You train a monkey. You ignite teachers.

Do teachers need to be trained like reasonably clever monkeys, then rewarded for our performance? What happens when we stop “training” teachers, and start igniting teachers instead?

Listen to the language surrounding evaluation, professional development, and accountability.

“Teacher training.”

“How can we best reward high-performing teachers?”

“Performance bonus.”

To my ear, it’s too similar to the language of training pets. Do teachers need to be “trained” like reasonably clever monkeys, then “rewarded” for our “performance?”

Here’s Alfie Kohn’s take:

How should we reward teachers? We shouldn’t. They’re not pets. Rather, teachers should be paid well, freed from misguided mandates, treated with respect, and provided with the support they need to help their students become increasingly proficient and enthusiastic learners.”

Last week I went to a neighboring elementary school to lead a session on the home library project our district is doing this year.

I didn’t have a “training” planned. I didn’t have a bunch of information I needed to pour into the teachers’ heads. I was there primarily to get their ideas.

How did they intend to make the home library project work at their school?

I was staggered by the creativity, enthusiasm, and pragmatic ideas for innovation that came out of their 10-minute conversations at their tables.

Here is a sampling:

*Having the school’s new student-run TV station, Lee Lions On Location, cover the story of the home library project as it unfolds.

*Uploading a video of the principal doing a “book talk” to the school’s Facebook page.

*Taking photos of adults in the community reading their favorite books, to send kids a powerful visual image of the role of reading in their parents’ and teachers’ lives.

The ideas kept coming. I’ve been working on this project for the past five years, but I left our half-hour session with a dozen ideas that had never occurred to me.

Those ideas will make the project stronger in my classroom, our school, the district, and other districts that may be inspired to start their own versions of the home library initiative.

In the middle of the session, a line sprang into my head with the force of an epiphany: “I don’t need to train these teachers. I need to ignite them.”

There is a staggering poverty of trust in teachers right now—not on the part of most parents, students, or communities, but among many legislators and policymakers. Language about teachers remains mired in a vocabulary of training, monitoring, and rewarding us, as though we were dim but trainable primates rather than highly capable professionals.

We’ve had enough trainings. Let’s implement professional development that earns that descriptor “professional.”

Let’s develop more structures that ignite teachers’ ideas and innovations, rather than filling us with prepackaged programs and rote information.

Let’s take the leap and do with teachers what the best teachers do with their students:

*Listen more than we talk.

*Ask questions we don’t yet know the answers to.

*Trust in the creativity, ingenuity, and brilliance of our students to take a lesson way beyond the boundaries we had originally envisioned.

This kind of PD is hard work. It takes more time, talent, and courage than simply delivering a training. When we make the path by walking, the destination cannot be neatly planned in advance.

But the work is worth it. True professional development is more meaningful, more illuminating, and more fun than the kinds of trainings better suited to pet owners and zookeepers. It results in better outcomes for kids, and it builds the kind of profession our children deserve.

We know those children are capable of creating new knowledge, not just memorizing old facts. Teachers are capable of the same thing.

 

*Note: Image of monkey at typewriter created by Devon-based artist Heather Fallows for the “Monkeys with Typewriters” book cover.