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You know that something has gone wrong in a professional workshop when the experience starts to feel disrespectful. I sat in a workshop today from 9 am to 3 pm about a new math curricular resource. Approximately an hour and a half into the workshop, I started to feel pretty angry, because the training was simply very bad. I was bored. I didn’t feel like I was learning something new. I felt like my time was being wasted.

Sadly, this isn’t a new experience for many educators. And the longer you teach, the more likely it is to happen. The more professional development you attend, the worse professional development you get exposed to. Furthermore, the longer you teach, the more you develop your own expertise. Paradoxically, as you become more expert, your expertise doesn’t become more valuable. Instead, you find yourself sitting in a lot of rooms listening to information you already know or information you flat out disagree with.  

But like most educators, I know how to lemons out of lemonade. In this case, I know how to learn valuable lessons from an otherwise poor learning environment. 

The following aren’t new ideas for teachers. But getting to learn them as a student was valuable.

  1. Set norms clearly and early. From the beginning of the workshop, several of my colleagues had their laptops out. The workshop required no technology. So it was obvious that the adults on their laptops were not paying attention. If the facilitator saw this and said nothing, what is the implicit message about the content? It’s not that important. Eventually, more and more adults got on their laptops. This meant fewer people to engage with the content and with each other. Toward the end, I more or less gave up and spent a fair amount of time pivoting between the training and my phone. I’m not proud of this choice, but if the facilitator doesn’t value the content, why should I? I don’t know why the facilitator didn’t start out by saying, “We don’t need technology for this session, so please close your laptops.” But if they had, it would have set a different tone. In addition, there could have been an opportunity for us to develop norms as a community. This would have fostered investment from us.
  2. Hold students to high expectations. At another point, the facilitator led us through a team-building challenge where we had to figure out how to flip over a sheet that we were standing on, without anyone leaving the sheet. The other group figured it out, but my group was still struggling. The facilitator came over and showed us how to do it. Ironically the workshop was about quality math tasks that are designed to foster deeper thinking. This type of learning requires students to productively struggle and requires teachers to hold high expectations. When you rescue students in the midst of struggle (as our facilitator did) it communicates you don’t think the student is capable and/or the task isn’t worth doing.
  3. Don’t talk to your students. Just don’t. And don’t do this for extended periods of time. As a teacher with 11 years of experience, I felt I had relevant ideas to share. And I was in the median teaching experience of the group! Between the dozen or so teachers in the room, there was more than a century of teaching experience collectively. Why wouldn’t you do more to engage us? Even if we were all novices, we would still have ideas, theories, and questions about the content. Talking at students is a corollary to low expectations. It communicates that they have nothing valuable to contribute. Not only is that insulting, but it is also an invitation to check out of the conversation. At that point, it’s clearly not a conversation at all.
  4. Be careful with sarcasm and avoid joking at students. Another low point in the PD came early on. The facilitator passed out cards for an activity called, “I have… who has?” This is a fun activity that I’ve done in the past. But the facilitator didn’t ask if anyone knew the activity. Nor did they give a clear explanation of the rules. When we began, there was immediate confusion. Rather than take responsibility for poor communication, the facilitator said, “This must be the special ed class.” This was unfunny and unacceptable. Students in a special education class are capable of all kinds of brilliance with the right teaching. To the extent they need accommodations or modifications, it is not something to make fun of. When I felt disrespected and offended, I felt disengaged.

Over the course of six (!) hours of this math workshop, I felt bored, angry, restless, and overall insulted. It was a master class in non-examples of effective teaching practices. At least I can walk away with those. They were valuable reminders of what NOT to do with students because they deserve so much better.


Ruben Brosbe is a former elementary school teacher. He currently facilitates professional learning...

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