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To Improve Teaching, Look to Professional Tennis

We reward athletes who constantly look to improve. Why don’t we do the same for our educators?

By Melissa Tooley


(Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In the 1980s, John McEnroe was a household name, not just for his swearing outbursts and tantrums, but for his deft skill on the tennis court. It would have been ridiculous — and foolhardy — for the United States Tennis Association to have asked, let alone required, McEnroe to attend a clinic to learn the basics of the tennis serve. Instead, he would have been — and continues to be — much more sought after as a coach for others trying to hone their tennis skills and bring their game to a higher level.

As a profession, tennis is not unique in accepting that those with specialized expertise should be tapped to deliver insights to others looking to grow in that area, as opposed to receive them. But sadly, this is not the case in the very field that it seems should be teaching us all how to ensure meaningful professional learning: education.

Instead, in America’s elementary and secondary schools, teachers are more often than not required to attend professional development (PD) trainings that might best be described as one-size-fits-all. These trainings often fail to take into account participants’ individual areas of strength and weakness, or their specific grade or subject areas. A teacher who pioneered a project-based learning program in a previous school, for example, may be forced to sit through an introductory session on that topic at her new school instead of being tapped as a font of knowledge and experience on the subject.

Unfortunately, as a recent report from New America highlights, this is not the only issue limiting teachers’ professional development — which is critical for improving students’ educational experiences — from fulfilling its potential. “Sitting” is also part of the problem. We would never expect a tennis player to get better by passively listening to someone discuss how to put appropriate spin on the ball, without opportunities to see the skill demonstrated and to practice it herself. But that is how the vast majority of teachers receive the bulk of their professional development experiences, despite this being at odds with not just good judgment but also research on how teachers learn best.

The word improvement has become stigmatized in the teaching profession, such that many teachers view it as a necessary focus only for poor performers.

Who is guiding teachers’ development opportunities matters as well. As mentioned above, it is too rarely the educators within a school or district shown to have specific expertise on the topic at hand. Instead, more often than not, PD is provided by external consultants. While many external consultants are former teachers, typically they have self-selected to provide PD and not needed to demonstrate relevant skill, expertise, or evidence for why their selected development approach should be expected to positively impact participating teachers’ practice or their students’ learning. Where school and district leaders do attempt to play a larger role in guiding individual teachers’ development, many lack the time and/or skills to truly help their teachers improve.

What’s more, the word improvement has become stigmatized in the teaching profession, such that many teachers view it as a necessary focus only for poor performers. To return to the tennis comparison, not even Serena Williams becomes complacent about trying to better her serve.

Why do these professional learning issues exist in education? Several reasons and actors are responsible, as explained in New America’s report.

First, a clear vision of teaching excellence and consistent language to talk about it are missing from the field. Imagine if different umpires had varying ideas of what constituted whether a serve was “in” or “out,” or if there were 10 different terms for putting backspin on the ball. It is unlikely that the definition of good teaching — generally accepted as being part science, part craft — will ever be as clear cut as the rule for determining whether a serve is in. But without a common language and vision for the core knowledge and competencies teachers need — and designated strategies for determining where teachers’ strengths and weaknesses exist, also not consistently utilized in education — determining who is an “expert” and who is still developing is very difficult. In the highly localized U.S. education system, states are best able to promote such a vision and evaluation strategies, but many do not adequately communicate, support, or monitor implementation of the vision and strategies that they tout.

Second, state policies for how teachers renew their professional licenses reward both PD providers — often external consultants — and teachers to prioritize “seat time” instead of evidence of likely or actual impact, feeding into many issues: one-size-fits-all trainings, passive “sit and get” workshops, a failure to draw from and faithfully implement the best available research on effective PD practices, and lack of assessment of what is working and what is not.

Third, states and school districts put little pressure on school and district administrator preparation programs to ensure the candidates they produce are equipped to inform teacher development in a meaningful way. Not surprisingly, most programs don’t focus on this skill set. Additionally, most districts provide few opportunities for current administrators to develop their feedback and coaching skills to support teacher growth, and provide little time for administrators to prioritize this role.

Finally, a complacency culture around improvement arises when teachers are provided with inflated, non-differentiated grades by their preparation programs or performance ratings by their school leaders. State, district, and school policies can also lead to complacency when decisions about tenure or instructional leadership roles are based solely on experience without consideration of effectiveness.

How can the teaching profession overcome these obstacles to meaningful professional learning? In tennis, experience is valued, but performance more so, making ongoing improvement a primary focus of professionals. But this focus would not be in place without systems that recognize and reward effective professional learning; sufficient time and energy allocated to the goal of professional growth; and strong coaches and leaders available to support improvement. Actors at all levels of education governance must reflect on the roles that they can play in building and sustaining these three elements for educators’ professional learning, and the public must hold them accountable for action. Ours must be a nation that meaningfully encourages and supports teachers in honing their craft, for their students’ sake, as well as their own. Otherwise, teachers could be forgiven for wanting to storm out of the profession, McEnroe style, for lack of opportunity to improve. Luckily, most teachers are much too cool-headed to do so. But many who show great promise as teachers never enter the profession or leave it quickly, albeit quietly, frustrated by the lack of support that could help them grow into excellent educators.



This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.