I really enjoy our district-wide professional development days as they provide us with an awesome opportunity to connect with educators from across our district and to connect them to each other. Taking the advice of Shelly Burgess and Beth Hoef, “People are less likely to tear down a culture that they have helped build,” we invited teachers and curriculum leaders from all of our school sites to join a planning group with our district leadership team for the days this year. As we work to be clear in what we hold in common across our eighteen schools and what is a school or classroom level decision on how that looks, creating a district-wide plan for professional development that meets the needs of over five-hundred teachers and leaders is a challenge. We want it to be relevant to each classroom and each staff member’s personal journey, incorporate choice, and model great instructional practice. Building in time for seeing and doing with time to reflect, practice, plan, and engage in professional discourse were key to what we all agreed were the next steps for all our staff.
After our first meeting, the team realized the challenge of giving all staff tools to move along a continuum of doing activities that empower learners to creating classrooms that are entirely learner driven to turning those classrooms into whole schools that are learner empowered. One thing that was really important to the group was more time to see the work in action and time to connect with other staff. As a group, we felt our staff understands our why of creating more equitable outcomes for all learners that go well beyond graduation from high school. It was time to dig deep on how to plan for and what learner driven instruction looks like in practice. We would meet each week, send them back to schools to get feedback, and then evolve the idea until it is something we could put into practice. It has been amazing to get input and learn from our educators in this group and for them to connect back to all teachers. This has led to some healthy professional discourse on the how and what of the work we are trying to do and how to get all five hundred teachers invested in the process.
Our groups ended up targeting specific work for each grade band that was different. Elementary and intermediate spent time in small groups working on knowing our standards well enough ourselves to teach them to learners and empower them to take ownership of mastery of those standards within cross-curricular projects. All of our site visits have shown us that standards are an essential part of the work, but they do not have to be only understood and driven by the teacher. The learners can take ownership of the outcomes when they know what is expected of them and can do it in ways that reflect their interests. For our high schools, they felt a big picture approach was needed, which meant hearing from a learner panel of students in one of our sixth through eighth grade flexible learning communities and then having small group discussions on the big picture of what school could be.
We wanted our teachers to know that how the standards are mastered in your classroom is about knowing yourself and your learners well enough to shift the learner experience wherever and whenever possible to be authentic with high levels of content mastery, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and, most importantly, creating a sense of belonging to the group. We are pushing our teachers to realize that they get to decide on the instructional methods used in their classrooms and schools, which won’t look the same across our district. We trust them as professionals to make those decisions as they know their learners best. Each of these groups also then spent time in collaborative groups working together on breaking down an existing project to be able to understand how and where it becomes learner driven. We wrapped up the first part of the morning asking them to use a similar format on their own lesson and unit plans. Where could they be making shifts toward learner driven, authentic experiences every day?
As part of the opening in one of the groups, we asked them to answer this question with educators from other schools, “What will you make, build, or do with learners this year that they will be talking about in 10 years?” Most of those answers were around larger community-based experiences instead of daily classroom instruction. We followed the discussion with the question, “What will you make, do, or build tomorrow that learners will still be talking about in 10 years?” We are hopeful that our teachers will use some of what they learned that day to have that question drive more of what we do.
Our staff also need to see this kind of work in action and what better way to learn than from each other. So, the second part of the morning was a choice of over twenty classrooms across our district where our own staff were willing to model learner driven practice in their classrooms. The staff shared what their daily practice is and other staff were able to watch, learn, and give feedback. The participants learned a ton about how to do this work from educators that may teach down the street from them who have already tried new ways of connecting to learners with both successes and many opportunities to learn how they would do things differently. The presenters got feedback on their practice and answered questions for the participants that allowed them to reflect on what they do and why they do it. This was the email we sent to those who were brave enough to go first, “We have asked each of you as we know you are trying new things, having some success with learners, and find joy in your work. We will have the groups be small (hopefully around 25) of teachers from across our district in the sessions. We are hoping you will model a lesson, talk about how you incorporate learner driven skills in new ways, and how you got started with making a shift. It is not expected to be anything that is “perfect” or a “show”. It is meant for you to share your experience with others and encourage them to try new things in the way you have.” We got some great feedback from both participants and presenters about the power of the experience. Some of the sessions went off without a hitch and others did not go exactly as planned, but every one of them provided staff with an opportunity to connect and learn from each other.
We asked each building leadership team to build in time for reflection, discussion, and planning at the school sites. We know how essential that time to think about what you learned and then collaborate with colleagues is to create space for a change of practice. These shifts take a continuous conversation with time to think and time to plan. Finding more time is always a challenge in education, but we want to keep the learning and the learner experience at the forefront by helping staff to find the time where we can. Teachers need to know we support them in trying new things knowing they may fail with opportunities for coaching and collaboration to know how to go back and try again. We get a lot of feedback that we need to make more time for processing and planning. We are working on new ideas to try some creative things within our schedules for next school year to help. In the meantime, we need to continue the push and the conversation wherever and whenever it can happen.
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Targeted professional development puts teachers in the best shape to use the power of the weapon every day to empower our learners and therefore make our world a better place to be.