Professional Development for Gender and Sexuality Diversity

 Not so long ago, the only measure of the quality of a professional development session was whether the participants were smiling when they left the room—and not just because it was over. In recent years, though, the standards for professional learning have been edging up.

-Marge Scherer

In her introduction to the latest issue of Educational Leadership Marge Scherer says that there are “bright spots” today in professional learning for educators. Apparently some teachers are actually finding professional development (PD) sessions useful! That the bar has always been set so low for PD in Education is a mystery to me. Who should know more about “quality teaching” than teachers?! When I was a high school English teacher 30 years ago, PD programs were terrible, and the truth is that many are still terrible in 2014. Why have teachers put up with such mediocre learning opportunities for so long? And why are the standards merely “edging up”?


A report published last fall by the Center for Public Education roundly discredits today’s approach to professional development.

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…in a recent study, researchers found that while 90 percent of teachers reported participating in professional development, most of those teachers also reported that it was totally useless (Darling-Hammond,et al, 2009). Thus the real issue isn’t that teachers aren’t provided professional development, but that the typical offerings are ineffective at changing teacher’s practice or student learning.

I have been creating professional development programs related to Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 schools for the past 20 years, and what I have observed is this: administrators seem to abandon almost everything they know about “effective approaches to learning” when it comes to teaching their own faculty and staff. The fundamentals of successful instruction are the same, whether the students are 12 or 40. Yet more often than not, approaches to professional development do not provide adequate time or sufficient support; they fail to invite active participation; they are not adequately tailored to the needs of the participants.

Here I reflect on CPE’s 5 Principles of Effective Professional Development and their relevance to Gender and Sexuality Diversity PD.

Professional Development Principle 1: The duration of professional development must be significant and ongoing to allow time for teachers to learn a new strategy and grapple with the implementation problem.

 There’s nothing particularly earthshattering about this assertion, yet I can count on one hand the number of schools I’ve encountered that devote a “significant” amount of attention to ongoing PD on the same subject over time. Yes, there is PD every year but each September brings a new focus. Last year we worked on leadership, and this year we are preparing for our accreditation review. Obviously there are many worthy professional development pursuits competing for TIME, which is indisputably the most limited resource of all. But there’s more at work here than the perennial struggle to fit everything into the school calendar.

I witness educators who have convinced themselves that because they possess any number of competencies and qualities (e.g. smart, well read, well trained, experienced, passionate, scholarly, gifted) they don’t require the same amount of instruction, practice and coaching that others need in order to learn. How can educators be so fundamentally off the mark when it comes to assessing their own learning needs? Particularly when the subject matter—gender and sexuality in the PreK-12 context— is new and disquieting to so many?

This skewed view of PD involves little bit of arrogance, a fair amount of bowing down to the-way-it’s-always-been-done, and a lot of rationalization that doing something is better than doing nothing.While I agree with this last contention, I also know that if schools grappled more honestly with the limitations of the one-workshop approach to Gender and Sexuality Diversity education, they would a) invest more time in quality programs, b) use that time more effectively and c) have more realistic expectations for outcomes.

NB: TIME is a factor in each of the 5 Principles of Effective Professional Development.

Professional Development Principle 2: There must be support for a teacher during the implementation stage that addresses the specific challenges of changing classroom practice.

After a PD workshop on Gender and Sexuality Diversity, participants are typically left on their own to figure out how to make use of new learning. Individual teachers may be excited to try something different, but there is little formal recognition that an “implementation stage” now exists and that in this stage, people need explicit, organized support. CPE states the obvious; Support at this stage helps teachers navigate the frustration that comes from using a new instructional method.

We would never send our students off with a new concept, new terminology or new skills and not offer assistance or follow-up to ensure that they were actually able to conduct the experiment, write the paper, do the problem set, or understand the theory in action. Yet it is rare when a school employs fundamental pedagogical practices when teaching adults. The only way to ensure that recently developed ideas and skills actually lead to better practice is to nurture that new learning with scaffolding, application, trial and error, inquiry, reflection, collaboration, review, repetition.

Time Factor: Teachers need sanctioned and protected time to reap the benefits of good pedagogy.

Professional Development Principle 3: Teacher’s initial exposure to a concept should not be passive, but rather should engage teachers through varied approaches so they can participate actively in making sense of new practice.

