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Professional Development: Obstacles Preventing Excellence

Jordan Catapano

At the end of the inspirational book “Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, he asks, “What keeps us from starting?” The implication is that once we know what it is we want to do, there are obstacles that keep us from actually doing it. We know that we should work out, but don’t always do it. We know we should eat a healthy diet, but we don’t always do that.

It’s the same for teaching: What do we know we ought to do via professional development in the classroom but fail to actually do?

Burgess lists five professional development obstacles that often keep us from applying what we know:

  • The Fear of Failure. Perhaps our biggest obstacle is just the fear of messing up, of trying something and having it blow up in our faces. If we fail, we’ve let ourselves and our students down.
  • Believing You Have to Figure It All Out Before You Begin. If we have to micromanage every step of our new endeavor before we even begin the journey, we make the task seem overwhelming and intimidating.
  • Perfectionism. Perfection is an impossible goal, which keeps people from producing anything at all from fear that it won’t meet this idealistic standard.
  • Lack of Focus. Our schedules are so jam-packed each day – often with unimportant minutiae – that we fail to allow ourselves an opportunity to creatively explore a new possibility.
  • Fear of Criticism or Ridicule. What if a colleague finds out about my crazy new idea? Appearances matter, so we think, and if a new idea might change the way students, colleagues, parents, or superiors look at us, then it isn’t worth the risk.

We play mind games like these with ourselves, imagining dire consequences for trying anything in our classroom that changes the status quo.

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I’ve found that, like Burgess points out, I am my own greatest resistor to change. Even though I believe in my abilities to make improvements to the way class operates, I find myself making excuses for not applying what I know I ought.

Two More Professional Development Obstacles

As I reflected on what keeps me from “Getting started” applying the improvements I’d like to, I saw that my biggest obstacles weren’t included. I’d like to add two more obstacles to Burgess’s list:

Complacency. If it isn’t broken, why fix it? I feel there are some things I do very well, and there are others that are just “Good enough.” I grow complacent as a teacher, thinking that teaching that’s “Good enough” isn’t worth addressing. I’m comfy as-is, and don’t feel the need to expend the extra energy necessary to make my teaching more dynamic or effective. I don’t get paid more. I don’t receive awards or recognition. It’s even questionable how much all the extra work would actually impact student achievement. Consequently, the “Good enough” mentality echoes author Jim Collins’ mantra that “Good is the enemy of great,” meaning that when we’re satisfied with what’s good enough, we’ll fail to pursue what’s great.

Extra Work. Riding along with complacency is the dread of creating extra, unnecessary work for myself. I’m busy enough trying to plan lessons, grade work, conference with students, attend meetings, speak with parents, and keep up with e-mail. Why do I have to spend extra time developing new lessons and materials when I already have old lessons and materials? Why should I do this if my colleagues aren’t? Is it really necessary to create extra work for myself, and how much would this extra work pay off in terms of improved student success?

Objections Overruled

What would you add to the list of obstacles? I believe we can easily talk ourselves out of doing what it takes to continually improve our craft. The reasons listed above are not petty – they are very legitimate reasons for us to withhold our energies and stick with what we are already doing.

But at some point every teacher needs to figure out who they are going to be as a professional: “Do I want to be the teacher who stays at the status quo my whole career, or do I want to continually learn and adapt my teaching?” The easy answer is to maintain the status quo. The necessary answer, however, is the latter.

To put ourselves on “Repeat” year after year – going over the same material in the same manner again and again – is to operate with the presumption that at some point in our career we “Figured it all out” and have the “Perfect system.” We, the master teacher, have the only true method of teaching students, and it’s our job now to repeat this flawless process throughout the duration of our career.

Of course, no one has ever discovered the perfect system for teaching. All teachers find themselves in the predicament of encountering new students, new material, and new challenges year after year. This means that we need to continually learn and adapt our strategies to best meet the needs of our students. Our students are not cookie-cutter copies of one another; instead, they are rich, vibrant human beings who need dynamic professionals to meet their educational needs.

So no matter the obstacles we face that keep us from improving and adapting, we must overrule them, knowing full well that our students deserve a “Great” education, not a “Good enough” one.

The Ideal Cycle of Application

Learn.

Experiment.

Reflect.

These three verbs represent the ideal process educators take themselves through on a consistent basis. First, they learn about new teaching methods, strategies for meeting student needs, or opportunities in their classroom they hadn’t considered before. Educators can learn by talking to one another, reading books and blogs, and taking classes. They can take advantage of the wealth of resources available today to expand their understanding of their craft.

After learning, teachers must experiment with applying what they now know. I say “Experiment” because applying new ideas in a classroom requires trial and error, tinkering, and failures. But once we have new knowledge, we are obligated to apply it in a meaningful way.

Finally, once the experimentation has taken place, teachers must reflect on their success. Did the changes meet their goals? Did they meet students’ needs? How could this go better? And of course, after reflection, the process starts all over again: the Teacher learns more, experiments more, and reflects more. Over and over for the rest of their career.

We have a choice to stagnate or thrive. Thriving is a challenge that requires extra work, dedication, and frustration along the way. It’s only when we commit to doing so and overriding the obstacles that inhibit us from getting started do we truly make a difference in our students’ lives.

Dave Burgess reminds us that, “The best way to solidify your commitment to achieving your goals is also to take action. The best way to overcome the obstacles on your path to greatness is build up enough momentum through action that you can roll right over them.”

What obstacles keep you from getting started? What do you do to overcome those obstacles and thrive as a teacher? Share your experiences with our TeachHUB.com community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.