Designing Teacher Centered Professional Learning- Part 1

“Good professional learning matters. A lot.” Dr. Kristen Swanson, Founder of the Edcamp Movement and Chair of the Edcamp Foundation Board

learningSince I just spent the last few days with a number of amazing educators at the Learning Forward #LearnFwd15 conference, I thought a post on professional learning would be appropriate.  I think it is safe to say that focused, meaningful, job-embedded, teacher centered professional development is an essential component of today’s educational framework.  The rapid pace of change (from technology to pedagogy), the increased amount of local and national mandates and initiatives, and the makeup of our learners are all factors that are requiring schools to rethink and rework how we engage our teachers and administrators in professional learning.  Long gone should be the days of 1 speaker and an auditorium full of staff listening to a presentation on content that may be really relevant to some, only partially or tangentially relevant to others, and not relevant at all to the rest. With these increased demands and little to no increase (and in some cases a decrease) in time given for professional learning, finding ways to engage teachers during the time we do have to maximize learning is paramount.

Current professional learning research, standards (see Learning Forward’s Professional Learning Standards) and newer, innovative practices such as Richard DuFour’s work around Professional Learning Communities & the Edcamp Movement look to move us towards learner driven, student learning focused, results driven, and collaborative professional growth experiences.  As Dr. Kristen Swanson puts it in her post on The Magic Ingredient for Professional Learning, “If you’re a school leader, you need to find your POSITIVE PEOPLE. And, here’s the most important part – PUT THEM IN CHARGE.”

It was just over two years ago when we, as a district, really focused in on this idea of creating a culture and putting structures into place to ensure that teachers are active and contributing owners of their own learning.  From building a team of diverse stakeholders (teachers, parents, admin) to putting measures into place (surveys and open feedback loops) to really looking at ALL the time we already had available (district, building, team, grade level), we started a process that has been ongoing, collaborative, and has continuously grown and adapted to our teacher and district needs.  While we are not ‘there yet’, we have made some positive growth.

What the Numbers Are Telling Us

This Fall is the beginning of our third year of this endeavor, and I wanted to share some of the numbers from how, for an immediate impact, we reworked our District Professional Learning Days (traditionally these days would be called In-Service days, however with PA Act 80 requirements outlining how that times should be used, we are working on re-branding those days for Professional Learning).

So far, our first THREE Professional Learning days (September, October and November) have looked like this:

  • We supported 17 Departments, approximately 300 teachers and 200 paraprofessionals.
  • Each day is broken into 4 sessions, 1.5 hours each. Depending on how a teacher’s schedule works out, he/she could have everything from 4 separate sessions/topics to 1 full day of a topic or learning focus.
  • An average of 123 sessions were scheduled each inservice day.  These ranged from technology use…to off-site visits…to outside consultants coming in…to workshops at local museums…to department specific curriculum, assessment and instruction work.
  • Across our departments and grade levels, we addressed, on average, 72 different sub-groups. Sessions were differentiated for content, grade level, and/or interest specific groups such as 6-8 Family Consumer Sciences, Elementary Math Specialists, Special Education Non-Resource Room teachers, HS APUSH teachers, and K-12 ELA Curriculum writers…to just name a few.

Just to give a clearer picture, a sample department schedule for K-12 Art may look like this:

8:00-11:00 University of the Arts Session: Teaching with Primary Resources

11:00-12:00 Lunch

12:00-1:30 Application and Planning Time to extend the Morning Session’s Learning

1:30-3:00 Choose from a list of Instructional Technology Sessions (roughly 20 choices)

In this case, our Art department scheduled both morning sessions for an outside consultant, then were able to work by grade spans and interest on deepening their learning during the afternoon. Other departments may have had 4 different sessions scheduled, or 3 on a topic with 1 open for choice, it all depends on their needs.

What We Are Learning & How We Are Growing

POSITIVES: While we are not at an Edcamp or Professional Learning Communities stage yet, this initial change has provided more choice and teacher input than we ever had before.  Some groups have really jumped in and have been scheduling driving the focus and content of their sessions, as long as they fit into our district Professional Learning plan. We are finding that our Special Area groups/departments, like FCS, Tech Ed, and Health, who, historically under the one size fits all model were lumped into trainings that had no relevance to them, are now finding meaning and value on those days.  Also, we are doing a much better job of balancing teacher, department/grade level, building and district needs. Overall from our survey data, we have seen an average of 20% increase in satisfaction related to the District’s support and follow up with professional development, as well as our professional learning reflecting teacher needs.

OPPORTUNITY AREAS: While all of this has been a step in the right direction, that 20% jump in satisfaction took us from roughly 53% to 73% overall…so obviously we have room to grow.  We are finding that there is, at times, still too much forced choice.  If certain groups or grade levels have a new program/resource they need training on, or if they are going through curriculum rewriting, we have been scheduling (at their request to avoid being pulled from class) some of this during 1 or more of the sessions, which decreases their ability to choose and therefore their motivation to go out and seek learning opportunities.  This has caused some pushback in terms of  the gaps between departments in terms of who gets pure choice to schedule their learning vs. forced choice.  To help with this we have tried to not force schedule a certain group for all day (ie- they would get 2 sessions forced choice and 2 sessions pure choice) to, but we are still not where we want to be yet.  Logistics are also tough at times- travel between buildings has been brought up, as has the overwhelming nature of too much choice. Finding that appropriate balance between learning time and adequate application time is also an ongoing conversation.

In either case, what’s working and what we need to continue to do, keeping an open mind and an open feedback loop between our teachers, our professional learning committee (for more on L.E.A.P tune in next week), and all our administrators is key.

Next week I will touch on the stages of the Process we used to get here (including our L.E.A.P Professional Learning Committee), what we have found our Key Ingredients to be that have supported this work, and how we are using teacher and technology Resources to Manage all of these components.

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