THIS is Staff Development

by Gigi Austin

The day the invitation to participate in the LOTE CED’s Action Research Initiative appeared in my box, I gave it a glance, thought “interesting,” and tossed it in the don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it paper tray. It sat there for days. I picked it up again, looked it over in more detail, and had a jumble of thoughts go through my head: stipend…payoff new kayak… problem with my native speakers…need help…confused about the standards…need help…not sure about what I’m supposed to be teaching…need help. After concluding that it might be worth the effort, the question that plagues all teachers surfaced: “Do I have time for this? Do I really want to take on one more thing?” From somewhere in the depths of me a voice answered “yes,” and I am so glad it did.

If you are a teacher, I’m sure you have experienced “recipe” staff developments where an “expert” lectures on good practices in the classroom, and you keep asking yourself, “What does this have to do with me?” At the end of the day you leave with two pounds of good ideas that never leave your shelf. The frustration of these professional meetings for me has always been that after a few hours of hearing how teachers should ideally teach and how students should ideally learn, I want to poke a pin in the bubble. I’ve raised my hand to point out the differences between my students and the textbook ones we’ve been talking about. I’ve asked for help with a real problem in my real classroom and have gotten, in response, another prescription for good practices and the hint that we needed to move along with the program.

For all these reasons I so much appreciated what the ARI had to offer us at our weekend retreat. The material for the workshop did not come from the ranks of the should-be, but rather from us. We were asked to bring to the table a question or challenge that we deal with daily in our profession, something that we genuinely wanted to dig into. Then we threw them out into the safe space that was between us to collectively mull them over. There were no judgments made about the reason behind our challenges, no assumptions about our ability or inability to have handled what was bugging us. No one questioned the validity of our problem. For the person who brought it, it was important, and our job as co-participants was to listen and offer suggestions for focus and clarity about how to successfully research a solution.

What a breath of fresh air this was for me! Administrative red tape had me doubting not only the importance of my challenge, but my call to the profession. I had come to this weekend in need of reassurance that I wasn’t just crying wolf and wondering if I really have what it takes to be a teacher. I left feeling inspired, hopeful and affirmed. I wasn’t crazy after all, and I had fifteen witnesses to prove it!

I liken our weekend to bread making. The dough we mixed together is now being kneaded in our classrooms. We have three months to let it rise and bake it. All of us have committed to reconvening in February to bring our loaves to the table and share. I for one can’t wait to see what will come out of the oven. Surely, it will feed multitudes.