Head Versus Heart in Educator Professional Development

Written By Maddy Boesen, M.A.

In my work evaluating teacher professional development, I’ve seen a lot of variation in the ways my trainer colleagues envision the processes by which schools are transformed. What do educators need to learn to do to in order to create better school environments? How many of them need to learn it? Should participants include both administrators and teachers? Support staff? Students themselves?

There are three main areas of change that evaluators like me can use to assess training programs’ impacts on participants, regardless of the parameters of the specific training: participant knowledge, participant beliefs and attitudes, and participant behaviors. For example, a training could increase teachers’ knowledge about their students who come from cultural identities different from their own, leading to changing their interpretations of or attitudes toward those students, finally resulting in changes in classroom praxis to better respond to student cultures.

The first twist in this pathway, of course, is that educators participating in professional development and the folks who run them navigate the process of school transformation through their own identity lenses. Not every educator’s path can look the same. It’s intuitive that Black teachers and White teachers are likely to have overall different levels of knowledge and empathy about the experiences of Black students in school, requiring some differentiated instruction techniques on the part of my colleagues who run professional development on racial justice issues in schools. Still, the goal is for school staff to be on the same culturally responsive page.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the second twist in this school transformation pathway, and whether it can even be called a pathway. When we step back, there are complex constrictions on the ways we school transformers must approach our work, depending on the identity issues we address. In my past work evaluating professional development lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) issues in schools, it was not just that my colleagues could not take it as a given that some educators would have lower levels of empathy for LGBTQ students than others; for some participants of certain religious backgrounds, empathy was a non-starter.

As a result, those sessions had to create an alternative pathway to bypass knowledge and belief as stepping stones to supportive actions. For educators unmoved by an emotional argument, the strategy became cognitive: regardless of personal beliefs or feelings, the LGBTQ-inclusion strategies could be presented as about increasing student performance.

That bypass frustrated me at the time: why couldn’t we change every teacher’s heart? What does it mean for this professional development work to be merely about “doing your job” for some teachers? Pulling out the foundation of empathy violated the program’s theory of change.

More recently, I heard a curious response from a White teacher who was challenged on some less-than-empathic attitudes she had towards her Black students. She said, “Oh, I was in a training where we talked about stuff like that! It was life changing!”

I have no idea what that teacher’s training was like or why she was initially unable to access empathy in that moment, and her comments loom over my evaluation practice now. Training individuals with the end goal of changing a system is a monumental undertaking to begin with, so what strategies will really work in the long term? When teachers return to the entrenched systems of bias in their schools, does a heart full of empathy or a head full directives work better to improve the lives of students? What do trainers have to leverage differently depending on educators’ identities?

I’m not sure we know the answers to these questions, but we learn a little more with every evaluation.