Monday, November 2, 2015

Strikes, Spares and Sliders: Adventures in Professional Development

Over the last few years, I've taken a particular interest in professional development for my faculty and staff. Specifically, I've gone to great lengths to move away from the stand-and-deliver, meeting-heavy, cookie-cutter professional development that seems to have been the norm for the twenty years I've been an educator. We've worked hard to move away from that model for our classrooms, so why would we want to perpetuate poor teaching and learning PD experiences for our teachers? Come to think of it, does all professional development even have to be about teaching and learning? I think not.

Our school dismisses early about once each month, which allows us to have professional development time regularly, and the responsibility to provide quality PD falls squarely on my shoulders. Some of the more successful, memorable and meaningful PD in recent memory includes professional development around the Harkness tables and a school-wide edcamp. Several weeks ago, while looking ahead to the October early dismissal, I knew I wanted to do something different, memorable and, above all, meaningful. I knew what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted as an outcome, but I wasn't sure how to formulate and execute a plan. I collaborated with (read conspired with) two of my best team members, shared my vision and they ran with it.

Several days before the early dismissal, I sent the following email to my faculty:

US Faculty,

As you know, next Wednesday is another early dismissal day for us to focus on professional growth. I have great news: Wednesday will be another jeans day, so come casual. Those of you who have known me a while probably think I've lost my mind because we've done jeans so many times this year. Here's the deal... one more time can't hurt, right?

In other news, we're going to do something a little out of the box. We have an opportunity to be part of a pilot program for a new team building program called TEAM WORKS, which actually is an acronym for Together Everyone Achieves More When Organizations Revitalize Kindred Souls. The focus of the program, as you may have discerned from the full program title, is on team building through tearing down walls, finding common ground, becoming better friends, and even establishing intimacy among coworkers. I was skeptical at first. However, after doing some reading, I believe this is just the shot in the arm we need.

The catch is that we cannot bring facilitators here. Rather, our sessions will be off campus. Transportation will be provided and the bus will depart at 12:30 from the gym entrance on the north side of the building. If the sessions end on time, we should return by the end of the school day. Gluten-free and organic lunch options will be provided at no cost to you.

Because reservations are non-refundable, I need to know asap if for some reason you cannot be there (and coaching responsibilities are about the only good reasons I can think of at the moment).

Looking forward to bonding with you on Wednesday,


I'm not sure how faculties at other schools would react to an email like this, but I can tell you I struck a collective nerve with my faculty. Almost immediately, my teachers moved into one of two camps: "what is he up to?" and "God help us, please do not make us do this." My creative plan was off to a perfect start. The buzz was deafening for days. Teachers huddled in classrooms and in the workroom to speculate about not only what this professional development experience would be like but also how stressful and unpleasant the experience would be. "When the initial email came out, my thought was, 'Oh no, Barber has bought into the team building thing and some group has made some money off the school," says Cal, my economics teacher. Some teachers even worked together to begin research on TEAM WORKS to see if they could catch a glimpse of what they could expect.

Not one to leave things alone, I decided to amp things up a bit. Two days before our TEAM WORKS experience, I sent a second email explaining that the facilitators had requested the following: faculty should be divided into pre-assigned teams according to pre-assigned colors; each team needed a theme song; each team needed a team name, which had to be in #hashtag format. I didn't send this info to everyone. Instead, I sent this one only to team captains. In less than 24 hours, our team captains had communicated with and organized their teams, and they had provided the requested info after their teams made their choices. Can you say communication? Collaboration?

At last, TEAM WORKS day arrived. Every single teacher and staff member arrived at school decked out in his or her team color. As the morning went by, the excitement (read tension and apprehension) moved toward a crescendo. Finally, the bell rang, the kids went home and the teams loaded the school bus waiting for them outside the gym.

