A Learning Pathways Approach to Professional Development

A Learning Pathways Approach to PD

In May, I published a post on Leading Professional Development. This post emphasized our school’s need and readiness for a more personalized approach to professional development for our teachers. This approach has been implemented in more schools recently. From micro-credentialing, or badges, to complete free choice. One of the dangers of this approach is having teachers pursue a hodgepodge of topics that are disconnected and/or not aligned to building or district goals. As @RossCoops31 writes in his blog post, “We need to balance choice with vision.” I agree a balanced approach is necessary, and a school should only implement a personalized learning approach if it is balanced with other department/district professional development aligned to its vision, mission and goals. Feeling confident in the quality of department and district professional development, and its alignment with our vision/goals, was a prerequisite for our school choosing to pursue this model for our building PD.

After soliciting topic ideas from teachers, we narrowed down our Learning Pathways into the following seven topics: School/Classroom Culture; Foster Traits of an Effective Learner (3 small groups); Growth Mindset; Project-Based Learning; Social-Emotional Learning; Technology Integration; Digital Citizenship. We then organized teachers into small groups of no more than 4-8, based on their pathway choices. We organized groups with a focus on creating diverse representation of grade level and content areas.

My assistant principal, @MurphysMusings5 and I, then met with our SILT (School Instructional Leadership Team) and identified teacher leaders that would facilitate the work for each pathway. We are extremely fortunate to have a large group of effective teacher leaders, which we have been encouraging and empowering the past few years. This was a major factor in giving us the confidence to take our learning pathways approach. During our meeting we shared a Learning Pathways planning guide. This included guidance on creating norms and goals, identifying materials and resources that will be used, and developing a plan. It also includes ideas for how the work can be shared at the end of the year. This guide was designed to assist our teacher leaders with the facilitation of the work their groups would be pursuing.

The most encouraging thing so far has been teachers who have already begun work on their pathway before the school year has even begun. Teachers have shared planning documents, access to their Google Classroom page they will be using, research they’ve found, and resources they would like to pursue or purchase. This evidence of motivation shows signs of a good start. I am excited to see the learning and growth this empowering approach yields throughout the year. I plan to update our progress in future posts.

What thoughts or feedback do you have on this approach so far? Has your school tried a similar approach? If so, what guidance do you have for our school on our journey?

 

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?

 

Teacher Evaluation and Supervision: You’re Doing it Wrong

 

img_0014

In a recent course I took as part of my doctoral program at Widener University, I was required to read Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, by James Nolan Jr. and Linda A. Hoover (2010).  When I got the book, my attitude was, as it normally is toward textbooks, “yuck!” However, the book really shifted my thinking regarding teacher supervision and evaluation. Ultimately, I was smacked with the harsh reality that, “You’re doing it wrong!” But  I quickly realized, it wasn’t only me. It wasn’t only my district. It was the whole model designed by the state of Pennsylvania for administrators to implement. This model, or one similar, is probably used  in most states throughout the country. And there is one big problem! It does not promote the growth of all teachers. In fact, it probably stifles growth. In response, I want to share some thoughts and solutions.

Supervision and Evaluation are Different

Teacher evaluation was designed to ensure that all teachers meet a minimal level of quality in their practice. Traditionally, the measurement for this model includes formal and informal observations of teaching. In the end, the teacher will receive a rating of Failing, Needs Improvement, Proficient, or  Distinguished (or similar names). These mastery level ratings are not designed to promote teacher growth.  The criteria for each domain and indicator remain the same for all teachers, and the success criteria for each performance level remains constant. Once a teacher receives a proficient or distinguished rating, this model does nothing to promote continual growth. Teachers can only assume to keep doing the same thing, to receive the same rating. By design, there is no motivation or encouragement to continue improving and growing.

Teacher supervision was designed as a model to promote growth for all teachers, regardless of performance level.  Under differentiated supervision models, teachers may conduct action research, design portfolios with a focus on improvement, or participate in peer observation aligned with growth goals.  Differentiated supervision is designed to promote growth for all teachers, including those rated proficient or distinguished.  The problem I realized with this model currently, was that at the end of the year we still have to give each teacher an evaluation rating. Rather than providing quality feedback to promote growth, this model forces teacher supervision to act the same as evaluation. However, they are not suppose to act in the same manner. Much like feedback in the classroom does more to promote learning than grades, teacher feedback without evaluation ratings would do more to promote continued growth among our all teachers.

img_0013

Problem:

In most districts, evaluation and supervision to not work independent of each other, and they usually overlap. In honesty, most people would not be able to explain the difference, or even know there is suppose to be one.

Solution:

In a three-year cycle, tenured teachers would be on a traditional evaluation mode once, and a differentiated supervision mode for two years. When in the traditional mode, a teacher would be formally and informally observed, lesson plans could be submitted for feedback, professionalism could be rated, and teachers would receive a traditional end-of-year evaluation rating. Once the teacher has demonstrated they meet minimal expectations, which is the purpose of evaluation, it can be determined they are ready for a differentiated supervision mode. If a teacher does not meet minimal expectations, they would continue on the traditional evaluation mode. This would also be true for new teachers, until they obtain tenure. It is the job of administrators to make sure new teachers are ready, and meet minimal expectations, before receiving tenure. This must be taken serious during the traditional evaluation mode.

