Look After Your Twisted Ankles: Professional Development in Troubled Times

By Kate and Maggie Roberts

Administrators, coaches, consultants, creators: Teachers need us to make their jobs easier right now. 

Of course – many of us are, many of us have. But there is also a feeling lately that we should be back to normal, and everything should be getting back on track. Yes, things have stabilized a bit, but have they normalized? Are there even the same tracks to get back to? 

We have worked inside schools, alongside teachers, across the country for 18 years and we have not seen this level of burnout before. Many teachers are at their limit. The goal feels clear each day we walk into a school building – we need to help make this job easier. We need to show up. We need to listen. We need to serve. 

It’s as if we collectively sprained our teaching ankles during these past few years of teaching – teaching amid a global pandemic – and we are still lurching forward, ignoring the pain of the injury. As any orthopedic specialist would tell us, all this does is create more lasting damage.

Dr. Betina Hsieh @ProfHsieh is an associate professor of teacher education at California State University, Long Beach, and a former K-12 educator. Dr. Hsieh researches the ways people are drawn to teaching and what impacts a teacher’s decision to stay or leave the profession. Her recent study (2022) synthesizes responses from nearly 1,000 US-based educators and former educators; the results disturbingly confirm the kind of lasting damage those orthopedic doctors warn us about when we don’t tend to our injuries. Dr. Hsieh recounts: 

Of the teachers who responded to the question, “Within the last 12 months, have you left or considered leaving K-12 teaching?” nearly one-quarter had already left the classroom; another 53 percent had seriously or at least fleetingly considered leaving teaching. Only 13 percent said that they had not considered leaving K-12 teaching in the previous 12 months.-ASCD Blog: Rehumanizing the Teaching Profession by Dr. Betina Hsieh 3/22/2023

Teachers have sustained injuries on the job, especially over the past three years. 84% of them, in fact. In the study, Dr. Hsieh posed this question: “Have you personally experienced mental or physical health challenges that you attribute to your work in teaching?”

Of the educators who answered this question, 84 percent said yes…I read [the] more than 500 open-ended responses in which educators detailed how they themselves had tried or were trying everything they could to stay in the classroom, despite the mental and physical demands.-ASCD Blog: Rehumanizing the Teaching Profession by Dr. Betina Hsieh 3/22/2023 

Teachers are trying everything to stay teaching, despite their injuries. They are lurching forward, staying in the game, albeit in pain and the known risk of lasting damage. Administrators, coaches, consultants, creators: We need to reimagine and nurture the conditions in our school communities for our MVPs – our teachers – to heal. 

We as school leaders, coaches, and consultants don’t have the power to change the whole educational system – a system notoriously full of obstacles and filled with places to twist ankles! But there is certainly one area in which we do have control: professional development. In the years that we have been doing this work, typically professional development goals are set up by the school or district’s leadership team. Certainly, teachers have (or should have) input, but often the final goals are typically set up by those in charge. Those in leadership can usually see the proverbial forest through the trees; they can look out to the educational horizon for new information, identifying macro issues in instruction and equity, and determine a high yield focus that many of their colleagues can benefit and flourish.  Then, people like us are hired – educators who have spent decades teaching, researching, developing, writing, testing, listening – to help teachers get closer to that goal. 

Makes sense, or at least it did.

Recently, though, we are finding that this model isn’t always working as well as it used to. With all great intentions and visceral historical memory, we are setting goals for teachers and schools in our districts that are not meeting the immediate needs of teachers. With all great intentions, we are adding to their already toppling over plates instead of looking to see what we can take off their plates. With all great intentions, we are too often asking teachers to run faster, put more weight on sprained ankles. 

Professional development should not – and cannot be in these times – feel like a drain, like another thing to do, like a chore. Instead, professional development should and can feel energizing – energizing like it is answering questions, or removing obstacles, or energizing like it is being heard.  

This is an easy-ish fix though: We need to listen to teachers and use what we know about healing strained muscles:

REST: Teachers need time. They need time to plan. They need time to relax. They need time to make jokes with colleagues or make that doctor’s appointment or text their child or go to the bathroom more often. 

Example: Embed paid planning time into every PD plan. Real time, like hours. And gift them a copy of The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers, By Patrick Harris III.

ICE: Teachers need resources and professional development that soothes, mends, and solves. 

Example: Teachers tell us that they want to focus on grammar instruction (even though that isn’t the priority) and so we look at the Patterns of Power series by Jeff Andersen and Whitney LaRocca. 

COMPRESSION: Not the compression that many of us feel right now! Not the stressful compression that builds and builds until we can’t stand it anymore. The kind of compression that is supportive, restorative – the weighted blanket, the brace for your knee so you can keep walking your dog without wincing. 

Example: Teaching writing is hard! Make time for teachers to linger in what’s hard when teaching young students how to write. Then, offer some supportive structures and solutions – compression, if you will – by checking out the work of M. Colleen Cruz, especially the supportive instructional suggestions in The Unstoppable Writing Teacher. 

ELEVATION: Teachers need inspiration that is specific, real, honest, and career-affirming. 

Example: If teachers say that they are deeply struggling with the kids’ attitudes towards school, focus on a professional learning book group around We Got This by Cornelius Minor or Unearthing Joy by Gholdy Muhammed.

Match professional development to what teachers are saying is causing the most friction in their work. Then give them time – real time – to study the causes of the friction, develop and implement a plan, and troubleshoot during the process. 

Like an ice pack to a sore joint, offering teachers exactly what they say they need will help us all heal. (Join us at kateandmaggie.com and tell us what hurts so we can offer some support!) 

Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts

Author: CCIRAblog

Check out CCIRA's website today at ccira.org

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