I value and appreciate the opportunity to share ideas on teaching with teachers at professional development meetings and conferences. It is something I’ve actively pursued as a teacher and now teacher educator for over a decade. Towards the end of one of these conference presentations in Somewhere, USA (names and places changed to protect the guilty) a few weeks ago, my co-presenter stopped with about ten minutes left in the session and asked if the audience members had any questions.
A lone hand shot up immediately, and I waited for an insightful question about classroom application of the ideas or more background or a challenge or something warranting the pensive hand in the air. Instead, the teacher asked, “When are we going to get the stickers?”
“When are we going to get the stickers?”
My head and heart sank. This was the first question asked after what we thought was an insightful and practical presentation, one that several other attendees claimed as the best they attended during the two-day conference. And while other questions were asked, answered, and posed, I could not stop thinking about what that first question represented to the larger picture of teaching, learning and teacher learning.
What’s the deal with the stickers?
The Somewhere Department of Education requires each teacher in the state to obtain 60 professional development hours each year. Mostly, these hours are accrued through activities within each local district. In order to have hours from other types of professional development—like attending conference presentations, for example—count, teachers must provide documentation of those hours.
In an effort to satisfy the Somewhere Department of Education, The Conference, an annual affair for about 1200 math, science, English, and social studies teachers, awards stickers to teachers for attending each hour-long professional presentation. These stickers, along with a sign-in sheet, verify attendance of sessions and vis-à-vis represent teacher learning, the only proof that this learning occurred.
When I first attended The Conference in 2007, I was struck and a bit dumbfounded by the sticker verification of teacher attendance and learning. Receiving a sticker at an event like this was a foreign concept to me and it grated against every bit of my professional being, one that is built on the idea that professional educators should be treated like members of a profession. Duh, right?
And beyond the notion that teachers are professionals and should be treated as such, what message does the sticker requirement communicate about teaching, teacher learning, and professionalism?
About teaching, the sticker structure says that anyone can do the job because it literally only requires the ability to fog a mirror held in front of one’s face—the ability to exhale hot air—to successfully attend a teaching conference presentation.
About learning, stickers for teachers tell us that anyone present is likely to gain from the experience. This reminds me of the fallacy perpetuated by movies like Waiting for Superman that teaching is simply opening craniums and pouring knowledge into the open minds of eager young people. This would only make sense to someone who has never stepped foot in a classroom as a teacher. Stickers tell us that learning is simple and that anyone can do it by just being present.
About teacher learning, stickers devalue professional development efforts by reducing the outcome to attendance. A sticker says nothing about what could be learned by attending a session or how a teacher organizes new knowledge gained with experience and other existing knowledge. That aspect of learning is not addressed through the careful dolling out of stickers. Nothing is ever known of how a teacher implements a new idea or strategy in her or his classroom and whether there is any transference of learning from the presentation to practice. In this sense, a sticker only represents the presence of a teacher in a session and thus sets a low bar to clear.
But the very premise of sticker-based learning concedes a wholehearted distrust of teachers and a further undermining of the concept of teachers as professionals. The Somewhere Department of Education does not trust teachers to actually attend sessions when they go to professional meetings. In my experience, we teachers are hungry for new ways to teach and rarely get to leave the classroom to interact with other professionals, the typical education conference is packed with eager attendees. Yet the irony here is that the sticker structure ignores what a person is actually learning or applying to their own classroom applications because only the most basic measure of attendance, actually putting one’s butt in a seat—is verified.
What a sad state of affairs. Let’s recap what sticker-based professional development essentially says to its participants:
· Teaching is so simple that anyone can do it.
· Learning is something accomplished by occupying a chair.
· Teacher learning is simple and requires only sitting and listening to some supposed expert (like me).
· Teachers should not be trusted, let alone be treated as professionals.
While I have no delusions of grandeur of being suddenly charged with overhauling professional development for a state, I would take five immediate steps to do exactly that if given the opportunity.
1. Social learning–Base professional learning experiences on group-based activities. Rather than punitive accountability measures (like giving individual teachers stickers for attending single sessions at a conference), make these learning experiences social in nature. Teachers in my state would form groups ahead of a conference and attend sessions together and then share the contents of a session with members of the group who didn’t attend. Collaboration time would be built into the schedule of every conference in the state. These groups of people would reflect, discuss, and begin to process the new ideas, strategies, and concepts.
2. Professionalize–Trust teachers to do the right thing, to act as professionals. The old adage of people acting like they are treated rings true here. If an entire state expects less out of its teachers and their learning, we should not be surprised by urgent questions about sticker distribution. If that is the burning question on the mind of the participants, the game is lost.
3. Inquisitive–Base professional learning on essential questions formed in the individual classrooms of the teachers. By creating insightful questions, a sense of inquiry and discovery would drive the professional learning. It would, in essence, act as a thesis statement to an essay, giving purpose to each session, new learning experience.
4. Sustained Learning–Hold me (the presenter) accountable. While the sessions I’ve proposed and presented at this particular conference have been tied to the state’s adopted standards for teaching and have been reviewed and accepted by a committee of peers, I’ve not been held accountable to help teachers engage the ideas I’ve presented following the conference. It has been demonstrated that one shot, inoculation style PD doesn’t have any lasting impact on teachers, much less their students’ learning.
5. Social responsibility–Any teacher attending a professional conference must share their learning in some formal or informal ways with other teachers. This could take myriad forms: posting to a website dedicated to accounts of the application of ideas gained at conferences; brief presentations at faculty meetings; writing a blog post reflection on the experience; leading a reading group at their school, etc.
Stickerification reduces teachers, teaching, learning, and teacher learning to the lowest common denominator—getting a sticker—in the name of accountability. The message is loud and clear: teachers are not to be trusted. And until we trust the teachers in this country to do the right thing, any hope for educational improvement, innovation, or achievement should be kindly placed on the “never going to happen” pile.
Fortunately for my sanity, “The Conference” in balmy Somewhere, USA, is the only one I attend hellbent on stickerfying attendees. The act of handing out stickers after each session might not be as frustrating or infuriating to others. To me at least, it is a symbolic denigration of teachers, teaching and learning, and teacher learning–a slap in the face of what should be a proud profession.