Leading Professional Development

Traditionally, and all too often, professional development sessions have been designed and facilitated in a top-down manner. District and building leaders identify areas of focus, sometimes with little input from teachers, and design sit-and-get sessions for teachers to “learn” so they can improve their practice. There are several flaws with this traditional model, including a lack of learner input, engagement, monitoring & measurement, and follow-up. In this model, there is an overall lack of ownership over one’s learning. This has led to tons of criticisms and jokes from teachers. My favorite was one comment I heard from a co-worker when I was still teaching. While leaving a PD session, he said to me, “That was just like Chinese food, it went right through me.” Personally, I thought that was an insult. But to Chinese food, not the PD session. His assessment of that, I felt, was accurate.

@PrincipalMKelly (1)

As a building leader for the past six years, I have tried to balance professional development that is focused on district and building goals, with personalized learning opportunities. Balancing building goals with personalized learning is an ongoing challenge when designing professional development. To try and personalize PD, our school has facilitated teacher led, #EdCamp style PD sessions, and administered surveys to identify areas in which teachers wanted to learn. In addition, our School Instructional Leadership Team (SILT), which is made up of about 15 teachers and building administrators, meet monthly to discuss and design building PD. However, I must admit that as the building principal, over the past few years I have identified certain areas that I felt our school needed to improve, such as grading and assessment. As a result, some of our building PD topics have followed a more “top-down” approach. This is where the challenge of balance comes in.

Looking forward into next year, my assistant principal, @MurphysMusings5,  and I discussed whether there were any glaring areas of improvement in need of building-wide professional development sessions, which were not already being addressed through department work. We both felt our building was in a good place, and there was no single-topic that required PD for all teachers. As a result, we began to discuss next steps for our building professional development. From our discussion came the idea of Learning Pathways.

We met with our SILT and discussed the idea of creating several learning pathways (topics), which teachers could choose from to focus their professional learning. Our SILT brainstormed about twenty possible learning pathways and our plan is to allow teachers to select their pathway, or create their own. During our meeting, we discussed the idea and importance of collaboration. Rather than having individuals follow their own path, we felt it was important for teachers to work in groups of 6-8, so they could benefit from a collaborative learning experience. This is where more balance was needed, between personalized and collaborative learning.

Our idea is that teachers will work in groups on their learning pathway, design their own goals, share leadership and facilitation responsibilities, and guide their own learning. This will empower teachers as leaders within our school. As administrators, we will participate in one of the learning pathways, while providing coaching and resource support to teachers in other pathways. In our school, we are very lucky to have a tremendous group of teacher leaders, which makes it easy to put our trust in their leadership. 

We hope our plan for creating a personalized Learning Pathway PD model, with a focus on collaborative learning, will be a success. In future posts, I plan to share updates on our growth and progress.

Has your school ever tried a similar professional development approach? Was it a success? What feedback do you have on the ideas I have shared in this post?

 

Making School Culture Our Focus

I have attended a few different conferences, workshops and EdCamps lately where I have been introduced to an amazing amount of ideas and strategies related to instruction, technology and innovation. These sessions have been inspiring and excellent educational learning experiences. However, an underlying tone that has existed in some of the sessions I’ve attended has related to school culture. In technology sessions I’ve heard concerns about trust and support. In curriculum or instruction sessions I’ve heard teachers express concern about not feeling safe to take risks or not having autonomy in their classroom to try new things. These concerns relate back to school culture.

If we do not focus on a positive school culture first, attempts to lead change or incorporate innovative ideas and technology become that much more difficult, if not impossible. There are too many schools that constantly shove new initiatives and ideas onto teachers while simultaneously destroying the culture of the school. School leaders are so caught up with doing what they feel is urgent, like incorporating the latest tech, or introducing new programs to address test scores, they miss what is important and crucial, which is school culture. As leaders, we need to get our school culture in a good place before trying to lead change in other areas. Admittedly, I have not always been perfect in this area, and have learned a lot through my failures and experiences as a leader. However, I have seen the positive effects of making school culture a central focus (see my previous post). The challenge for me has been maintaining a balance between keeping school culture a central focus, but at the same time, incorporating some new ideas and strategies.

