A Flawed Approach to Supporting Teacher Learning: ‘Cruel Optimism’

Professional Learning Requires Collaboration and Systemic Support

I underline sentences and write in the margins when I read something that resonates with me. But recently, in a book I’m reading, I double-underlined and circled the phrase “cruel optimism.” When I saw that phrase, I flashed on things I’ve seen and heard working with schools and districts to support teacher professional learning, specifically the idea of “just-in-time” professional learning.

I bet you have some questions: What book was I reading? And how does it relate to some types of teachers’ professional learning? I’ll explain.

I was reading Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again. At the start of a new year, getting control of my social media consumption seems like a good goal for 2024.

The author, Johann Hari, describes various strategies that he tried to help him spend less time idling and more time writing. He interviewed experts in human attention, some of whom recommended more self-disciplined work strategies. One of the experts introduced him to the idea of “cruel optimism,” a phrase originally coined by a historian, Lauren Berlant.

‘Simplistic Solutions’ That Undermine Teacher Learning

Hari says cruel optimism is “when you take a really big problem with deep causes in our culture—like obesity or depression, or addiction—and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution.” Hari realized that he was using piecemeal strategies to improve his attention span when what he needed was a systemic solution that involved the underlying designs of websites and apps, which is beyond his control as an individual consumer. 

So how does that relate to teacher professional learning? Too often, we treat teacher learning as an individual responsibility or endeavor. And it is cruel—or at least naïve— to think that individuals working alone can surmount the systemic challenge of supporting teacher professional learning. 

Some of the professional learning experiences we provide for teachers seem to be created on the assumption that they’ll be consumed quickly and alone. 

In this TikTok era, we unquestioningly accept the notion of breaking learning down into bite-sized pieces. We talk about “just-in-time” professional development not only to meet specific, time-sensitive teacher needs, but to give teachers access to those materials anywhere, anytime. We make short videos that teachers can watch on their phones while standing in line at the grocery store. We condense ideas into a few paragraphs so they’re easy to read while waiting for the kettle to boil. We record 10-minute podcasts about complex ideas so teachers can listen while out for a walk. 

Walking The Talk on Teacher Learning

I understand why we’ve come to this point: life moves quickly, teachers are insanely busy, school and district resources are stretched, and everyone’s used to doing things in tidbits on their phones. But we accept this model of teacher learning at our peril. 

We talk about wanting to enable deeper student learning through rich, authentic tasks that encourage peer collaboration and feedback. To walk that talk, we need to adopt similar models for teacher learning. Likewise, important ideas about culturally responsive learning and ambitious teaching cannot be condensed into 250 words or a three-minute video.

Teachers also need opportunities to learn together, to figure out how new ideas apply in their unique contexts, to try out what they are learning, to reflect on initial implementations, get feedback from peers, and to revise and adjust. This is hard work and requires a systemic approach. Expecting teachers to do it alone is not just unrealistic; it’s cruel. School and district systems need to change.

So how do we shift from thinking about teacher learning as a quick, individual endeavor to a deeper and more collaborative perspective?

What District Leaders Can Do to Support Teachers’ Professional Learning

I urge district leaders to investigate ways to provide additional collaborative learning time during the workday for teachers. Periodic late starts or early release days for students or releasing teachers occasionally from duties such as lunchroom monitoring can give teachers time to engage in purposeful learning in grade-level teams or departments over the course of a year. One district that I work with has realized that starting instruction five minutes earlier every day allows them to send students home early once a month so teachers can meet for professional learning.

District leaders can also provide funding for substitute teachers so teachers can observe or support instruction in their colleagues’ classrooms (yes, I recognize that it’s tough to find subs). This strategy could help teachers get feedback on new classroom practices they’re trying out, enable them to model a strategy for another teacher, or support co-teaching.

School Leaders’ Role In Supporting Teacher Learning

What if all schools had climates that were conducive to teacher learning, inquiry, and practice? School leaders are instrumental in building these climates. Just as we want teachers to create classrooms where students feel safe to make and learn from mistakes and to share current thinking, even if it’s not yet fully developed, we need principals and other school leaders to support teachers in their learning journeys.

That support can take the form of encouraging teachers to try new approaches, facilitating their collaboration, and engaging in supportive conversation about new learning. School leaders should also be open and honest about their own learning needs to model a learning mindset for their teachers.

Principals could also fill in for a teacher so she could observe a colleague if a substitute teacher is not available. In two schools I work with, the principals free up teachers every other month for 90 minutes so they can meet in grade-band groups for professional learning.

Substitute teachers cover the K-2 classes first thing in the morning, then the grade 3 and 4 classes, and then the grade 5 and 6 classes in the afternoon. The principals also use substitutes to allow teachers to conduct classroom walk-throughs so they can observe how others are implementing the professional learning. This enables successful strategies to spread more quickly.

Advocacy: A Key Strategy for Teachers in Their Own Learning

Teachers must advocate for the kind of support they need to be effective learners. The research is clear: Teacher professional learning is most effective when it includes ongoing, collaborative opportunities for learning that’s grounded in content and curriculum; opportunities to try out new ideas, reflect, receive feedback, and revise implementation.

Teachers need to be active participants in their own learning and need to ask for learning opportunities that will be effective. Bite-sized, just-in-time professional learning is sometimes promoted as an alternative to traditional professional development, where teachers come together for a single day in a school auditorium to listen to an outside presenter. But this is a false dichotomy. And neither is a good choice.

There are many ways to provide effective professional learning that lie between lectures in the school auditorium and reductive, quick bursts of content that teachers consume alone, on the run between other activities.

Professional learning is hard and time-consuming work, and it should be a part of every educator’s regular work. Acting like we can shortcut this process is just setting teachers up for failure—cruel optimism.

Can we do better? Yes. When we support collaborative teacher learning that is built right into the school day, following research-based practices, the payoff is rich. Systemic change and investment in supported teacher learning can improve teachers’ attitudes, effectiveness, and retention.