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Teacher in a Strange Land: The War Against Icebreakers

Best Twitter–is it still Twitter, considering its ugly new Maga-X logo?—thread of the day: A war on icebreakers in upcoming professional development for teachers. The things people report being asked to do range from silly to downright demeaning.

Icebreakers from my own pantheon: Building structures with toothpicks and marshmallows. Holding hands and forming human knots. Lining staff up by length of service to the district. Trust falls. Any number of exercises using chart paper, balls of colored yarn and/or stick-on dots. Also—looking into each others’ eyes for 30 seconds, not breaking eye contact, which was weirdly moving and also kind of creepy.

Once, at the beginning of two days of pre-school year PD, we watched a cool and interesting short video about school climates, and how to determine what individual schools or districts genuinely value, vs. what they say is their mission.

Video asks: How often does the entire school get together—and for what purposes?

Me, in post-video discussion: Our first three scheduled assemblies are the one where we read and discuss the school rules, the fund-raiser assembly where kids are offered prizes for sales to provide basic instructional supplies, and the fall sports assembly. What does that say about our values?


(Later, he sent me an email expressing his anger that I would suggest our collective values are skewed. Which wasn’t precisely true. As a group, I think the staff did have positive values around the students and teaching, and a collaborative spirit, which are all you can ask for, really. Even if we weren’t demonstrating those in routine assemblies.)

In his oldie-but-goodie post “Thirteen Deadly Sins of PD,” Peter Green runs down, more ruthlessly and amusingly than I, the Big Errors PD presenters make. Lame icebreakers for people who already know each other barely gets a mention.  

I actually think there is value in getting the staff together to explore and improve the work they’re doing. And I say this as a music teacher who underwent countless reading-across-the-curriculum and how-our-new-math-series-applies-to-you workshops. There’s value in talk between people who teach the same kids, even if their disciplinary content or instructional practices are different. There’s even value in one of the simplest icebreakers I remember: Taking short walks around the building or outdoors, with a staff member you didn’t know well.

Here’s an exercise I used to use in workshops around Teacher Leadership: draw a teacher leader.

This draw-a-leader technique was one I used, many times, in workshops around teacher leadership, for diverse audiences. I can testify that if you want to clear a room of school administrators, who suddenly have to step out in the hallway for an ‘emergency’ call, start passing out chart paper, crayons and markers, and ask them to draw something.

The Twitter thread notes, repeatedly and vehemently, that exercises in a professional learning session should always be tied to the PD topic presented.  Every veteran presenter knows that turn/talk time, including the ubiquitous practice of sharing notes around new content or a provocative question, runs past the time allotted. People like to talk to each other—or, at least, are willing to listen to what their colleagues say, a break from being lectured.

When staff members talk to each other, it’s a kind of baseline for reflective practice, a low-risk chance to express opinion, share experiences and ask questions. But there’s an underlying fear that teachers are somehow cheating when they teach or enlighten each other, or take the time to argue about the essential nature of their work.  I can’t fully explain this, but I think it’s rooted in hierarchies and the growing, media-fed dismissal of teaching as a true profession.

As Peter Greene notes, at the very least, professional development sessions can hammer home what NOT to do in your own classroom. Anne Lutz Fernandez, in an excellent piece on the teaching crisis, says:

It’s worth noting that teachers have long found the professional development they are offered to be wanting. The report admits that some school leaders “struggled to find and hire high-quality professional learning providers” and “were quite disappointed in the quality of support they received from vendors.” This isn’t new. Back in 2014, the Gates Foundation found only 3 out of 10 teachers were satisfied with their PD.

There’s work to be done, clearly. Here’s one of my own PD failures:

For several terms, I taught an online graduate course on teachers and policy. The teachers who participated frequently did not know each other; sometimes, they came from across a state or across the country. And—just as in a K-12 classroom—not much happens until folks feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. Although the course eventually had Zoom-type meetings, the on-line structure meant self-introductions, shared writing, and conversation threads. Virtual icebreakers.

The first of these asked course participants to share a book about education that was meaningful to them. This turned out to be Not a Great Icebreaker. Many people finally confessed they’d never read a book on education, except for assigned readings in college or grad school. Or—one person would share a book, and the next half-dozen would say “Oh, yeah, I read that, too,” which is a better answer than “I can’t remember any books about education that ever changed my thinking.”

When revising the course, we changed that icebreaker to: Share a link (book, article, cartoon, meme) that illustrates how you understand the education landscape right now. We thought perhaps full-blown books were a heavy lift for practicing educators.

Also not a great icebreaker.

 A couple of people posted things, couched in disclaimers—”I’m probably the only one who thinks this, but…” or excuses “This is all I could find. Is this OK?” And lots of people were unwilling to stick a toe into the conversation. They would tell you their name, what and where they teach—but digging deep into education policy and practice issues with people you don’t know well turns out to be intimidating.

Maybe it’s the Twitter (X) effect: Short and sassy wins the day. Keep your real values close.  Or maybe teachers don’t have enough time to really think about the incredible responsibilities of the work they do. Or maybe it’s the fear that professional learning doesn’t require a workshop or novel content—but happens most effectively when you have B lunch with a couple of sharp colleagues whose ideas you trust.


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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...