Unplugging Professional Development


January 11, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

In a staff room in a small EFL school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, circa 2001.

Paula enters the room willing to talk teaching while Guilherme is marking a pile of homework.

Does PD mean anything to you?

Erm…Police Department?




Erm… are you coming to tomorrow’s workshop then?

Don’t know really, sounds like another boring show off by our dear director of studies.

Oh come on, don’t be an arse. He’s well intentioned. All he wants is for us to be better teachers.

I’d be a better teacher if he got out of my hair and let me do my stuff.

If you say so…

No, really! What’s the point of a workshop that tells you how amazing role-play is? Or how to drill more nicely? As though drilling can ever be fun…

Well, it has its place in the classroom.

Of monkeys?



Well, I know our teaching methods are kinda old-fashioned, but you know, there’s nothing groundbreaking out there either… and in a way that’s what they expect from us.

Oh really? They who?

Well, the students… and the parents… I mean, that’s how they’re used to it. You can’t just come and change everything with your loose style, no planning, just let it flow kinda teaching.

I’m happy with my style, mind you. And it seems the students are happy too.

How do you know they’re happy?

Well, they never complain!

Hmm… but that doesn’t mean they’re happy. I mean, they can be afraid of complaining, I don’t know, not everyone can give candid feedback, you know.

Well, but if they don’t say anything how will I know what they think?

You ask.

Duh… If I ask and they’re afraid as you say they might be, that won’t change a thing. They may as well say everything’s fine.

Hmm… tough one.

But you’re right you know, you got a good point there. How will I know what to improve, really, if maybe my students are not confident enough to give me the real feedback?

You see now that there are things to improve, don’t you?

Erm… yeah… I guess there are many things to improve in my teaching. But… you know? I’d rather do it like this, I mean, talking with you and just letting the conversation flow and all that, and you know, eventually we come across a good question we like to find out the answer ourselves. Like this thing, about students’ feedback being genuine and all.

Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s … erm… okay. Maybe I’ll read more about feedback and will talk to other teachers to know how they approach it with their students.

Cool! You see? Professional development is not all that bad…

I never said it was bad at all.

So, are you coming to the workshop tomorrow?

Hell no! What’s the point?

I don’t get you! You just found out there are things you need to develop, and then you say…

And I will, but not in a workshop… that’s not my thing. I like this we’re having, spontaneous conversation, informally, without handouts and pair-work, without a timetable and a coffee break. I don’t need them fun activities nor the latest buzz in corpus linguistics. I need this… dialogue.

You’re crazy, that’s what you are! You need dialogue? Get a wife, or go see a shrink or something.

They giggle and leave for classes, both handling a plastic folder containing a red grammar book and a blue coursebook.


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23 thoughts on “Unplugging Professional Development

  1. I think if you conducted a straw poll most teachers would say that their developmnt as teachers mostly happened in just the kinds of situations you decscribe, Willy – i.e. in informal staffroom chats, collaborative lesson planning, going home together on the bus… This is not to say the formal workshops don’t work, but that they probably work best in an environments where there already is the kind of dialogue you wittily describe. Or when they are less formal and more dialogic. Nice.

    • You’re right. In fact, education as a whole happens most significantly outside of the formal contexts of classrooms, courses, schools, etc.
      The other-mediated kinds of development are of course not to be discarded, I myself often benefit from them. In fact, sometimes I’d rather just listen for an hour than pair-work.

      What I think is that we need to find ways to somehow validate informal developmental practices. I personally find it very difficult to cross some bridges because of that. If I compile what I know based on proved experiential practice such as workshops and conference items and reflective practice such as this blog, I believe to have an equiparable knowledge of someone with certain formal qualifications our ELT market demands, but in the end, many, many times I will be screened out because I don’t have that accredited stamp. It just occured to me that this ‘credentialism’ in teaching has made it more of a technical (as in ‘mechanical’) profession, rather than as what’s been increasingly promoted – an art.

      Thanks for commenting, Scott. Look forward to attending a session of yours this year.

  2. David Warr says:

    Guilherme = Willy, right? I’m basically on his side. Drilling can’t be fun? With a language plant, it can be.

    • They are both a bit of Willy : ) even “our dear director of studies” is. Actually, I wrote this with DOS’s in mind, and I was one, and I do think a couple of people in my staff were likely to have a similar conversation.

      Drilling can be fun, lots of fun. But that doesn’t always translate to learning. Maybe with a language plant…

  3. Hmmm, you’re not going to like my workshop then. But then also it would be more about actual classroom activities rather than applying theory or pair-work about drilling. I still think there is a place for learning by doing, although I agree with you and Scott that a lot of professional development can and perhaps should take place outside of formal PD sessions. I’ve certainly learnt as much, if not more, through comments on blogs like yours, Willy, and my own, than I did in a year of ITT and a good number of subsequent training sessions that I have attended since becoming a teacher full time.

    Hope the thread isn’t lost in that last mammoth sentence. Very nice way of tackling the question in this post, Willy!

