Reframing Well-Worn Questions to Guide Professional Development

You don’t need to read The Washington Post (“...a Crisis of Epic Proportions”) or the Wall Street Journal (“Teachers Are Quitting, and Companies Are Hot to Hire Them“) to know that educators are leaving the profession in record numbers, for reasons ranging from burnout to principled stands on behalf of students and peers to the chance to make more money in less high-pressure environments. Just talk to any teacher anywhere in the country. The age-old faculty-meeting icebreaker “Why do you teach?” is no longer a rhetorical exercise in reaffirming a shared mission; it is a serious existential query, and the answer, more and more often, is unsatisfying enough to lead to an internal follow-up: “And is it really worth it?”
For a quarter of a century, I’ve worked in independent schools, mostly as a teacher, and as an administrator, academic adviser, coach, club adviser, and program coordinator. Over the years, and mostly in the context of professional development, I have been asked, and have in turn asked others, two questions: What is most important (in my practice, in my course content, in my daily routine, in my students’ experiences, and so on)? Why am I staying in this profession?
And now, two years into a pandemic, I wonder if I ever truly worked to act upon the answers, either in my own practice or in my work supporting colleagues. As school leaders look to improve teachers’ and staffers’ jobs and lives, and in turn our students’ and families’ experiences, we must take a closer look at what is important to educators and why they do what they do.

Reframing What Takes Priority

How often do school leaders hear answers to “What is most important?” and say, “During the next academic term (or sports season or admission cycle, etc.), I want you to focus on those things, to the exclusion of other things. I will not only support you, I will also help you structure your work around them and will hold you to them”? Ostensibly, teachers are encouraged not to do everything; but how often do we build the structures and policies necessary to de-incentivize trying to do everything anyway?
If it is reframed as a way of making choices, rather than of ranking priorities, “What is most important” can be used to approach even the largest school structures. At the very least, in pre-service work, when these structures (such as grading policies, the daily schedule, course content, etc.) are already in place or well-developed, school leaders can help everyone approach the new year through the lens of choice-making—not just priority-identifying. Using a triage-like logic in nonemergency decision-making can be reinvigorating. Sometimes we need to replace I will do what matters most, and as much as I can fit into the day, with I will do what matters most, full stop.

Finding Reasons to Stay

Potentially even more transformative—not just for individuals and schools but for the profession—is the question of why educators stay. My wife, a middle school science and math teacher who has seen half of her grade-level team and her campus director resign midyear this year, recently said to me, “I’ve realized that if I’m still going in every day, I must really want to be there.”
Of course, some people stay in education for reasons of need more than desire; but by fall 2022, those who are still working in schools will, by and large, be those who have consciously decided not once, but several times, to stay in the profession, despite numerous countervailing forces. They will all have asked themselves, “Why do I do this work?” in far greater depth, with more self-searching honesty, than I tended to give the question through much of my career.
School leaders must ask all educators, either one-on-one or in small groups, the question of why they stay in a new context, with an overt, public plan to use the answers to make decisions about time and resource allocation. I’m imagining an entire faculty and staff hearing the message, “No matter how often you might have been asked this in the past, we sincerely want you to tell us exactly why you continue to do what you do, so that we can honor those reasons in tangible ways.” Then, it’s up to school leaders to make changes, both small and large, that honor faculty and staff members’ answers. Here are likely answers to the question, and ways to honor them:
They feel they’re making a difference. Schools can have formal faculty meetings—entire professional development days, perhaps—dedicated to studying and celebrating the difference-making accomplished on our campuses. Schools won’t just be elevating the “why” of teachers’ work into the public arena—though this alone would be a big step, given how often the work-affirming moments of knowing that one has made a difference happen behind closed doors. We will also discover previously unknown impacts of our peers’ work.
They value collegial relationships and being part of a team. School leaders should consider replacing some meetings about policies and procedures, or about scope and sequence, with events that are structured specifically to give people time to enjoy the teammates they’ve already identified and to locate other teams of which they might be natural members without yet knowing it. School leaders can spend time (and, as necessary, money) on delivering the clear message that the teams of adults don’t only matter because of what they do for students—they matter for, of, and by themselves.
They are passionate about subject matter. Unconferences, led by the participants themselves, can allow for subject area experts to geek out with like-minded souls.
They value above all else bearing witness to student growth. Schools can curate experiences around the telling and hearing of students’ stories of transformation.

Moving Forward

Various aspects of how schools responded to the Industrial Revolution echoed across the 20th century, and some are still informing our practices. Decisions made in the wake of an epoch-defining moment like Brown v. Board were no doubt made in part based on immediate exigencies—and then ended up carving the paths along which generations’ worth of subsequent decisions ran. The present is another transformative moment out of which will grow the trends that dominate the next several decades. Whether 2022–2023 finds us turning the proverbial corner on the pandemic or simply finds us accepting the fact that we have to move forward, we will need to make sure that everything we do in our schools values and prioritizes the professional joy and personal health and sanity of faculty and staff.
How we approach the profession of working in schools now and in the next year or two will set courses that we and the inheritors of our labors will navigate for a long time to come. School leaders first need to go back to the basics, ask what really matters and why we do what we do, and, if nothing else, honor the answers to those questions in new, tangible, carefully structured ways that reach well beyond the grasp of mere abstractions. The future of the work we love depends on what we do now.
Lucas Jacob

Lucas Jacob ([email protected]) is Director of Writing, Communication, and Media Literacy at La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego, California.