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.

  • AnneJolly

    Teacher ignition centers?

    I love the title of this post, Justin!  I know that the National Staff Development Council struggled for years with what to call “teacher training.”  They then struggled with the fact that “developing teachers” did not exactly describe the type of learning in which teachers should engage.  Now they’ve changed their name to “Learning Forward.” 

    I don’t know what the correct term is – it will always be somewhat fluid, I expect.  However, the title of your post offers a mental image that brought a grin to my face . . . what about “Teacher Ignition

    • JustinMinkel

      Love the language, Ann!

      Ann, one of my favorite things about CTQ leaders is that we invent more words than the Bard himself. I LOVE ‘Teacher Ignition Centers.”

  • TriciaEbner

    Too much a checkmark on a to-do list . . .

    for too many. And I’ve been guilty of that in years past, too. We have a minimum number of required hours per year for our contract, and a minimum number of hours to renew our licenses. For so many, that seems to be the focus–“Do I have my minimum? Okay, good.” It’s funny: we complain when our students stop at our minimum expectations, yet we do the same to ourselves.

    The sessions that ignite me are those that challenge me, get me thinking differently, or show me something I didn’t even know was there and then let me play with that idea. Most of these have been in book discussion groups, critical friends groups, and cross-district or cross-state gatherings wrestling with challenging issues and topics. And here’s the interesting thing: I am no longer checking to ensure I have my minimum hours. Instead, I’m always seeking out additional opportunities to extend and explore.

    Learning Forward, Teacher Ignition Centers, whatever we term it . . . that’s the kind of professional development experience we need. And I’m trying to share that kind of experience and model it for my colleagues, too.

    • JustinMinkel

      Amen, Tricia.

      Tricia, I was on a committee for the Arkansas Department of Ed on PD a few years ago. It was fascinating to read the guidelines “on the books” about PD because they actively encouraged job-embedded PD, including much of what you mention–book studies, pursuing National Board certification, and so on. But somehow that message didn’t get out, and the main go-to most teachers experienced was the Wednesday afternoon faculty meeting model.

      I like how you flipped this topic to focus on what teachers can do (and are sometimes guilty of), rather than just wagging a finger at administrators/policymakers about what they need to do differently. Really astute points.

      One more thought: Architects of NCLB often said the basic-skills focus was “a floor, not a ceiling.” But, sadly, that “minimum” floor often becomes the ceiling. I’m not sure how to fix that–how to ensure a baseline of adequacy but also encourage students/teachers to go way above and beyond that baseline. Would love your (or anyone’s) thoughts on that.

  • BriannaCrowley

    “Ignite” vs. “Train”

    There are SO many possiblities when viewing the impact these terms have on motivation for teachers. 

    First, when “igniting” something, you provide a spark and then step back. It is up to an individual to fan those flames, own that process, and create the outcome. It is inherently risky and unpredictable just as it is inherently powerful and contagious. The fire metaphor aids us much in this conversation! 

    Second, when “training” someone/something you indicate a level of compliance that mirrors a procedural outcome. This certainly has a place in education: I may need to be trained on our new grading software so that I can produce the standardize procedural outcome for reporting grades. But should conversations with teachers around complex challenges ever be labeled in the same way? Of couse not, because we are hoping for more than a procedural outcome (or we SHOULD be). 

    Finally, I can attest to the power in a leader shifting his/her lens to “ignite.” The EdCamp revolution for professional learning is heavily predicated on the idea that teachers who show up for a voluntary learning experience will also bring their best ideas, their eagerness for collaboration, and a willingness to take risks with others. EdCamp provides enough structure to “ignite” and then the organizers step back to watch teachers fan the flames, huddle around each others’ “fires,” and spread the warmth near and far. I’m excited to be a part of a founding group of teachers who will be starting an EdCamp Hershey (summer 2015 in Hershey, PA). 

    What if more educational leaders adopted this lens and implemented it in their practice? What if they saw themselves as the spark rather than the expert? I think this could revolutionize the way we lead and learn together. 

    • Laura Davis

      Ignite: To arouse the passions of ; Excite

      I began my career as an art teacher so I am very visually inclined… I picture the flame of a candle used to "Ignite" another wick, once that wick catches fire, it is used to "ignite" another wick and so the process becomes cyclical until there is an abundance of light and a fire reminiscent of the sun!

      When professional development is "seen in this light" no pun intended.. it can be a very powerful force to irradicate complacency. I am now an Assistant Principal and I have seen far too many candles burn out to soon because they were islotated, oxygen starved and could not continue to burn.

      Ed Camp sounds like an oxygen tent to breath new ideas and new life into teachers who are starving to reconnect with their passion that brought them into the educational realm.

      Instead of telling teachers to "Teach like your jobs depend on it, because they do" to quote an anonymous building leader, teachers need to teach like their student's depend on them, because they do.

      If we can remember to keep the student's needs and our passions to meet those needs at the heart of all our decisions, it will make it easier to deal with SLO's, CDT's, SPP's etc…These acronym's are sterile. And the laborious process to deem a teacher "fit to teach" sucks time from the schedule that could be used to "Ignite" rather than "Drain".

