Originally published in educational Horizons, Fall 1991, 5-6

How Not To Develop Staff
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

reedited 9/22/13

See also, Mission, Vision & Delusion


As a classroom teacher for over 27 years in the public schools of Philadelphia I was invited in 1985 to submit articles regularly to educational Horizons , a professional journal in education, from that vantage point. The column would be called "From the Trenches." The perspective was to be that of the classroom teacher who faced not only an average load of 100 or more students a day, but who inevitably was expected to "make things happen" when educational brainstorms washed down to terra firma.

It is unfortunate that the expression "from the trenches" seems so apt to describe reports on the daily life of so many classroom teachers. But even in the most "demilitarized zones" of education, teachers often feel put upon so far as their professional vision and judgment is concerned. When, for example, someone is identified in a public forum as an "educational expert" it is rarely the case that that person is a classroom teacher. Indeed, schooling, unlike law, medicine or war, is one of the few endeavors in which practitioners and experts are perceived to be so different. Were it not for the rewards of helping children through the exercise of our pedagogical craft, for many teachers life in "the trenches" would be hardly worth suffering its risks.

One such risk of is that of being importuned by "experts." This is called "staff development" and is widely regarded to be the civilized approach to curing teacher discontent. I remarked to a colleague at a staff development session recently that it was well done. "Yes." she replied. "This one was fine. But why do we have to sit through five hours of garbage just to get one hour of value?" Why, indeed?

An acquaintance of mine makes big bucks lecturing on the corporate management circuit. He is brought in to tell managers how research indicates that democratizing certain aspects of the workplace increases morale and productivity and to show them how to do it. I once asked him how effective he thought his sessions were. He replied that participants really seemed to enjoy them. However, company directors seldom permitted implementation of problem solutions brainstormed in the staff development sessions. Why is that? I asked. He wasn't really sure. The few times he asked he was told -- very privately, of course -- that upper management did not care to disperse power because they needed to feel they were in control.

I was invited by a school district superintendent to design a program of staff development for a group of teachers who had been complaining bitterly for years at the irrelevance and boredom of previous programs. I thought I might avoid these problems by soliciting their suggestions and I worked up a program proposal around them. The suggestions were far from frivolous, e.g. "How can we deal with students awaiting preliminary Court hearing for serious offenses who are assigned in the interim to our schools so as to reduce the frequency of serious offenses they commit during the wait?" My proposal was rejected with the explanation that the sessions proposed would raise issues that were likely matters of board policy and thus not within the prerogative of teachers or administrators to discuss.

At a staff development session I attended some years ago, a staff development consultant --Mr. Rogers, let us call him-- invited the assembled department heads to raise any issue whatsoever for discussion and problem solving. His face radiated eager anticipation. Our soon-to-be-retired home economics teacher, Mrs. Jones, then pulled a skeleton out of our school closet. She asked, "Why does our principal assure us at every faculty meeting he is behind us all the way in matters of discipline, yet fail to support us when actual trouble occurs?" There was a moment of awkward silence and suppressed chuckles. Mr. Rogers' face went blank as if nothing had yet transpired. Then he turned away from Mrs. Jones and addressed another teacher. "What problem do you think is important?" he said with beaming smile. The topic was changed. I remonstrated with Mr. Rogers later in private for deliberately ignoring Mrs. Jones and dodging an important question. He replied, "Look. I'm here for three sessions and I can't afford to open any cans of worms I can't close before I leave. I'm not going to get consultancies if the principals who pay me spread it around that I left them facing an angry staff."

One more anecdote and we can make an important generalization. I know a consultant who makes his living by being what he calls a "lightning rod." He is hired to make decisions that are well within the capability of regular staff but which may have organizational repercussions no one wants to live with. If his suggestions work out right, the people who hired him take the credit. If the suggestions fail, he takes the blame, and no one else suffers.

Staff development serves not only the usually minor purpose of raising staff skill levels, but more frequently, of preserving the school as a top-down-controlled factory. The principles of managing such a school were articulated in 1913 by John Franklin Bobbitt in an article titled, "The Supervision of City Schools: Some General Principles of Management Applied to the Problems of City School Systems" (Twelth NSSE Yearbook),

"...the management must determine the order and sequence of all the various processes through which the raw material or the partially developed product shall pass, in order to bring about the greatest possible effectiveness and economy."
The message is clear if not forthrightly asserted: teachers are mere cogs in this vast machine and must remain so.

In almost every city across the country, strong voices are heard which tell us that the top-down-controlled-factory model of the school is outmoded. Yet in some of those very places where such things as site-based-management is vaunted, the organizational practices which support the old model continue unquestioned. It is time to examine them. We might just improve staff development programs in the process. Or else develop the clarity of mind -- and screw up the courage -- to discard them.