would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment below…


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6 Responses to “The Three Rs of Teacher Professional Development”

  1. Lynne Hutchinson-Sor Lynne Hutchinson-Sor says:

    Hi Leslie,

    Many thanks for these thoughts on professional development. Funnily enough, along with one of my colleagues, we've been working this afternoon on a teacher training programme for the coming Summer or Autumn so your article was particularly pertinent! Although I totally agree with your "three R's" approach, I also know that it's completely utopic to expect the French educational bodies to accept this, be they private or public sector. I can distinctly remember having a very animated discussion with a language school owner a few years back who had refused to pay me to do further teacher training on the grounds that peer-teaching was the best way to develop. I argued that peer-teaching is fine up to a certain point, at which one begins to go round in circles if nothing new is brought into the circuit from outside sources - this didn't go down well…! So, we will be trying to persuade people like this that our training programme can be cost-effective and valorise their teaching staff so that they stay (or become!) motivated embassadors of the company; after all, the teachers are the ones who are at the coalface with the client, not the administrative staff.
    Thanks for the inspiring read - keep up the good work.

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  2.  Leslie says:

    Right you are, Lynne.

    It's very hard, unfortunately, to convince management to pay for Professional Development. I was, of course, primarily banging on about what I reckon are the basic requirements for setting up even the most minimalist, "internal" culture of P.D., and adding to that with "outside talent," if you will, is something I was thinking about addressing in a follow-up article, perhaps.

    Not that it's any problem to discuss it here. I totally agree with you: Getting other professionals from outside the organisation to come in as a "breath of fresh air" is a really, really good thing to do. Even if it were as simple (Hmmm… Would it be simple?) as a collaboration between DoSs to "share" their teachers/trainers around; where presenters "rotate" around several schools and give their sessions over, say, 6 months (or whatever) - in addition to the ones done internally.

    That would be a low-cost way of getting an outside perspective. Of course, it also brings other problems related to the quality. But that's another issue. It's also the case that you could pay a Training Consultant a bomb and not really end up with much (other than the windswept feeling of being buffeted by their ego and stupified by their PowerPoint).

    Back to the point about no support from Management. It's pathetic, really. Promotional materials thump on about how "professional" the staff are (Or does that simply mean "Our staff don't turn up to work drunk"?), yet there's no budget for Professional Development at all (and where the DoS actually pays for the snacks and coffee out of his/her own pocket)!

    I have some thoughts on the flip-side of that, too, but I'd better stop writing and get to work! :razz: Ha ha!

    Nice to hear from you, as always, Lynne.

    Take care,

    P.S. I hope your training program gains some interest and support (i.e. actual cheques cashed!). Let us know how it goes, eh?

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  3. Phaedra Phaedra says:

    Hi Leslie,
    Sorry I missed out on wishing you a happy birthday - I got a little caught up in my world here and it just got away from me… otanjoubi omedetou gozaimasu!

    It's an interesting topic this Pro-D thing… and particularly timely for me right now. Back home in Canada we were required to participate in three Pro-D days a year - one at the school level, one at the district level and one at the provincial level.

    Of course many teachers would show up, sign in and then leave - usually the teachers who suffered from "my brain is full" syndrome!

    On the other end of the spectrum there were also teachers who would arrange to do Pro-D during their spring or summer break, constantly on the lookout for something to push their teaching to the next level.

    In my experience the best Pro-D was always done through peer teaching. One or two teachers would get excited about a new idea or method and present it to the other teachers at a school based in-service. I think it was the most effective because the presenters were usually so excited about their subject that they managed to 'infect' most of the other teachers with their ideas.

    I've been here in Japan since October 2009 and I've had the opportunity to attend two Pro-D events. One was the AET conference where the focus seemed to be divided between socializing and offering basic ideas to young JETs who have never taught before, and the other was a Pro-D day for all the teachers in this school district (where I got to watch a Japanese teacher of English give a demo lesson without using any English!!!)

    I have recently been asked to give a presentation on team teaching from an AET's perspective at the next meeting of English teachers in this school district. I'm at a bit of a loss as to what to do here. I have made many notes about communication and planning and so forth but I am very concerned about presenting in such a way that I do not offend anyone. I also don't want to put anyone to sleep!

    I would really appreciate any pearls of wisdom you might be willing to drop on me! Suggestions for topic points and / or how to present the information would also be appreciated!

    Thanks again Leslie for all that you do!

    Take care,

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  4.  Leslie says:

    Hi, Phaedra

    Lovely to hear from you, as always. Re: 誕生日 … どうも! :grin:

    Interesting idea concerning "infection" and I'd be interested to tease this out in relation to Lynne's comments.