    Mike =)

    • I think there should be enough for everyone. Maybe, maybe, I’m not going to like your workshop, but others will and vice versa. What I don’t like is when I go to a conference and all they have is classroom activities, teachers are not only teachers when in the classroom, right?

      For me the point is not whether PD should be taken out for a walk more often. This already happens, and we as bloggers and twitters already know that. The issue is, as I said above, can we ever make them as worthy as formal training, in terms of social and professional currency?

      Cheers Mike!

      • Just coming back to this with something a bit more useful perhaps. Working in FE in the UK, members of staff are actually required to do a certain amount of CPD in the academic year (if you are full time, teaching 24 hrs of classes in a week, the amount of CPD you are required to do is 30 hours in the year). This is in a bid to make teaching in FE more ‘professional’, and it mediated by people becoming members of the Institute for Learning. Whether this is the best way, I don’t know, but I think your idea of taking CPD out of the conference setting is referred to here: http://www.ifl.ac.uk/cpd/about-cpd

        Possibly your CPD could include all this reading of blogs, watching and reviewing recorded plenary sessions, so perhaps a bit freer in a sense to all the formal in-house stuff that goes on and the (often expensive) conferences that take place.

  4. David says:

    I agree Willy, PD is not “a workshop”. Really that’s an invention so that administration can promote the fact they are doing something.

    My own job at a workshop is not to think this is the “it”. Rather, to think of it as a beginning and to get teachers to undertake a reflective approach and adopt the reflective spirit.

    Meaning, it isn’t even in conversations with other teachers that “progress” occurs. Rather, it is in each human heart that PD occurs. It is the reflection in / during / after / post partum each lesson and “context”. It is the private conversation we have with ourselves that is important. Teachers can stimulate that in many ways. It might be during a workshop but somehow I doubt it. I don’t think good PD is of a one off , some Saturday in May thing….. nor do you I believe… but how the flies love the lights!!!!

    Again, love your posts as dialogues, very human.


    • Well said David. A workshop is a beginning.
      A conversation is also a beginning. Actually, what is most unlikely in development is closure. There’s no ‘end’ in development. When you receive a TEFL certificate – of course ‘completion’ – it doesn’t mean you ended your development as a teacher, nor that you have actually developed anything. This is of such subjectivity that employers are not completely wrong in the way they recruit and train, but it can be improved.

      Also, for many people this sense of closure equals achievement, and they need that. What is hard to see is that learning has little to do with achievement, it’s more like evolution (in the biological sense), learning – to survive and carry on, not to achieve and stagnate.

      (sort of a NY’s resolution this dialogue thing)

  5. seburnt says:

    I think this was just being discussed in tonight’s #edchat… You and they and I are all right to recognise that our PD happens in more places than just the formal conferences and that the ‘stamp of approval’ (or lack thereof) sometimes unjustly disqualifies teachers from work they’d really be beneficial to. However, how does an employer qualify that ‘unstamped’ (and possibly non-existent) knowledge especially when 100 CVs come in for the one advertised position? Practicality often trumps idealism.

    • My wife is an architect and one major difference I see in her job seeking is that ALL recruiters ask for a portfolio. So, she’s got her degrees and all that, but still, they want to ‘see’ that knowledge translated to something more personal, unique, less standardized and more specific in relation to what they need. And they have 100s applying to the same position too.

      What I mean by this is that it’s impossible that all employers in Spain are looking for CELTA/DELTA native-speakers. Is that something all students need, are all students the same? I bet many people would benefit greatly from a teacher whose qualification is sports coaching for example.

      It’s not pure idealism. It’s making the industry more sustainable and in turn more attractive. There are ways to do it, portfolio is one for example. Mike’s example above is another alternative.

  6. Loved your post so much Willy as it’s so completely true… even though I’m a teacher-trainer sometimes the best ideas have really been part of idle conversations (even those around coffee tables at conferences) and like Mike, really feel like there has been so much learning from reading blogs over 2010… but that was until I bumped into Tyson’s comment just there… hmmm… hmmmm…. at the end of the day all this PD does eventually have to translate financially…

    • Thanks K.!
      Check out Mike’s link above, there are ways to do it.
      I think, this online informal PD sometimes translates financially, but mostly when you are freelancing or something like that. It’s like that idea of passive income Heike was telling us about, remember? Your source of income can be your ‘head full of knowledge’ if you can show that, in a blog maybe, and then who knows, someone can hire you based on that. Nonetheless, it’s pretty damn difficult.

  7. Mike,
    Thanks for that link. I’ll say… I’m impressed. That’s a very descent alternative to credit CPD activities.

    • Yeah, I think the idea behind it is quite nice. One thing is that you do have to document the hours you spend on your CPD, in the form of a reflection on it (why you did it, how it impacted on your teaching, what you’re going to do next) – something a number of teachers aren’t so happy about having to do. Seems like yet another activity to do that takes time away from focusing on teaching. Ho hum. FE is drowning in paperwork it seems to me sometimes.

      • well…

        If teachers aren’t so happy with documenting their PD in the form of reflection in the way you mentioned and if this time is considered “away from focusing on teaching”, well…

        I don’t even know what to say.

