A plague on the educational landscape…

Dennis Sparks

Bad meetings. Bad professional development. They are a plague on the educational landscape.

How is it possible that after decades of complaints so many educators continue to experience boring, unproductive meetings and mind numbing professional development?

More specifically, why is it that:

• so many teachers who complain about poorly-run meetings become administrators who conduct poorly-run meetings?

• so many teachers who protest meaningless, ineffective, and often demeaning professional development continue to offer the same kinds of professional development when they become administrators?

Cynics might say that it’s a process akin to fraternity hazing—if I had to endure it, so should you. I don’t think that is the reason, though.

Here are some possible reasons:

* Many leaders do not know what they do not know. Having never experienced well-run meetings or well-designed professional development themselves, they simple repeat what was done to them.

• Leaders who have experienced the processes and benefits of well-designed professional development are not clear about what made it effective. They cannot repeat what they do not deeply understand.

• Leaders do not deeply understand the principles of good teaching. Those who do may not appreciate that those principles apply to adults as well as children. As a result, the least engaging and effective “teaching” methods are used—lectures, endless PowerPoint slides, and so on.

The solution: Whatever the cause, things will not significantly improve until leaders are explicitly taught how to design and implement meaningful, engaging meetings and professional development.  And, of course, that means they have the will to do the demanding learning and planning that are required to ensure high-quality professional learning for all educators so that all students experience high-quality teaching every day.

What is your diagnosis? How is it possible that after decades of complaints so many educators continue to experience boring, unproductive meetings and mind numbing professional development? Or do you disagree with my premise, believing instead that meetings and professional development for most educators are efficient and effective?

4 Responses to “A plague on the educational landscape…”


  1. 1 Teacher's Pet March 25, 2015 at 7:00 am

    Perhaps school administrators could learn a few tricks from other professions.

    I came into teaching after having worked in the print-based media and the City where mindless, meandering meetings and tick-box exercises dressed up as professional development would have been laughed out of the board room or editor’s office.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks March 25, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      I agree that educators have important things to learn from other professions. And I also believe that other professions have important things to learn from teachers and administrators. I, too, have had experiences in other fields with meetings and continuing education events, but, unfortunately, they were not universally positive.

  2. 3 Cathy Gassenheimer March 25, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Dennis,
    Thank you for this thoughtful email. I agree that many teachers and administrators have difficulty designing powerful effective professional learning because they’ve never experienced it or don’t know how to do it.

    I also think that there is a culture in some schools and districts where the instructional leaders are the “keeper of the knowledge.” As such, they believe it is their responsibility to impart that knowledge through telling.

    Another challenge that is helping designers shift the focus from “activities and protocols” to a laser-like focus on the outcome(s). Effective professional learning design should always begin with a reflection on what you want your colleagues to understand, know, and be able to do as a result? During my beginning days as a professional developer, I was guilty of this practice. And, there are parallels to the classroom.

    Finally, a proverbial rationale for ineffective p.d. is that there is no time to create it. And, time is a challenge. But, I find that investing the time on the front end to develop effective, standards-based professional learning most often results in the desired outcomes and engaged participants.

    For me, it is no fun to either lead or be a part of ineffective professional learning. I remember a two-day session Jackie Walsh and I facilitated late last summer for a leadership team from a district we had never before served. As I walked in, I saw evidence of their expectations: bags full of knitting needles and yarn, books from the library (fiction, not professional), and lots of sighs when they saw us walk in. It was clear they were there because they had been told to be there, and that they weren’t happy to be there. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of honoring those with whom you work, always remembering that they are knowledge workers, not robots.

  3. 4 Dennis Sparks March 25, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comment, Cathy. I resonated with your story about walking into a room of educators in which you were clearly not wanted….That makes a very long day for everyone. I want to give more thought to the issues you raised (and others) and write about this topic again in the not-too-far distant future.


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