    So you went to the mid-year ALT conference, huh? Pretty funny stuff for anyone over about 25, innit? All those pheromones wafting, nay, oozing, about the place! :razz: All that pent up horniness from months of isolation in tiny villages up in the mountains.

    Or, *ahem* was that just me? :lol:

    The local professional development (where all the other teachers, Science, Social Studies, P.E. etc. all pile into the classroom - and then take to wandering about the room and poking their nose into things at will) umm… yeah, what a joke. It's no surprise to me, no surprise at all, unfortunately, that the whole lesson was conducted in Japanese.

    Okay, I know you said they were all English teachers in attendance, right? I’m sure they did the nose-poking thing, eh? And did they criticise the teacher in any way for, uh, managing the skillfully avoid the use of English entirely? Or was it all back-slapping and おつかれ~ / ずっと がんばりましたね~~~~ so as not to upset “the ‘wa’”?

    I don't even want to go there today *groan* That kind of nonsense pisses me off soooo much.

    Re: How to go about your own presentation… :???: Hmmm…

    Firstly, I need to let you know that I think the ENTIRE "learn English" component of the JET Program is the most utterly appalling, stupendously hopeless joke of an "education" program I've ever seen, and all those grumblings in Parliament about it being a waste of Japanese tax-dollars could well be justified.

    The JET Program may be great as a CULTURAL-EXCHANGE program, but it's almost entirely useless as a "teach English" program. I don't know why they continue with the charade.

    It should, by now, also be apparent that my cynicism on the matter knows no bounds (although I know several folks who'd be worthy rivals for the crown of "Most Jaded JET" – Hey! We should start that as an award each year. Give out a little tiara and all! :razz: )

    So… the long and the short of all that is: Take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt because I am one prematurely grumpy, grumpy old man! :smile:

    - Putting people to sleep: Don't worry about that because for the most part your contributions won't be valued anyway, I'm sorry to say. (TOO cynical? I'm really sorry. Just tellin' it the way I see it. I TRULY, TRULY hope that I'm wrong in this case, Phaedra.)

    They'll listen and nod and suck a fair bit of air and generally look pretty earnest about it all.

    And then continue to do things the way they've always done them because ALTs in their mind – rightly or wrongly – are, for the most part, highly likely to be a bunch of useless lay-abouts with no pedagogical training whatsoever who come to Japan because they like Manga, thought Michael Douglas rocked it in Black Rain, and, oh yeah, they heard the salary was pretty good with fuck all work to do: an ideal way to pay off a large chunk o' them student loans. And get paid to learn a foreign language that'll impress the pants of all the guys'n'gals when they get back home.

    YOU, of course, will be afforded a great deal of 100% genuine compliments for your hard work and insights as a fellow "real" teacher. おつかれ~ after おつかれ~ lavished upon you. Followed by a litany of reasons why it would never work in their situation, what with those irresponsible youngens they normally have to babysit (and I ain’t talkin’ ’bout their students!).

    - On offending anyone: pfffttt! Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm not saying you should slag off that teacher you work with who, for example, thinks that explaining esoteric grammatical rules of Form to the students for 48mins (after s/he has made the Human Tape Recorder go through the "Hello, how are you? What's the date today? What's the date today? How's the weather?" buffonery routine, which the kids love about as much as you do). That wouldn't be cool. Even if s/he is dick.

    But in all seriousness, people are going to get bent out of shape about all kinds of things you have no control over: "*gasp* Who does she think she is coming in here telling us blah blah blah?" or "*gasp*hair-flick* Why does SHE get to speak? I've just finished my Masters research thesis on lexico-semantic morphological analysis of polynomial noun-phrases and its objectivity dichotomy as it pertains to having one's head up one's own anus… Why don't I get to give a presentation? What's so special about her? She's just an ALT?"

    And so on.

    Like any professional context, there are myriad political plays going on which you're probably not aware of unless you're a real insider in that network (which I'm guessing you're not). So people's toes are going to be trodden on just because you've been given time to speak. Or you've been asked to speak about something half the audience isn't interested in or thinks they know everything about. Or. Or. Or.

    A million other things! :shock:

    My Feeble Attempt at Offering Something Useful from this Tirade…

    All you can do, Phaedra, is say what you truly believe will be most beneficial to all parties involved in the long run, namely ALTs, JTEs, and the kids… and be professional about it.

    It's a lost cause, I think, to try and discuss anything related to actual communicative teaching. LOTS AND LOTS of hot air expended on that one at all levels of the Japanese education system. Nothing more.

