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Commentary: Teachers should lead professional development, not researchers

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This is a guest blog, and the ideas expressed are solely the opinions of the author. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Send submissions to notebook@thenotebook.org.

by Julio Núñez

If we want to get serious about improving academic outcomes, we must do away with the misconception that researchers and consultants are the experts in the classroom. They observe teachers and students for minutes at a time. At best, they walk away with mere snapshots of a choreographed reality.

Those who spend the bulk of their time in controlled quarters can easily account for any change or deviation from a theory. But the lab or ivory tower is not the classroom - isolating any given variable is virtually impossible. Despite the best intentions of these professionals to brainstorm ideas for effective practices, their disconnect from everyday teaching challenges has many unintended consequences.

Ask a teacher what he or she would change about the profession. You might hear the following as the top three items: parental involvement, adequate resources, and relevant professional development.

Teachers, like everyone, are limited in what they can do. They could reach out to parents, sure. Yet it’s up to parents to return phone calls, to respond to letters, to show up to conferences. Teachers could employ their classroom resources more creatively, but creativity only goes so far if materials are nonexistent. Educators could maintain a positive outlook, reassuring themselves that those 60 minutes spent listening to a so-called expert proclaiming how easy teaching is, if only teachers would follow his suggestions, have not been a complete waste of time, but rather a recess from their daily obligations. Nonetheless, professional development is the area in which teachers could become agents of change.

So, what to do? Dissent, as in a democracy, benefits our schools. Teachers need to push back against senseless policies or irrelevant training. It is an ethical, moral, and professional obligation of educators to agree with effective practices. But it is also their duty to disagree with ineffectual practices and exert pressure to remove them.

Professional development is an area in which teachers can become leaders and reclaim their profession as their own (not as someone’s social experiment or ATM). They should model their training with the word collaboration as their base, and embrace only the best ideas, the way practitioners in medicine and science do. Best classroom practices are those that have been tested time and again by different cohorts of students. The best promoters of these practices happen to be teachers who implement them daily and tweak them until they’ve mastered them.

It is true that there is no silver bullet for fixing systemic problems. But it is also true that revamping professional development and shifting the focus away from researchers and toward practitioners is worth trying. The current model is not working. If teachers want to do away with their weaknesses, they have no choice but to explore and exploit the strengths of their colleagues.

This strand of our education system can change when teachers decide it is time.

Julio C. Núñez studied public policy at Georgetown University and is currently a teacher in Philadelphia.

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