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For the past 6 months I have developed the habit of listening to podcasts during the cardio portion of my workouts at the gym. I have been getting a lot of satisfaction out of it, both personally and professionally. One that is on my favorites list is Danny “Sunshine” Bauer’s podcast Better Leaders Better Schools. I recommend it for all school leaders.

In episode 132, Danny interviewed executive coach, leadership consultant, and keynote speaker Kevin Monroe. During the podcast, Kevin mentioned the book Patients Come Second: Leading Change by Changing the Way You Lead by Paul Spiegelman and Brett Berrett, and he really got me thinking when he compared it to the education field.

The book’s main idea is that by investing in building a strong staff , developing leadership skills, and helping all hospital employees (doctors, nurses, admin, housekeeping, switchboard) to really connect the work they do with a greater purpose (discovering their “WHY”), the care that they provide for patients can be greatly improved and transformed. Thus putting the needs of the staff first.

When I first heard Kevin mention the title of the book during the podcast, I immediately thought to myself: what kind of hospital would put patients second? Ridiculous! However, it makes a lot of sense to me now that I’ve taken the time to think through it. The idea of putting patients second (or putting staff development first) is actually a great and effective way, if not THE way of making their needs come first. I think maybe that hearing it sounds bad, but when we dive deeper we realize that it’s the level of quality of the service provided that ultimately puts the patients first. I think the same concept applies to education.

How far are we willing to go as a system in order to REALLY put school staff development first, to ensure that we are continuously providing high quality learning experiences for our students? There is no shortage of talk about different forms of professional development: workshops, conferences, unconferences, meetings, Twitter, pineapple charts, Edcamps, and I could go on. I often see, hear or read about people enjoying professional development outside of the regular work day – nights, weekends, and holidays. And if you work in education, you know that it is not as simple to do during a regular school day. Teachers have to prepare course work for the substitute teacher (often having to teach it again when they return to class), and administration has to find an available substitute teacher, which has been a huge ongoing challenge here in the province of Ontario (Canada) for many schools because of the shortage of qualified teachers. I have often witnessed principals sadly report having to cancel professional developement because they were unable to secure a substitute teacher. Year after year, we see many professional development opportunities lost because of this. And despite the fact that we know it is going to happen, it happens anyways. Actually, we let it happen. I don’t know about you, but to me, that doesn’t sound like much of a real commitment to staff development.

What do we need to do different?  Lets take a more scientific approach, and look for a constant. So what is the biggest constant? Yup – the way the system has always worked. For example: class starts at 8:45am, ends at 3:10 pm. Teachers must arrive a minimum of 15 minutes prior to the start of class, and must remain 15 minutes after the last bell (that is how it works here).

Aside from a few professional development days (7 days in a year where I come from, 2 of which you cannot use for professional development), if we want our teachers to receive training and learn together, we must often use the time when they would usually be in class with their students. As a school administrator, one of the biggest concerns teachers have year after year is the amount of time they are not in class actually teaching. So whenever we offer PD, it is taxed:

  • administration has to find a substitute teacher
  • teacher has to prepare the work for the substitute
  • students lose learning time with the teacher
  • often, the teacher must go over a second time with students what was covered (more time)
  • if there is no substitute, there is no professional learning

Thankfully there are schools that have found some ways to work around this challenge, but often against what is defined by traditional structure and work conditions. Not every principal or every teacher feel comfortable swimming against the current. Traditional school structures and work conditions are holding educators back. Worse, they are holding back student learning.

As a system, we must find a better way to do this. We all need to come together – students, parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers – to redesign a fluid structure and make it work, make it official.  There are plenty of great examples out there to help inspire us. Lets really commit to providing professional development that is not taxed, that will put teacher learning first,  to ultimately catapult student learning forward.