How many things constantly teeter between the vitally important and the terribly tedious? Medicals, tax returns and marriage, I guess, but little else. Except, of course, continuing professional development.
A journalist's idea of CPD is to replace the ink in the printer. Teachers, however, are far more adult about the whole thing. Most can determine, just by looking at their students, that learning is an endless quest. The thirst for knowledge is never slaked, as the legends declare on the mugs of the more earnest members of staff. And if that's true for students, it's equally the case for teachers: the art and practice of teaching is continually developing.
International study after study confirms that school systems that encourage and invest in effective CPD and that spread best practice outperform their peers. Some pay teachers to devote hundreds of hours to the accumulation and application of professional knowledge. Some require them to pay for it themselves, and others, such as the UK's, formally demand little after the first couple of years of teaching.
Regardless of the statutory requirements, however, demand is growing as individuals and schools recognise CPD's potential. Most of the teaching unions, for example, have found that offering comprehensive professional development courses is one of their most effective recruitment tools. The increasing web traffic to advice and blogs, not least on the TES Connect website, is testament to this thirst for self-improvement.
Unfortunately, it seems that this enthusiasm for CPD has much in common with dieting: there is an awful lot of quackery and duff advice out there. Horror stories abound of teachers being flown to Florida by credulous management, for instance, where they are herded into seminars and encouraged to whoop and click their fingers at inappropriate moments. They meet interesting people, get a great tan but somehow fail to improve their teaching.
Most of this stuff isn't fraudulent; it's just misguided, totally ineffective and deadly dull. But how do you tell the good from the bad? What will help you to sniff out the teaching equivalent of snake oil?
David Weston has identified some of the most common transgressions in his seven sins of CPD (pages 38-39). Avoid tedious after-work sessions that only require teachers to be passive recipients, he advises. Don't be bamboozled by pseudoscientific concepts that sound impressive but don't actually work or are easily misunderstood and misapplied. Don't gorge yourself on too many new ideas: learn to say "no" if the concept seems inappropriate or there isn't time to evaluate and embed it. Don't pursue new ideas by yourself: share, discuss and collaborate. Don't waste time changing the observable practice of teachers and neglecting the learning needs of students. Don't superficially get the hang of an idea without understanding its core and context. And don't allow your enthusiasm for a new concept to sweep away any semblance of objectivity and critical evaluation.
Of course, the avoidance of CPD sin is like the real-world variety: by itself it won't make you good, just less bad. But it is a start. And in the confusing blizzard of initiatives, every little helps.