Just when I thought things couldn't get any better, I discovered a microphone and sound system on the bus. Having never met a mic I didn't like, I seized the opportunity to go ahead push things over the top. En route to our mystery destination, I announced periodically to my captive audience, "Go ahead and take a few minutes to center yourself, focus and clear your mind;" "Grab the hand of the person seated next to you and say, 'Together, we can do this;'" "Turn to the person on your left and tell them he/she is special;" and "Put your right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you and say, 'No matter what the kids think about you, I think you're awesome.'" One of my teachers actually leaned forward on the way and told me, "If you really make us do this today, I think I'm going to be sick."

As we approached our destination, I grabbed the mic once again much to the chagrin of most of my passengers. I reminded my teachers of a meeting we had a number of weeks ago at which I revealed that our five-year trend of rising ACT scores had continued to new heights: 2015's scores stood as the highest in school history. At that meeting, I also told them that at some point we would celebrate their hard work and their commitment to the process. As we turned into the parking lot of the bowling alley, I let them off the hook and reminded them that I hadn't forgotten about celebrating. Pandemonium ensued.

We exited the bus and entered the bowling alley where we were greeted by two of my aforementioned best team members . They had arranged for a huge buffet, competitions, awesome music and one unforgettable party. For the next two hours, we bowled. For the next two hours, we cheered for one another, high-fived, celebrated, and created a sense of team unity we'd never experienced before. And at the end of the two hours, it seemed like my faculty had just won the lottery.

You may think we just went bowling. I assure you, the TEAM WORKS experiment proved to be so much more. How, exactly? First, beginning immediately after my first email, people started having conversations - lots of them - and with people they don't always spend time with at school. Teachers were sharing ideas, asking questions and having conversations about this crazy principal and his crazy plan. I didn't really care what they were talking about... They were talking. A lot. Second, teachers from different departments and grade levels had to get themselves organized and on the same page. More conversation. Third, teachers spent two hours relaxing together, cheering and encouraging one another, building trust, forging relationships and being positive. That's powerful. Fourth, by the end of the early dismissal day, the faculty had a positive, meaningful shared experience. There's great power and value in shared experiences, especially when those experiences are positive. Finally, the faculty felt appreciated and valued. Believe it or not, feeling valued and appreciated ranks as the one thing that will keep faculty satisfied, engaged and on the team for the long haul. Feeling valued and appreciated far outweighs salary, work hours, facilities and everything else that might factor into teacher job satisfaction and retention. In fact, some of the faculty told me they have never felt so appreciated. Mission accomplished.

I'm not the only one who sensed the power of this experience. Take a look at what some of my faculty said:
  • The interaction we had at the bowling alley was authentic. Not forced. Getting to spend a few hours with colleagues from other disciplines within the humanities in an authentic environment produces authentic interactions. Authentic interactions build trust. Where trust exists, collaboration can also exist. Where collaboration exists, everybody wins. I enjoyed physically leaving the confines of school with colleagues. I returned energized, motivated and more productive. Nancy
  • This event was unique. Who can say the principal took them bowling? It's a credibility thing, it's a trust thing, it's an appreciation thing, and it's a bonding thing. Cal
  • TEAM WORKS offered two things that will have lingering effects on the faculty.  The first being the fact that their hard work has not gone unnoticed.  Bringing up a standardized test average is proof that what they are doing is working.  As a college preparatory school, there is no greater achievement than seeing students succeed in their educational goals.  This score marked a record for the school, and as a result, the faculty.  The other takeaway that will remain with the faculty is knowing that they work for someone who encourages camaraderie.  The day was a successful surprise and it everyone worked together to have fun. Tim

We may not go bowling every term or even every semester, but I am sure we will do more of this, per faculty request and because I see the incredible value-added for my team. There will be plenty of time throughout the year stay up-to-date on best practices. After this experience, though, I will be sure that best practices will be only part of our focus during time set aside for professional development. After all, does all professional development even have to be about teaching and learning? I think not.

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