So why isn’t there more of a focus on school culture?

At conferences and EdCamps, why are there dozens of PD sessions on the latest Apps and Google tools (all of which are awesome), but little to no sessions or focus on school culture? I was recently asked by a participant in a school culture session I facilitated “How much of your administrative coursework was focused on building school culture?” My honest answer was “ZERO!” I am certain there are institutions and programs that address school culture, but how many make it a focus? How many programs communicate to leaders that building a positive school culture is the key to school improvement? We need to see more sessions at EdCamps, conferences and professional development sessions that focus on how teachers and leaders can build a positive school culture. We need more teacher and administrator preparation programs make school culture a central focus.

In Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert’s book School Culture Rewired, they write “Culture represents the unwritten mission of the school – it tells students and staff why they are there” (pg. 30). School culture is the central component of a school, it exists in some form – good or bad, and impacts everything within a school. We need leaders at the district and building levels to make improving school culture a top priority.

A School Where Teachers Want to Work

“What makes a school a place where teachers want to work?” We posed this question to our faculty three years ago. The feedback we received was the catalyst for changes that would improve our school culture. To be completely transparent, the school I serve in has a history of success and good culture, so the changes we’ve made are not worthy of a complete “school turnaround” story. However, I do think they moved the needle into greatness.

The Survey

One of my goals is to help make a school where teachers want to work. When we surveyed our faculty with this one open-ended question, we received a long list of things that varied from very specific complaints (sometimes harsh and hard to read) to broad areas needing improvement. However, we were able to take this long list of feedback and classify it into the following seven categories:

  • Great Teachers
  • Great Students
  • Support
  • Staff Culture
  • Good Communication
  • Awareness of Student Needs
  • Shared Decision Making

The Follow Up

What we did next, I feel, was the most successful decision. We shared these categories, with all the feedback classified under them, with the faculty. We divided them into groups and asked them to help us develop solutions. Essentially, instead of a group of administrators sitting in a room and stressing over how “to fix” all these things, we asked the faculty to help us make improvements for the school. We took a risk and asked them to take ownership of the improvements. The results were outstanding!

Each group of teachers came up with a list of practical solutions to improve the school in all categories. They asked to classify committees, define their purpose, and improve the way they communicate their work to the rest of the school. They asked for improved communication of meetings, agendas, and professional development. They asked to be included in more building decisions and came up with ideas to ensure this happened. They suggested ways to increase support for our fast-growing population of students with special needs. They asked for more recognition of all staff members. The group’s solutions were specific and realistic. The staff was empowered to take complete ownership and leadership to improve our school.

The Follow Through

We immediately made some easy, practical changes. We also set the ball in motion to make some changes that would take a lot longer, such as developing new ways to include faculty members in leading professional development sessions (This year over 30% of faculty did so). Each year, we’ve made changes and have continued to survey our teachers, asking the faculty to respond to survey statements and rate each of the areas we categorized.

The Results

We have found continued improvement in all categories, including staff culture. The tone of the feedback has shifted from focusing on complaints to focusing on ideas and improvements. Each year, we share the results with our faculty. Our teacher leadership team reviews the data and feedback, and generates recommendations to improve our building.

This summer a group of teachers is creating a “welcome package” for our new hires, including a school t-shirt, mug, and a new, teacher-created, “Survival Guide.” Our faculty never ceases to amaze me with their leadership and commitment to taking ownership of their school and making it the best place it can be.

It’s amazing what results from asking just one question. What questions do you ask?

*Thanks to Erin Murphy (@MurphysMusings5) for her input on this post. Be sure to check out her blog:  Murphys Musings.