        I think that basically those who are trying to be more forward-thinking and working to make these teachers’ PD more humanistic, relevant, or in other words, bearable, are maybe wasting their time.

  8. I agree with you, Willy. Sorry for not coming back to this more promptly.

    I don’t think the teachers see the prof development as away from ‘focusing on teaching’, rather the fact that they have to log on to an online space (which isn’t always the easiest thing to do) and record what they did and spend time reflecting on it. I’m sure they all DO reflect on it, and gain from it and it benefits their teaching. However, it is yet another task that teachers of FE in the UK are expected to do (as well as administrate for their classes, complete SOWs and LPs for inspection, record after record, etc.).

    Paperwork in FE is a bit like Legion. We are not one, we are many.

  9. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Willy,

    Only just came across your excellent post so sorry for jumping on the comments train a bit late!

    I certainly have picked up and shared many great ideas through staffroom chats, sitting next to a colleague on the bus or when the conversation on a night out inevitably drifts to work. In fact, myself and the two other teachers who teach English in my grade start late on Thursdays and our shared taxi ride into work has been dubbed our ‘grade meeting’. 🙂

    One issue with conferences and workshops is that there is often no follow up. As David said in his comment, they should be a beginning rather than self-contained bubbles. Alas, many teachers and even many schools seem to go along just to show their faces and have some free lunch. Last year I was impressed by a guy I met in my workshop session at a conference as he told me each of the 8 teachers from his school was attending a different session and they would all be reporting back to their colleagues in a staff meeting on Monday morning. I think we need to see more of this at/after conferences. 🙂

    You’ve given me an idea for a blog post as well – thanks 🙂

    • Hi David,

      it’s never late!

      I’ve seen and tried this idea of reporting conferences to colleagues, but it didn’t worked that well. It somehow felt like when someone tells you everything about a film, and of course, it’s not nearly the same thing. Moreover, if the teachers had the chance to go to the conference and didn’t, it’s because they don’t mind it anyway, so what’s the point? Or, if the school paid you to go and not them, again, why would they bother? This can work well though, I’m not saying it can’t. The whole point of this post I guess is ‘self-initiative’.

  10. crazykites says:

    Hello Willy! David Warr drew my attention to your blog on your post about teachable moments, but I was inspired to read other posts.

    I’m a teacher in my first year and I love learning. I am happy to talk about ELT all the time and I never switch off from reflecting (which would be a good thing once in a while as I’m mentally exhausted from thinking/trying new ideas/finding new ideas: where do teachers get the energy from to be all-singing all-dancing, I wonder?) However, I often think I must be driving my colleagues mad wanting to discuss work all the time. Going to work shops is great for discovering others to have that dialogue with. I went to a work shop on using Twitter for those staffroom conversations, albeit a virtual staffroom. I have to say it has helped a lot with that ongoing inner reflection which the other David describes. I think people keep each other inspired to keep searching for those answers. There’s definitely a place for all kinds of PD. Most of my PD is reading blogs and tweeting. During my short time teaching, I’ve discovered PD is in my hands and if I wait on a DOS to look after it, well, I’m only getting one story. And I’m selfish, I want lots of stories. Also I like being in control of my own fate to some extent. It makes me proud to know that I have this initiative which takes me to different places creating quite an eclectic mix of PD. And maybe those of us with the fire and initiative to explore answers independently show a quality that you can’t put on paper?

    • It’s interesting to see that you in your first year can think of PD as we know it. Most people I met on their first year, me included, were too worried about mastering the grammar of English and too busy planning lessons with the Interchange series that PD was not in the to do list. I sometimes wonder what would’ve happen if I had taken care of my own development in the early years of teaching, but… I’m catching up.

      I like workshops too, to give and to attend, but for me, a year in the blogosphere was worth five in workshops.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • crazykites says:

        Hi Willy! I guess I am rather concerned about my PD very early, but my first teaching placement was where I did my CELTa and so I was still a “kid at school” trying to impress my “teachers”. I saw them as the fount of all knowledge EFL related. Having moved on, I can see that I was not correct to view them in such a way and that nobody is the fount of all knowledge. Moreover, no-one owns my progress and I don’t have to wait for anyone else to come and observe me to improve. I can do it on my own! With all these blogs and people’s online thoughts making practical and theoretical ideas touch the academic world, and with bloggers posting lesson plans, it’s like suddenly, no-one has the monopoly on this knowledge. We at the grass roots are changing and influencing the published world. I think it doesn’t matter if your an established ELT writer or a newbie in the field, we all have a chance to develop ourselves and others. It kinda makes the other stuff feel a bit stiff and starchy and covered in cobwebs. It makes ELT thought seem very egalitarian. Sorry for going on. 🙂

      • So, it’s a democratization of knowledge, is it not?
        I have my reservations about it (the latest post shows it a lil’bit), but it’s a good point.

        I’m still not sure how we are changin the ‘published world’ as you said. I mean, instead of actually changing their books and stuff, they’re starting to blog and tweet. So, in fact, it’s possible that it’s the other way around, they’re changing us (again).

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