When PD isn’t a laughing matter

On September 1 I reported to professional development on new textbooks with a couple dozen English teachers. The first thing I was given was an index card with a room number. I’m used to being talked down to at development, but assuming I couldn’t remember a 3-digit number seemed extreme. It turns out this was an compliance practice. We were to show our card, with our name on it, upon returning from lunch, to make sure we actually returned from lunch.

The message from my bosses: We don’t trust you to take this seriously, but we’re not willing to do anything about it. Just know you are not trustworthy.

On November 11th, I arrived at another large High School for another PD, this time on LGBTQ students and district policy. We were ushered into a large auditorium. The first presenter introduced the policy and gave an uninspired, monotone talk about it. She occasionally did not have prepared remarks and resorted to reading from the Power Point. The third speaker had no remarks and read straight from the Power Point the entire 15 minutes, which was a word for word, size-11 font rendering of District policies such as those forbidding staff to commit sexual assault.1

In between, a speaker from The Lighthouse gave a talk about sexuality, changing terminology, and why teachers need to step outside their comfort zone. It meant nothing. The vile, numbing, brain-devouring banality of the two district speakers ruined even the smallest chance of positive discourse. Oh, and it was the day grades were due. And we couldn’t read the slides And so on.

I was furious because this issue elicits a ton of push-back from staff. A few hours later a teacher told me she leaves sexuality outside the class. I asked her if she could do the same with race. We had a powerful, if brief, conversation that has since spawned some other talks.

This 10 minute talk had more power than a two hour meeting because both of us were interested in helping LGBTQ students. The District’s purpose was rooted differently: in compliance. The goal was making sure nobody gets sued, instead of making sure nobody tries to end their own life. I don’t know the heart of the district presenters. But if they really cared about this issue, they wouldn’t have read off a Power Point. They wouldn’t have used a giant auditorium. They would have shown an iota of passion for the most vulnerable children. They didn’t.

And then the election happened. Now our LGBTQ youth, especially our transexual or questioning children, feel like targets.

I’ve made a habit of rolling my eyes at PD. I pull out my laptop or grade papers and dare the presenter to do anything. They usually don’t. They’re called upon to present, I’m called upon to be present. We both, truth be told, have better things to do.

Except, in the age of Trump, that’s deadly. The rise of hate crimes targeted in schools must be addressed by every person in the building. The institution for that is professional development. On this day, like many of our institutions, they failed. And kids will suffer because of it.

I don’t know how to fix PD. I like EdCamp, but I no longer see it as a silver bullet. I think most teachers want to get better, although they’ve become so embittered or conditioned by awfulness that the default is to turn out. But we have to move forward, and the revolution will not read off of a Power Point.


  1. This is actually against the PFT contract, which should be front and center in our goal to unionize white collared workers