when workshops work

As a way to say "we appreciate teachers," the district assigns us a professional development day.  For what it's worth, the best show of appreciation would be to give me some autonomy and trust me to make decisions in my own classroom.  Or a candy bar.  Either one would do just fine.

I stock my notebook full of paper, grab a few extra pencils and prepare for a day of doodling sketches while a presenter drones in front of a Powerslide presentation.  I anticipate a day filled with dark rooms and humming Edison projectors.  We call them "workshops," which is a bit of a misnomer.  I've never gone to a workshop where someone spends an hour and a half gushing about how great the tools are while never using the tools to create anything.  

As I sit through the first workshop, I find my cynicism fading.  True, the presenter uses an interactive chalkboard (a projector / chart combination) and we each use paper and pencils as we plan out reading strategies.  We use shared documents in brainstorms.  We also talk and read. In fact, the presenter is far from a presenter.  She is a teacher who respects our own insights on the topic.  

In the math workshop, we use the same SmartCharts and Edison Projectors, shared documents and personalized pencil plogs.  However, we also use manipulatives and discuss how we might use chalk and slates to enhance a lesson.  

It's easy to slam workshops as being too short, too random and too irrelevant to be beneficial. However, today I felt like I entered a true workshop.  I had the chance to be an apprentice to a couple of masters.  We used the pencil-based tools, but it was the learning that felt transforming.  

*      *      *

As I walk back toward my horse, I eavesdrop on a conversation.  The first man says, "I'm glad that I learned some practical strategies, but I can't do that in my classroom.  We don't even have paper."  

The other teacher responds, "I was disappointed for the opposite reason.  I wanted some practical advice on how to use the slides and chart paper.  Math is okay, but I need step-by-step instructions on how to use my paper more effectively. I can learn math strategies by experimenting and feeling my way through it.  What I need is concrete advice on paper skills."  

"If they don't train you, then you won't use it, right?" 


I'm struck by this word "train."  We're not pets to train.  We are professionals.  It is our job to face our fears and learn.  Paper might be scary, but unless it catches on fire, it's not all that dangerous.

*     *     *

When I tell this to Paul the Preindustrial Poet, he disagrees.  "We're all on a journey, Tom.  True, they need to get over it, but the more they see it in action, the more open they will be."  

"Can't we just tell them they have to change?"  

"You just said that they can't be trained.  You talked about teacher autonomy and self-directed learners.  What if that means they need to go at their own pace?  Let them feel their way through it for awhile.  Change is slow.  It's organic.  Most growth happens underground."  

"Thanks for the agrarian metaphors, Paul."  

"Seriously, Tom.  They have every reason to be scared.  The role of a teacher is changing.  Imagine being an artist and learning that you can't use a canvas and paints anymore.  You'd get a little edgy.  You'd be a little skeptical, right?"

"I guess so."

"So, things are changing.  We're getting Kodaks in classrooms and now phonographs. Schools can connect to the world with a few clicks.  At some point each kid will have access to a telegraph.  Then there are the pencils and the paper and the portability of knowledge.  The teacher isn't the source anymore.  The issue isn't reluctance of changing tools.  It's the reluctance of losing one's identity." 


  1. I think the fundamental paradigm shift from teacher-centered to student-empowered learning does indeed challenge the identity of who we are. The majority of workshops (lectures) are far less radical. The teacher response is still the same: a plea for better training in the initiative. You are right, as professionals we should be able to tackle the goal independently and collaboratively. What is great about that is we can shape it in our own way.That is part of what makes us professionals. I have been to good workshops in my time. They were the ones characterized by exciting ideas, a short model and an extensive period of working over the idea together or on my own.

  2. "It's the reluctance of losing one's identity." Wow. Good point. When do teachers gain identities, and at what point do they simply become unchangeable? I don't know the answer, but I know it happens to some.

    I'm not afraid of losing my identity. I'm confused by what the "general" identity for a teacher is these days. There's conflicting information. And I'm way beyond needing to develop my identity, but I would like to prevent my own practices from becoming stale or antiquated.