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Years ago, I was in a professional development meeting that tackled the topic of adding “essential questions” to each of our planned lessons. There was instruction on the language we should use, the structure of the questions themselves, and how to tie each question to state standards.

Yet I remember walking out of that meeting and distinctly thinking, “Why are we doing this?” In my mind, the state was asking us to come up with one more hurdle to jump over as we turned in our documentation. It became another “box” to tick off, just as many of us viewed the idea of writing out standards on the whiteboard for our children who couldn’t even read yet.

There are so many of these requirements in education - things we have to do to tick a box or fulfill a “red tape” obligation. So much paperwork, so many meetings, so much redundancy, that we often (or at least I often did) feel like our jobs are 90% “fluff” and paperwork and 10% actual teaching.

Which makes you feel like your profession, your career, and your experiences are absolutely worthless.

This is why it’s vital for those conducting professional development to give a clearly defined, straightforward, concise reason for “why” teachers need to do things.

Whenever you’re implementing something new, it has to have value. If it doesn’t, we have to search for some value, or we should not be doing it.

I know, that probably sounds crazy - “If your district requires you to do something pointless, don’t do it.” Very easily said from this side of the keyboard where I don’t depend on a school district for my grocery and rent money.

Rather than scrapping every idea that we’re proposed, though, my desire is to encourage my colleagues to do something a bit more radical.

If it doesn’t have a reason, change it to make it meaningful.

I mentioned earlier that writing state standards on the board for my students who couldn’t even read yet felt absolutely pointless. I hate wasting my time, and I especially hate wasting the time of my students, so I decided to pivot a little and make that requirement a key moment in my teaching every day.

I made the state standards a part of our everyday conversations.

“What?” I’ve heard from other teachers. “I can’t work standards into everyday conversations with my tenth graders,” or, “... with my fourth graders,” or, “with my SPED students.”

Sure you can.

Here’s how I know: I taught pre-k.

I had a bulletin board with a different laminated shape for each subject (circle was ELAR, square for math, etc…) and I would write on that shape with a color that coordinated with it (everything in ELAR was blue, everything in science was green, etc…). Sometimes, I would write a letter, a word, or a group of words, but just as often, I’d draw a picture of the thing we’d be learning about.

And we talked about our learning objectives every day. We played “spot the objective”, and every time we saw a word with that week’s focus letter, or every time we had a group of objects that matched a number we were studying, a kid got to run up to the board and ring a bell. Everyone would stop what they were doing, and the kid at the board would be like, “Look! Seven toy alligators!” We’d all cheer - yeah!!! We’d found the number in a real-life situation!

It may sound weird or overwhelming, but it really can give you focus, direction, and something to bond over as students learn (which creates learning pathways).

You have to find a way to make the new “thing” workable, and useable, and applicable to everyone’s everyday life, or it’s a waste of time.  

And you know what else is convincing? My co-teacher, who was the early childhood special education teacher for our campus did the same thing with her students.

Can you teach a non-verbal student about a state standard? Yep. It may not look or sound like you’d think it would, but it becomes a living breathing thing.

It is possible.

What would be fantastic is if our presenters could offer us the “why”, as I mentioned above. If you are an administrator, an instructional coach, or a professional development presenter, please give teachers reasons why you are asking them to do this new thing when you add something additional to their plates.

I once worked with a lady for nearly a decade who was in her late seventies when I began working with her. She loved the kids, and she was such a sweet friend. One day I was so stressed out about this whole new thing the district was implementing out of the blue, and I was talking with her. I asked, “How are you not upset and frustrated right now?”

She smiled and looked at me with a glint of mischievousness in her eyes, and said, “Because I’m not doing it.”

“You’re not doing it? What do you mean?”

She giggled and said, “You know, I’ve been teaching for over fifty years now. Every year or two… every couple of months… they come up with something new we’re supposed to do. I decided a couple of decades back… I’m just not doing it. I’m going to keep teaching and keep loving the kids, but I’m not doing any of that.”

I was in awe. She was sort of my superhero at the moment.

I thought about our conversation for the rest of the week and into the weekend because something just didn’t feel right about it. I mean, sure, you could do that - just never change. And after twenty-five years or so of fads, I can see how the novelty would have worn off considerably. I can’t imagine how mind-numbing it might feel after fifty years of fads.

But I think that’s how education can get sometimes.

And there’s something to be said for taking the useable parts of something and throwing out the useless stuff.

But throwing out all of it without even examining what could be useful seems less than productive.

However, when teachers are overwhelmed (and when aren’t we?), we need a good reason to enact new procedures. Help teachers figure out how to make the new requirements both useful while also checking off a box.

If you can convince them to be on board with it, and help them find ways to use the “new stuff” to make their lives better, more streamlined, or show that it’s helping students in a tangible, definable, “data-proven” way, then carry on.

Many administrators, though, say, “We don’t actually know why we have to do this either.” Well, friends, do a little digging. Find out what the point is meant to be.

If you make something meaningful for your staff and faculty members, they can make it meaningful for their students. Those are the kinds of changes people welcome. Those are the professional development sessions that make an actual difference. 

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