Opinion
Professional Development Opinion

Here’s a Way Forward With Challenging Students

Giving teachers a chance to use their expertise can have stellar results
By Bryan Mascio & Hunter Gehlbach — September 07, 2022 4 min read
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Teachers are working hard to do right by their students, but these last couple years have been tough.

When surveyed by the federal Institute of Education Sciences earlier this year, teachers weren’t feeling great about whether their schools have been providing students what they need—89 percent were concerned about their students’ academic needs, and the vast majority also worried about students’ social, emotional, and mental health. Schools, in turn, are worried about their teachers, especially that they are burning out—the top concern about staffing all across the country.

So how do we support teachers in providing for their students in need without contributing to the burnout and demoralization that they are already suffering from? We tried one approach we found promising.

First, let’s distinguish between burnout and demoralization—because the difference is important. Burnout is about a depletion of energy: Teachers have no gas left in the tank. Demoralization is the discontent a dedicated teacher feels when their professionalism and autonomy are undermined, especially when that prevents them from doing right by their students.

When we support teachers through professional learning opportunities, we need to be sensitive to both burnout and demoralization. To avoid burnout, professional development should be efficient with teachers’ time and address issues that drain their energy. To avoid demoralization, professional development needs to empower teachers in ways that reinforce their professional autonomy.

In a recent study, a randomized controlled trial with 105 teachers, the two of us, along with co-author Joe McIntyre of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, examined a brief teacher professional development workshop that helps teachers better connect with and teach their most challenging, energy-depleting students. At the same time, the workshop takes a philosophical stance that respects teacher expertise and professionalism.

In the workshop, each teacher identified a student that they found particularly vexing and perplexing to work with. Anyone who has taught knows that a handful of students tend to account for an outsized portion of the teacher’s frustrations and energy expenditure. Improving how teachers feel about those relationships while also improving those students’ learning can go a long way in refueling a teacher’s energy.

Anyone who has taught knows that a handful of students tend to account for an outsized portion of the teacher’s frustrations and energy expenditure.

During the 90-minute workshop, we asked teachers to reexamine difficult situations with that student and pose questions about why the student behaved as they did, resisting the pressure to jump to conclusions. By the end, each teacher (with help from a partner) had created their own individualized “next steps” to better understand their student’s frustrating behavior. Teachers weren’t told how to handle problems; rather, they were encouraged to come up with strategies that would work for them in this specific situation. Teachers were also equipped to use this easily replicated process in future situations as they find it useful.

Ultimately, these teachers felt better about the students who they had previously identified as being challenging to understand, even months later, when compared with control teachers who weren’t part of the workshop. In turn, these students felt better about their relationships with those teachers. Finally, the intervention resulted in students of these teachers performing better academically.

Most teachers and administrators will tell you it is rare for teacher professional development to make this kind of difference. How did a light-lift workshop do it? How?

Making efficient use of teachers’ time, while addressing areas that are depleting their energy is a great place to start because burnout is a real concern. But how we position teachers and their expertise is just as important to avoid demoralization, so professional development must also treat teachers as respected professionals.

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Other well-regarded professional development offerings use and enhance teacher expertise, allowing schools to resist the temptation to rely on scripted curriculum and programs that diminish teachers’ professional decisionmaking. Two good examples Bryan knows from his work in New Hampshire are Universal Design for Learning, which helps teachers be more inclusive in their pedagogy, and Collaborative and Proactive Solutions, which helps teachers respond more effectively to concerning student behaviors.

When the COVID pandemic first struck, teachers across the state who had been part of a Universal Design for Learning network found themselves well-prepared and supported when facing the unprecedented challenges. And last year, as schools got ready to return in the midst of the pandemic, some identified a combination of UDL and CPS as being key for them to operate from a stance of hope.

UDL and CPS, though, are not light-lift endeavors. They work best when used on a systems level; they require considerable time to introduce. Schools that aren’t quite up for that yet can turn to small professional development opportunities that still treat teachers as experts in their own rights rather than problems that need to be fixed.

Like these other professionalizing kinds of learning activities, in our study, we didn’t dictate what teachers should do. In our workshop, we provided an experience and a tool to teachers that would empower them to make their own professional decisions. Teachers know their context and their students far better than any outside specialist, and navigating individual students’ complex needs will require their professional autonomy.

There are no quick and easy solutions to teacher burnout or demoralization, just as there are no quick and easy fixes to improve student learning or well-being. But even small steps—if they’re the right steps—can make a big difference.

Teachers want to do right by their students. And now more than ever, we need to provide them the professional learning opportunities and supports that empower them to do so.

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