During the two years teachers are on a differentiated supervision mode, they could choose from a menu of growth models including peer observation, portfolio, or action research. Each of these models would have a component which required teachers to focus on an area of growth. Teachers would be with administrators to plan implement and reflect upon their growth during these years. Ideally, they would not need to receive an end of year evaluation rating during these two years.  They would only receive feedback which would promote their continued growth.

So what to do about states that require domain and evaluation ratings every year?

If we take traditional evaluation seriously, isn’t it appropriate to assume the teacher could be assigned the same domain ratings they received the last time they were on traditional evaluation mode?  For example, if a teacher demonstrated they were “Distinguished” in Preparation and Planning, isn’t it safe to assume they would not all of the sudden drop to “Failing” the next year?  Can we have enough trust in our teachers, that they will at least continue to do as well as they did in the last year of traditional evaluation?  Removing a tie to do evaluation ratings during years teachers are on a differentiated supervision mode, would be a shift that could significantly promote the growth of all teachers.

Does your model of teacher evaluation and supervision promote the growth of all your teachers?  What ideas do you have for improvements?

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.

Positive Attitudes Will Succeed!

At our school, we believe that Positive Attitudes Will Succeed. Our middle school’s mascot is the bulldog and the “PAWS” (Positive Attitudes Will Succeed) acronym fits right into our school culture. As part of our program, students are recognized for their effort and behavior, such as being prepared for class, or exhibiting positive character traits, by receiving feedback and a “PAWS Sticker” which they place on a specific page in their agenda books. Teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria aides, office staff and administrators all have stickers they give, along with feedback, to students who exhibit positive behaviors or character traits. As an incentive, each student needs a minimum number of stickers, decided by each team of teachers, to participate in sports and activities at the end of the day during our reward period, called Dog Pound. In addition, at five points in the year we do a PAWS sticker count and 100 or more of our top earners can participate in a Tailgate, Pancake Breakfast (they can also bring a friend to this one), Bowling Party, Ice Cream Party or Pool Party. The key to our program is that we provide opportunities for all students to be recognized for their efforts. We have students from our multiple disabilities, emotional support, autistic support and all other classrooms in the school, participate in our PAWS activities. It is not always the same students, or the typical “Straight A” student, who are being recognized or rewarded. We focus on ensuring our program is inclusive of all students. We have a PAWS committee, comprised of students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators, which meet monthly to plan PAWS events and make adjustments to our program. The positive feedback we receive from both students and parents is overwhelming.

So what’s the problem?

Lately, I have read a lot of push back against positive reward systems in schools. There have been numerous posts about internal student motivation and whether it does, or should, drive them to succeed. I have heard multiple comments made about reward systems being detrimental to students, and I’ll be honest, I don’t get it.

I think rewards are getting a bad name lately. Whether it be gamification points in the classroom, professional development badging systems, FavoritesLikes or Retweets, a promotion, a raise, positive feedback from a supervisor, or a compliment from your spouse, people receive positive “rewards” in many ways which they appreciate and enjoy. Ultimately, it’s not the reward that is our motivator, but these rewards should not be painted as a bad thing, or detrimental to people. These things are good! I question when people write or speak about how they should not matter and are damaging to students. I am sure there are programs that are not ideal, but I see our, and many other, positive behavior programs working well everyday.

What’s My Motivation?

Internal motivation is something we want to foster in our students as they learn and grow. However, I also understand the needs of middle school students. The goal of our school’s positive behavior program is not solely to motivate students to behave in order to gain a reward, but to give opportunities for adults to provide specific feedback to students about successful character traits and behaviors. The motivation for student actions comes from many places, such as the relationship between the teachers and the students, parental influences, peers, or even internal drive. The reward is feedback and recognition of the positive efforts or behaviors students are exhibiting and I do not think it is a bad thing. In fact, I see the positive impact it has on our students on an everyday basis.

What are your thoughts about positive behavior programs?

The Teacher Interview: A Principal’s Perspective

“That person must work at our school!” That’s what we want to be saying to our interview committee when a teacher candidate walks out of the room. We want to be thinking that our school cannot afford to have that person not working with us. This is the level of excitement we want to have when deciding to hire a new teacher. We want to feel like this person not only fits into our culture, but will bring something we don’t have, will move us forward, and will make us better.

It’s interview season! Time to get to work filling positions created by retirees, transfers, or if you’re lucky, additional staffing. Now the downside. All the paper screenings and computer algorithms in the world cannot always find us the best candidates. To me, you need to meet people, speak to them, and get to know them both professionally and personally. I need to learn much more about them then just their credentials (already read their resume), or what their favorite lesson was. I need to know about their attitude, guiding philosophies and what motivates them everyday.

This year, we’ve tossed around using some new questions such as “What is your life motto, or words you live by?; What’s your favorite song?; What leadership roles do you hope to fill at our school?; How do you stay current in the field of education?; How do you prove to your students they are important?” These questions are aimed at trying to get some insight into who the person is and what their attitude and mindset may be. Shawn Blankenship (@Blankenship_S) wrote a post that appeared on Connected Principals back in April, called “Teacher Interview Questions That Work“. The questions Shawn shares not only allow us to get to know about a teacher’s craft, but also allow us to see into their personality, attitude and desire to improve. They help us get a more complete picture of the person in whom we are investing.

Positive attitude, motivation, determination, innovative, growth-mindset, sense of humor, sense of caring… These are just some of the very important intangibles I look for in a candidate. What other attributes do you look for, and what creative questions do you use to try to seek them out in a teacher candidate?