A young boy raises his hand to answer his teacher’s question. (iStock)

It’s no secret that teachers don’t get enough quality professional development — or even the kinds of development — that can help them grow as educators.

That has been a particular frustration to Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year who teaches high school English and creative writing. Lamb-Sinclair decided to do something about it, and this post explains what she did, why she did it, and the continuing problems of professional development that hinder teachers.

Lamb-Sinclair authors the www.beautifuljunkyard.com website, and is the founder and chief executive officer of Curio Learning, an educational technology company launching a platform for — you can probably guess this — teacher professional development.  (Her Twitter handle: @AshleyLambS)

By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

As I write this, sitting in the back corner of an evening lecture on customer discovery for startups, learning how to develop the business I have created, the creative writer in me studies the people in the room — mostly men, many middle aged and white. They huddle around the lukewarm pizza and sodas in the corner, meander back to their seats, work on their phones, and make small talk with each other. These are people who want to build businesses. They are aspiring and working entrepreneurs. I feel like an alien in this room; the creative writing teacher wearing sandals and big earrings among suited businessmen with jargon like “minimum viable product” in their heads. These men might look at me and wonder why I’m here, and more frustratingly, when I go back to my “real job” tomorrow to teach reading and writing to high school students, my colleagues in the world of education might wonder too.

I came to be in this room because I dared to solve a problem in education — professional development. Most teachers I know do not like professional development. Actually, many of us hate it. So when I was presented with the opportunity to help solve the problem of professional development by a startup organization called Redesign Challenge (now known as Sevenzo) and asked to present a solution, I realized that teachers hate professional development because it so often takes us away from all the ways that we are working to be better professionals in the first place. 

So my solution was an anti-solution. I was invited to Innovator’s Weekend (like Startup Weekend for educators) in Washington D.C., where I developed the idea through a design-thinking process, created a prototype, and began a journey to build an app and business called Curio Learning.

So why does my journey matter?

A colleague of mine says all the time, “If you want to do something for teachers, give them more time.” She’s right. There is never enough time to be all that we have to be. And yet, as we teachers learn more and more every day about our craft, the world is changing.

Our students are changing, and what is expected of them as they enter adulthood is changing. We have to teach 21st century skills to students who will most likely have jobs that do not yet exist. We teachers know this; we hear it all the time and we live the realities of it. And we are doing the best we can — the best that anyone can — to prepare our students for that future.

But, truth be told, most of us — not all, but most — are academics. In my case, I have been teaching since I was 22 years old. I have only ever been in school, as either a student or a teacher. My experiences as a member of the workforce are generally limited to a classroom, with the exception of a stint here and there serving in restaurants. For the majority of my students who will not become educators or work in academia, in many ways I am ill-equipped to prepare them for those experiences. Teachers need opportunities to learn to effectively teach these skills.

Yet, the data tell a different story. Millennials make up 40 percent of the unemployed in the United States and it isn’t for lack of jobs. In fact, 1 in 5 employers can’t fill positions because they can’t find candidates with the skills. And even more interestingly, when it comes to the business world, the feeling is mutual for millennials — they are more apt to go into entrepreneurship and marketing than traditional business roles. So if colleges aren’t preparing students for the jobs that students really want and for the employers who need to hire them, then K-12 schools must. But how can K-12 educators do that when many of us do not have the training ourselves?

So we’re back to the problem that led to my business venture in the first place — professional development. But traditional professional development, other than being generally terrible, is mostly related to pedagogy, strategies, or content — albeit valid needs for many teachers in order to grow in the craft of teaching, even if most implementation of this type of training is generally ineffective. But rarely do teachers have the opportunity to do what I am doing right now — learn from business leaders and entrepreneurs, another important part of our development to meet the needs of a changing student population, in addition to learning craft and pedagogy.

And even more rarely do teachers get the opportunity to become entrepreneurs themselves. We do not have the time, nor do administrators, districts, and departments of education tend to value the importance of such work.

Yet, so many educators, who are tasked with the actual implementation of policy, standards, and curriculum, work in isolation in schools and classrooms without ever being tasked as problem-solvers in education reform and innovation.

I’m not the only one of my educator colleagues who has embraced an entrepreneurial spirit in order to make changes in education. My friend and colleague, Shawn Sheehan, 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year and finalist for National Teacher of the Year, launched Teach Like Me to address the problem of teacher recruitment. A local teacher in my town, Andrea Diggs, launched Kids View Louisville to help students enroll in summer programs around the state; and the list could go on.

A lack of support around teachers who want to lead and innovate isn’t just a matter of losing opportunity, but a matter of untapped talent for students who need advocates and go-getters in their corner; educators who actually understand student needs and the complexities of the educational system.

In order to build my business, I am losing time from my own classroom. I stood in front of a room full of parents during open house and watched their faces contort into expressions of near panic when I told them the amount of time I would likely miss in order to do this work.

But then I saw some of their expressions shift again when I explained to them how my work had already enhanced their children’s learning. I told them that the day I had to miss school so my co-founder and I could pitch our startup, I slyly recorded our presentation with my phone in my pocket. As an English teacher, I teach students how to argue, to persuade, and how to present ideas in appealing ways to a target audience.

So this real-world example of their teacher doing the same thing they were required to do was priceless. The next day when I returned, I played the recording of our pitch for my students who evaluated me doing what I require them to do all year long. Then I assigned them a collaborative pitch project, which they happily pounced on because I had proven it a worthy task by showing them how such skills translate to an authentic setting outside of school.

Instead of being the “sage on the stage” lecturing about why my students needed to learn a skill, I suddenly became a co-learner who was taking the same risks they would have to take down the road and giving them a safe place to experiment based on my own trial and error. I am teaching them to be leaders and lifelong learners through my own actions and willingness to use my experience in the classroom.

And here are the things I don’t hear from students now: How is this relevant to the real world? When will I ever use this? How do you know what I will need? Because they have concrete examples of how our work in the classroom is relevant and why I am the person to teach them how to do it.

Of course, not every teacher wants to run a business or build apps, but most teachers I know became teachers because they love kids and they love to learn. Yet, the system is not set up to support authentic and innovative learning opportunities for teachers because there is a perception that if teachers are not in a classroom in front of students, then they are not doing their job.

And the perception is a two-way street, by the way. Generally the belief is that if students are not seated in desks in a traditional classroom during mandated school day hours, then they aren’t really learning either. Yet, there are experiences outside school walls that could benefit both teachers and students.

The unfortunate part of this conversation is that now it might not even be a conversation at all. If President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal is approved by Congtress, Title II funding, which contributes to teacher prep and ongoing professional development, will be completely cut in 2018. Although the state of professional development is not necessarily a pretty picture, ongoing quality, authentic, and effective learning opportunities for future and current teachers will always be a necessary and worthy pursuit.

Maybe the conversations that policymakers, administrators, and education organizations should be having are how to provide better opportunities and incentives for teachers to be learners, advocates, innovators, and creators, so we can teach our students how to do the same. I know from experience how those skills could be the ones that really matter in a future world that values innovation.