      How can a leader have the fortitude to manage the building, be an instructional leader, and have the time to think creatively and critically about strategies to make their school cultures self-igniting life -long learning organizations. I know a lot of people will post that they know how. The reality is the following schedule that I follow:

      I get up at 4:30 AM arrive at school at 7:00 AM for a 1/2 hour bus duty outdoors everyday, I get into my office at 7:30 AM, see students and observe teachers until 11:06, monitor lunches until 1:06, walk the halls, schedule clubs, see parents and students until 2:35 and then go out again for another 1/2 hour to wave the buses goodbye. I can leave at 4:00PM, I usually don't leave until 5:00 PM. I get home at 5:30 feed my boys, work on my doctoral work, go to bed and get up and do it all again. I feel like George Jetson..Jane stop this crazy thing!

      Until we make time in the structues of our school days to allow teachers to take a breath, to be able to plan thoroughly, to be able to have extended time for team collaboration both within their grade level and within their content area, we will continue to ride this frenetic escalator of doom.

      Adminstrators should take advantage of the summer months to form collaborative teams in their districts and with other districts to work together so they can support a similar model in teachers during the school years. Can we fit this into the agricultural calendar that that we currently use?, Is there a better way to manage what time we currently have? The answer is yes, yes, yes, but the teacher's union and the school districts have to be harmonious, woking toward that same goal for this to work, so it is a matter of culture. Creating a culture that supports life-long learning is not easy, but I aspire to contribute to such a culture someday and igniting teachers (and adminstrators) is the way to make it happen.

      • BriannaCrowley

        The Role of Administrators


        Thanks so much for being part of our community here and for your thoughtful response. I love when administrators and teachers can share their challenges, visions, and experiences–we have more in common than we sometimes remember! 

        You are spot on with your assessment of these “meaningless acroymns.” In fact, teachers in my school this year poked a bit of fun at them at halloween. 

        Because of your passion, I can tell that you will strive to be a leader who “sparks” rather than pushes teachers in their own learning. Are you in Pennsylvania? If you are close to Harrisburg/Hershey, you should try to attend our EdCamp this summer to have a truly “ignited” learning experience with other passionate educators!

  • JustinMinkel

    Bless you and your gift for metaphor, Brianna.


    I love that I can always count on you to take a metaphor to more fully considered and elaborate places than I had originally envisioned. EdCamp sounds amazing!

    I agree there’s a role for trainings–teaching takes skills, not just heart/talent/creativity. I just think the balance should be more like 30% training/70% ignition; right now I’d say that balance is flipped.

  • MarciaPowell

    Thank you

    Justin,Nice articulation.   This is the same rationale I have for disdaining PBIS in favor of models that are focused on Deming and/or logical consequences.  Teaching compliance is different from  empowering students.  The same holds true for teachers.  I do, however, wonder about the outrageous golden parachutes that CEOs and CFOs often have negotiated into their contract.  Does that mean the entire goal of business is to play a game where there are winners and losers and the entire goal of education (which seems to be to emulate business in the 21st century) needs to be reexamined?

    • JustinMinkel

      Competition vs. Collaboration

      Marcia, one of the things that drives me crazy about a common argument for Common Core (which I do support) is the familiar “international competition” line. I think a core flaw of business models in education is that our goal is not for certain kids to beat others, within our class, within our school, even within our world.

      I don’t think American kids are more deserving of opportunity than kids in India or China. So, in short, I agree with you, and if you get a chance, check out Jason Parker’s comment on my newest blog post (Burning Bright Without Burning Out) for further thoughts on this theme.

  • SusanGraham

    Does the PD reflect desired student learning outcomes?

    Words matter.  There is a huge difference in training and  establishing protocols. Personally, I like to think in terms of facilitating or coaching as formats for professional development.

    But training is a tool that helps us perform with efficiency, consistency and throughness. Think muscle memory in atheletes or remembering that the  “k” is silent  in knee, knight, and know. The goal of training is reaching a predetermined outcome at the level of  automaticity so that the working mind is free to do other things. There’s something to be said for that.

    Protocols are tools that help us process with efficiency, consistency and throughness. Think Robert’s Rules of Order or Scientific Process.  But protocols don’t tell us what to think or do they provide structures to help us organizewhat we think, provide a process to determining future actions, and gudiance in carrying out what we choose to do. On the downside, protocols can be time consuming and provide inconsistent outcomes. 

    So I’m wondering, is there a place for both facilitate the unique thinking and talents of teachers though facilitation of self-development  and at the same time providing training to ensure all teachers implement the same pre-existing best practices?

    And here’s a bigger question, does the Professional Development we provide accurately reflect the student learning outcomes we desire?


    • JustinMinkel

      …and does PD reflect desired processes for student learning?

      Great points, Susan. An inherent challenge in the brevity required for blogging is that you can’t write a manifesto, but of course I agree with the more nuanced view that trainings have a place. A separate question is best practices for trainings–in my district, we do have many trainings, and they bring a great deal of coherence as certain practices like CGI Math are district-wide. We don’t have a ‘flavor of the year’ approach but tend to invest in 5-10 year initiatives like CGI or Gradual Release, building on them rather than swapping them out.

