For the past couple of years, our school has worked to create a way of supporting professional learning that is more personally meaningful. We were inspired by the idea of Genius Hour and how that might be relevant for teachers too. What if teachers were able to learn in a way that respected their individuality? What if they pursued their passions? What would that look like? How might that empower teaching and learning in our school?
We are trying to create the most powerful professional learning possible. We realize the importance of learning and growth for each individual. If we want sustainable, meaningful change in our schools, it will only happen when teachers are learning and leading.
From this thinking, we developed a plan for teachers to have greater ownership of their professional development. The idea was for teachers to pursue any learning they wanted so long as they believed it had the potential to improve our bottom line. And for schools, our bottom line is never about profits or shareholders. Our bottom line is about creating powerful learning for students.
So our message was clear. If it might make learning better for students, then pursue it. If you are passionate about it, then pursue it. That was the challenge. We asked every teacher to write a Personal Learning Plan, to express a general direction for where they were headed.
The first year I met with every teacher and signed off on the plans. I quickly realized that the meetings were standing in the way of teachers pursuing their goals. In meeting after meeting, I heard questions like "Does this sound okay?" or "Is this what you were looking for?" We were seeking to empower teachers, but the requirement of a meeting and a signature seemed to take away empowerment.
So last year we didn't have the meetings or the signatures. We had several activities during our regular staff meetings to brainstorm ideas and share possibilities, and then teachers simply shared their plans through Google Classroom. We wanted to remove the barriers and get to the real work.
So much of the PD of the past felt like jumping through hoops. It wasn't always relevant to every teacher. It might be exactly what one person needed, but it might not be helpful at all for another. In a sense, it created a culture where professional learning became lifeless. It was just something that was expected and sometimes dreaded. I think some teachers began to view professional development as something that was being done to them instead of something they felt invested in.
We needed a professional development reboot, one that actually honors how people learn best. These principles work for students, and of course they work for teacher learners too.
The success or failure of each teacher's plan belongs to the individual. The responsibility for growing personally and professionally ultimately rests with the individual and not the organization. We will provide support and encouragement, but you will get out of your professional learning what you put into it.
If you are taking risks and pushing the envelope, you may experience failure in the short term, but that is okay. Sometimes we learn the most from what doesn't work. The important thing is to be invested in your own learning. We want it to be authentic and feel personal to you.
Two years ago we required teachers to write goals that were aligned with certain building goals. We were emphasizing literacy since that is so important across all content areas. And we were about to launch our 1:1 program so we felt it was important to make digital tools a priority. We asked each teacher to line up their goals with the direction we were moving as a building.
But last year, we removed that requirement too. Most teachers still had goals that were very relevant to literacy or digital tools, but they had the freedom to pursue things that might only be relevant to the learning in their classroom. We trusted our teachers to choose the priorities for their learning plan. What is important to you? What will benefit your students? The choice is yours.
We have built-in time for teachers to collaborate and learn. Every Wednesday morning, school starts at 9:00 a.m. The late start provides time to do this work. But we still have to be very careful it doesn't fill up with other stuff that leaves little time for personal learning. It's essential to try to carve out some time to allow teachers to be self-directed learners. However, time should also never be used as an excuse to not be a learner. Everyone has the same number of hours in the day, and learning is not optional for educators. We have to model the ongoing growth and lifelong learning we should seek to inspire in students.
Opportunities for Sharing
We tried to build in some opportunities for sharing Personal Learning Plans throughout the process. However, that is an area we need to continue to develop. It is so important to reflect and share in an ongoing way. Creating the structures for that is one way the school organization can support this process.
While most teachers developed and executed their plans on their own, some teachers elected to work together to create a learning team. We think it's great to allow the flexibility for teachers to choose to work independently or with others. But either way, sharing with others is essential and not optional.
Near the end of the school year, we facilitated a closing event for the Personal Learning Plans. We randomly assigned teachers to small groups for a time of sharing. Teachers were asked to bring an artifact or product from their work to share. It was a time of celebrating all the good work that was done.
This year as we develop new learning plans, we are going to facilitate several opportunities for teachers to brainstorm and share possibilities. We want to develop more opportunities to support this work and allow staff to encourage one another and build off of each other's ideas. One activity will be a First Turn/Last Turn structured dialogue. Here's how it works:
1. Groups of 6 are ideal.
2. The facilitator will ask one group member to share a possibility for their learning plan.
3. In round-robin fashion, each of the other group members will comment on the idea with no cross-talk.
4. The person who initially shared the idea will then close the round by processing his or her thinking about the comments offered by the other group members.
Emphasizing the rule that there be no cross-talk will help keep the discussion focused and on-topic. Follow-up conversations can occur after everyone has a turn in the structured dialogue.
As I mentioned before, the criteria for the learning plan was that it had potential to improve student learning. But maybe we can aim even higher? We want to think bigger and strive to do things that don't just improve student learning, but that can actually transform student learning.
It might be helpful for a teacher to learn how to use Powtoon, Twitter, or Glogster, but it could be transformational if the teacher learns how to use these tools to cause students to take more ownership of their learning or to create work for authentic audiences. We want to focus our energy on ideas and learning that has the potential to transform student learning. We want our work to be a game-changer for our students.
Here are a few examples of topics our teachers chose last year for the Personal Learning Plans:
- The impact of goals and journaling on student motivation
- Project Based Learning
- Nonfiction reading with IEP students
- Genius Hour with emphasis on human rights
- Formative Assessment strategies
- Increased choice in demonstrating mastery
- Using CAD to create designs for 3D printing
- Developing math tutorials for student to use for review and reinforcement
- Using technology in choral rehearsals (video, music theory techniques, etc.)
- Creating "flipped classroom" lessons
- Increasing student choice in reading to develop passionate readers
I am very proud of the work our teachers have done as part of their Personal Learning Plans. We have already seen new ideas become game-changers for our school. As we continue to practice and refine this process, I believe we will see even more positive results. Ultimately, our efforts to honor teachers as learners and empower individual and collective genius has been meaningful for our school.
How is your school honoring teachers as learners? Do you believe this type of professional development would be helpful in your school? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.