Tick Tock

So many of our outdated models of learning—when traced back to their roots—have to do with the schedule. Time. Particularly how precious it is and how little we have of it. In an effort to be efficient, we set aside an hour a week after school (if we’re lucky) that we label “Staff Meeting” or “Professional Learning.” We carve out time for adults to come together to learn. We value what we do—isn’t that how it goes?

On a designated day at a designated hour, teachers gather in the school library, notebooks in hand and (usually) a tinge of annoyance at having to be there. Teachers show up to learn, but often because it is required. In the back of many minds run lists of all the tasks that need doing that teachers could be doing if they weren’t stuck in the library for professional learning.

Without question, the workload for classroom teachers is daunting (and very often unreasonable). I don’t blame teachers who say they’re too busy or too tired for professional learning; in the context of our current system, they are legitimately too busy and too tired.

Shouldn’t this be a data point that something in the system is not (yet) working? Learning should fuel us, fill us with energy and a spirit of inquiry. We should crave time to collaborate and learn from each other.

I don’t believe that teachers lack interest or desire for learning; this visible reluctance to come to the whole group staff meeting is a symptom of a much larger issue.

A common refrain as teachers settle in around library tables for the meeting: What are we learning about today? The implication being that today’s learning will not be connected to what happened the last time we were together.

Again. . . data point. If the only time we think about professional learning is when we are in it, it’s not the right learning.

The meeting begins, and the administrator(s) and/or instructional coach facilitate a learning experience designed to connect with as many teachers as possible, knowing it’s impossible for it to be relevant for everyone (but trying their very best—I know I do!). Best case scenario, the facilitators of the learning are modeling current, research based instructional practices. There’s a focus on collaboration and reflection. It’s not a “training,” where teachers “sit and get;” the cognitive load has been shifted, and it’s the teachers who are doing the talking, reading, writing, thinking. There is a balance of theory and practical application, horizontal team and vertical team conversation.

For some schools, this is not what happens, and for those teachers, the disconnect is even greater. . . but for the sake of this argument, even the most well-crafted PD in a traditional weekly staff meeting format is still falling short. It’s still an extra, an add on that doesn’t quite match up with what everyone cares about most: day to day student learning in our classrooms.

Success is measured how? By the number of teachers engaged during the meeting? By the energy or body language of participants? By the feedback on exit slips?

As the frequent facilitator of professional learning, it’s hard not to feel like a moving target at times. I know the impact of the shared learning experience shouldn’t be measured by the affect in the room. . . Success should be measured by the impact on student learning. However, at 4:00 on a Tuesday afternoon, it’s hard not to use facial expressions as data points. It’s hard not to be discouraged when it’s clear that the learning experience is not meeting the needs of all the teachers in the room. It’s hard to have professional learning fall flat when some teachers would prefer to just sit and have someone talk at them (even though they know that’s not what I do!).

Over time, what has this type of professional learning communicated to teachers? That one hour a week of learning is enough? To expect learning to be provided for us? That we all (regardless of grade level or content area or level of expertise) require the same learning at the same time? That learning for teachers happens independently of the work we do all day with kids?

When we “set aside” an hour a week for professional learning, we communicate that professional learning is something that happens outside of the classroom. This leads to teachers feeling like PD is an extra, a “something else” that gets piled on top of all the other to-dos in a given week. This perception can temper the enthusiasm of the most eager adult learner.

We also communicate that teachers require a fearless leader to organize and facilitate that learning. We communicate that learning is something teachers show up for, as opposed to something that teachers own or lead themselves.

Historically, we have often put teachers as learners in passive roles, setting up systems and expectations that reinforce traditional models of learning. I know for myself, I have hesitated to ask more of teachers on the planning or facilitation sides of professional learning out of a genuine respect for their workload. And although this might have been based on a good intention, I’m wondering now how not expecting teachers to lead has contributed to the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Teachers are overwhelmed. And what many are saying is, “I don’t have time for professional learning!” or “It’s report card week—why can’t we just cancel PD this week?” There is an endless string of excuses not to make time for learning if we see it as that extra task, if the learning lacks urgency. However, I don’t believe the solution is to reduce time for professional learning. If anything, we need more time to collaborate and learn. We do, however, need to change the way we structure and design professional learning so that it is energy-giving, rather than energy-sapping.

This is, of course, an overgeneralization. There is plenty of spectacular professional learning going on in our schools. There are visionary teacher leaders, coaches, and administrators working hard to innovate the learning experience for students and adults. We have educators all over the country who have found ways to thrive as learners in environments not (yet) set up to build in space and time for more self-directed learning. There are schools who have pushed back on traditional structures of time for PD (including my own).

I’m curious to study what’s working and to experiment with new ideas. It’s time for educators as professionals to propose systemic changes, to advocate for ourselves and for each other.

What would it take to flip the typical PD experience? To make learning feel like a treat, the luxury of time to explore something deeply relevant and compelling? To connect the adult learning experience to daily classroom work, so that it feels like a support and a necessity, rather than an exercise in compliance? What might be the impact on student learning if all teachers were energized and propelled by their own learning? 

A shift of this sort is bigger than PD design. There is plenty of innovative PD out there that is failing to move the needle on the system as a whole. This is bigger than that weekly staff meeting; in fact, it’s not really about Tuesdays at all. In order to make a difference system-wide, we need to examine (and be willing to revise and in some cases throw out) the structures we have in place. We need to study and learn from those educators who are actively seeking out learning experiences in this challenging time, those teachers who have found ways to integrate learning in innovative ways.

We need to acknowledge what has changed—in terms of student learning as well as the challenges this places on us—so that we can rethink the learning experience for today’s educator.

As a classroom teacher, I remember being outside on duty in the morning and loving when I saw kids running to school—not because they were late, but because they were just so excited to get to school. I think about this all the time, as we work to re-design learning experiences for students that are authentic and compelling. In my collaboration with teachers as an instructional coach, I see how critical it is for teachers to feel the same way about their own learning. Continuing to grow and learn is non-negotiable for professionals—we know this—and I believe there are things we can do to dramatically improve the learning experience for teachers.

Step 1: Kill the mandatory, weekly staff meeting.


  1. Lindsey Cole

    Good professional learning us invigorating and builds positive school culture. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. Thank you for speaking out, and I hope to see all teachers running to school soon!


    1. Amy Ellerman

      Thanks, Lindsey–I agree. One of my biggest struggles is trying to balance shared learning experiences that build culture with experiences that are differentiated and/or personalized. We need both! But even several years into coaching–and intentionally shifting what those shared learning experiences look and feel like–there is still baggage around the mandatory, whole group, after school meeting that is getting in the way of authentic engagement (for some). It makes me want to try something dramatically different this year. . .


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