      A compelling question to me is the one you asked, with a slight shift–related to student learning outcomes, does the process for PD reflect the way we want to be teaching our students? I have always seen best practices with adult learning in or school system lag way behind best practices with kids. When differentiated instruction became a thing, teachers kept getting identical content delivered identical ways, whether they were 1st year kindergarten teachers or 25th year librarians.

      We’ve made some key shifts in seeing kids as creators of knowledge, not just recipients of it; teacher leadership has the potential to bring about that shift when it comes to teachers, too.

  • DavidCohen

    Responsibility to seek out what we lack
    Agree with everything you wrote, Justin. I’ll just add an idea stolen from a local teacher at an EdCamp last year: as a professional, you have a responsibility to seek out or create the PD opportunities you find lacking, if any, in your school or district. I think many CTQ affiliated teachers are exactly that kind of professional – if you need something, go get it, or make it. We could be more explicit about what we’re doing and try to show others what’s possible, and most useful. I’m sure many administrators stuck in the staff meeting, sit-‘n’-git model of PD would be our allies for change if they saw the change already happening and saw it paying off.

    • JustinMinkel

      Taking initiative without burning out

      Your point is well taken, Dave, and many of the people I respect most are those who quietly go about the work while others are ranting about why the work is too hard and the system is messed up. We have to walk that line between changing what we can and accepting what we can’t, simultaneously changing the system while doing the best work we can within its existing parameters.

      That said, I find that when it comes to PD, the reality is that teachers are almost always welcome to go out and finding meaningful professional experiences, but it tends to be an add-on to the existing less meaningful PD, not a substitute for that less meaningful PD. I think that’s a core problem with teacher leadership as well–too often, teachers are free to add to our work load by trying to start new programs, engage in new initiatives, and find professional experiences that will benefit them, but almost nothing is ever taken off our plates.

      A simple example: This year our state launched a new teacher evaluation system that is reasonable and somewhat useful, but is essentially a less demanding and less meaningful version of the National Board portfolio. I would have loved to see the state exempt NBCT’s from this process so we could allocate the time this new system takes to other initiatives; instead, everyone has to do the required state process and NB certification is an optional “add-on”–you’re free to do it, but you can’t swap anything out for it.

      I heard a line at a back-to-school event this year meant to be inspiring that I found a little ghastly instead: “A teacher is like a candle. She consumes herself to give light to others.”

      That’s great while the wax lasts, but candles are not a renewable resource. We can’t keep burning through teachers at the rate we’re doing now.

  • Andrea Schueler

    Choice and Voice

    Justin, thank you for the image of igniting versus training.  I'm currently working on my TLI (Teacher Leadership Initiave) Capstone, and my plan is to focus around professional development in my district.  As I read and connect, I find that more and more experiences mirror those of the educators in my district.  I'm also very appreciate of the thoughtful commentators here.  You've all given me much to consider.  I think it comes down to choice and voice.  With our district motto of "Curiosity Thrives Here" we are working to find ways to help our students ignite their passions.  We need to be doing the same for our many and varied educators.  I'm eager to look more into the ideas of EdCamp, and I'd love to hear other ways that district PD offerings have managed to go beyond the basic training needs to ignite that spark in their educators.

    • JustinMinkel

      “Curiosity thrives here”

      Andrea, I really love that motto “curiosity thrives here.” Carl Sagan said that 2nd graders make the best scientists, and I think we often squelch creativity, curiosity, and unbounded thinking because there’s so much pressure for all kids to master a lot of content in a short time-frame. The main shift I’d like to see in teaching is toward those ways of thinking and learning new things, learning anything, rather than jamming such a large amount of prepackaged content into each school year.

      Thanks for your insights and such a positive response.

  • Kerry Honey

    Ignite and Inspire

    Thanks, Justin! This is just what I needed to ignite and inspire our direction for 2015. We need to look at how we can encourge life-long learning in teachers in the same way that we are focusing on how to encourage a love of learning in our children…letting belief drive practice, engage in conversations not monologues, develop interests and enrich experiences and embed learning for its own sake and not as something handed down to be soon forgotten. I know that in working with my staff, I am hoping for a spark that will become innnovation…getting this to happen without my traditionalist background and need for control taking over will be the challenge! 

    • JustinMinkel

      Thank YOU, Kerry!

      Kerry, you sound like a wonderful teacher of teachers. In some sense, most of us have a “traditionalist” background in terms of what school was like when we were students. I have to fight my impulse for control, too. I think that by modeling both honesty about that impulse and the effort to overcome it, you’re doing more than providing teachers with great PD; you’re modeling for them the kinds of classrooms that most of us want at our core to create.

  • akrafel


    I recently gave an inservice to a group of math teachers who were struggling with teaching mathematics, division in particular, under the new Common Core requirements, which is to teach for understanding.  They told me that the work we did together lit a fire in their team.  Justin your blog has inspired me to go back to those teachers and ask them what it was in that PD session that lit the fire.  I want to blow on that flame.  Thank you for this wonderful image of ignition vrs training.  Great visual metaphor.  It will forever change the way I approach PD.  Thank you.