    If you're stuck for a topic, you might like to deal with better ways to handle the JTE/ALT relationship. There are a LOT, LOT, LOT of JTEs who positively LOATHE working with ALTs and see them as a major imposition. This may, indeed, be entirely valid in a huge number of cases. [Sidenote: This is not to say that these JTEs necessarily treat their ALTs badly or dislike them as people or anything else in this vein. All it means is that they'd rather not have to work with an ALT.]

    You're NOT your typical, young-ish, fresh-faced, untrained, Pikachu-seeking, vice-embracing ALT who wants a break before heading off to grad school to study Business Administration.

    So you might approach it from that angle: That is, look into the potential sources of schism that could and do occur between JTEs and their ALTs and how you - because you're YOU (and nothing like the cardboard stereotype above) - have rare access to the perspectives of both camps.

    Then offer some solutions for better ways to handle it and strategies for nipping things in the bud, relevant cultural differences that may be factors, considering the fact that many ALTs have never worked full-time in a professional context before, and things of that nature.

    That’s the first idea that came to mind. I don't know if it’s at all helpful or not.

    Let me know, eh. And all the best with it! :grin:


    P.S. On a positive note, at least the attendees will ACTUALLY be English teachers!

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  5. Phaedra Phaedra says:

    Leslie - you're awesome! You made me laugh out loud and no, of course I can see you're not at all a jaded former JET!

    Thank you for your comments and ideas. I need to be reminded now and then to keep things in perspective. I really do have it good here - particularly compared to the typical JET. I have my family with me and my primary workplace is a very small school (26 students in three grades) with a teacher who tries hard to conduct her English classes using only… (wait for it…) ENGLISH! (It's a unique concept, I know!)

    As far as the "infection" issue goes - and also relating to Lynne's comments - I offer the story of my experience in an elementary school in Canada last year. Please keep in mind that I am not a language teacher - I am a generalist and my most recent experiences (before coming to Japan)were in a K - 5 elementary school.

    Our school district invited interested teachers to attend province-wide webcasts of Assessment For Learning ideas and practices. I attended several of these webcasts and at one in particular there was an idea presented by a teacher in a remote district that showed a way of allowing students from Kindergarten all the way up to Grade 12 to assess their own writing. I was very excited about the idea and although it looked like a great deal of work to develop it seemed to be worth a try. I tried it first in my own classroom and I was so excited with the results that I began talking it up among my colleagues. The principal asked if I would do an in-service for the rest of the teachers in the school. There were many who grumbled about it but my enthusiasm caught on and the other teachers started to get excited too. Eventually some of them started talking to other teachers in the district and the idea grew to "infect" teachers from schools all across our district.

    The best Pro-D I have experienced has always been the ones where the presenters were passionate and enthusiastic about their subject… but then that shouldn't be a surprise. The best teachers - the ones who students learn the most from - are always the ones who are passionate and enthusiastic about what they're teaching.

    Now Leslie, that's not to say that I disagree with your points about how Pro-D should be regular, required and renumerated. I think that many teachers to far too much on their own time and with their own money. Doing Pro-D on paid time lets everyone know that it is valuable and (here's a fourth R for you…) respected. I just think that there are many opportunities for peer to peer development that are overlooked and undervalued.

    Okay, so I'm off to put some energy into working out what I'm going to say for my presentation next Wednesday. On a side note though Leslie, I really am very isolated in my contacts with other ALT's. I observed the hormonal masses back in December but there are no JETs in my area at all. If you feel there are obvious JET issues that should be addressed I would appreciate hearing about them because they will not necessarily be obvious to me!

    Thanks again!

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  6.  Leslie says:

    Great story!

    I like the fourth "R". Rather than include it in the requirements/framework, though, I'd hope that if done correctly, the whole "culture" of P.D. my proposed "3 Rs" can create would lead to a regular "transmission" of the kind of enthusiasm and passion you refer to and naturally result in people then respecting it and considering it something useful, applicable, and "Now".

    [OMG, what a mess of a sentence! Oh well, time for bed; it'll have to stand!]

    Also, I "got" more clearly just now your point about peer-to-peer! My idea of Professional Development has always involved exactly this kind of training and sharing of ideas — right there alongside, and rather than, the top-down, from-on-high notion of "the expert" swooshing in, laying it on 'em, re-adjusting his/her cape, stuffing some corn chips in his/her gob, and gallantly springing out…in, uh, a single bound.


    P.S. Phaedra, email me privately about the JET thang, if you like.

    P.P.S. Anyone else with more insightful thoughts on the original post?

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