Any teacher worth her salt knows that getting students actively involved in the learning process is a cornerstone of efficacy, and this is no less true when the students are adults. However, there are some unique elements to consider when asking people to “get involved” in this particular topic. Teaching people about Gender and Sexuality Diversity presents unique challenges because the content, in addition to being complex, is highly personal. Exploring contemporary understandings of gender identity is not the same as mastering the latest Smart Board technology. Figuring out what to say when a student asks How can Angela have two dads? Where’s her mom? taps into deep personal, cultural, religious and professional values.

Helping teachers access and examine these value sets requires a fundamental level of safety. Exploring the role of gender and sexuality in schools is full of contradictions and ambiguity and politics and passionate opinions. Understandably these discussions create a lot of anxiety for educators. Not coincidentally the interactive components of PD programs are also the most exposing. If done well, there is no substitute for role-playing as a vehicle for learning. However, most people dread role-playing. No one likes to be on the spot and exposed; no one wants to say the wrong thing in front of colleagues. Yet is in the exposed, uncomfortable moments that we discover first-hand the skills or knowledge we are missing.

So, in addition to benefiting from the variety of interactive pedagogical approaches, people must feel safe enough in them to make the mistakes that are an inevitable part of learning.

Time Factor: Establishing safety in any working group takes time. Directing people into an experiential exercise without adequate preparation and clarification is a classic PD mistake. Too often, in the service of getting-right-down-to-it, contextualization and containment are sacrificed.

Professional Development Principle 4: Modeling has been found to be highly effective in helping teachers understand a new practice.

Finding a balance between showing people “how do to it” and letting them fumble around on their own is tricky. While there is a right way to conjugate a Spanish verb and an optimal approach to solving a geometry proof, there is nothing formulaic about addressing Gender and Sexuality Diversity. There are many right ways to challenge gender role stereotypes, talk with students about the use of sexualized slurs, or explore cultural and scientific constructions of identity. Part of the work for each teacher is finding an authentic approach that suits her professional responsibilities and unique instructional style.

Because the language of Gender and Sexuality Diversity is evolving, it is particularly important to model the use of terms that may have changed in meaning OR model the matter-of-fact use of words that may previously have been deemed inappropriate in a school setting. If a student asks, “What is a lesbian?” many teachers feel a rush of anxiety, fearing that the student is asking a “sexual” question.

“What is a lesbian?”
A lesbian is a woman who loves other women in a romantic way.  What makes you ask?

 “Is queer a bad word?”
That’s a great question because ‘queer’ is one of those words that has several definitions and some of those definitions have changed over time. It depends a lot on how queer is being used. Do you have an example?

Teachers frequently tell me that watching and hearing someone demonstrate these kinds of interactions with students is enormously helpful.

Time Factor: In order for modeling to be effective, participants must have an adequate understanding of the terms and concepts being demonstrated! You can’t begin with show-me-how. You must start with what-are-we-actually-talking-about. This takes time.

Professional Development Principle 5: The content presented to teachers shouldn’t be generic, but instead specific to the discipline (for middle school and high school teachers) or grade-level (for elementary school teachers)

The most compelling word in Principle 5 is generic. Formulaic, canned, prefab, set-piece. Teachers need contextualized, personalized PD that meets them where they are. When educators call to inquire about my services, I encourage them to begin by telling me about the school, the teachers, their community. Tell me who you are and what you need help with. While the Gender and Sexuality Diversity content may be the same across schools, points of emphasis and relevance vary. The age of students matters. The geographical location of the school matters. The particular educational mission of the school must be a primary reference point. Truly effective PD requires this kind of assessment.

Time Factor: A good assessment on the front end may take a bit more time but it is critical to successful outcomes.

No rocket science here. Just time-honored pedagogical practices that apply to professional development for PreK-12 teachers. Let me know about your own experiences with PD, what has been helpful and what has not. Do these 5 principles hold true?









Welcome to the Team Finch Blog

Welcome to the Team Finch Blog (TFB). This is a place to engage with ideas and questions that relate directly or loosely to issues of sex, gender and sexuality in PreK-12 education. TFB is an educational exploration of the methods and values that allow students to learn and thrive in safe school environments. This is a forum for framing dilemmas, posing questions and sharing what works. You will find discussions of relevant news, reviews of educational books and films, teaching strategies and more.

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Educators face pedagogical and philosophical dilemmas every day in the classroom, on the playground, during athletics— basically in every corner of school life. Consultation, Please will be a regular feature of TFB. Share your question and describe your situation; I will do my best to offer guidance. With your permission, I will share this consultation on TFB.

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