Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How to Have Unshakable Confidence in the Classroom

Sometimes it's really tough to be confident in the classroom. 

Especially if you're a brand new teacher? You've never done this before. You don't have a history of successes to prove to yourself that you can be good at this.

Or what if you're not a new teacher, but you have that class. You know the one. Every second feels like a struggle to maintain control. I remember having nightmares, literally, about one of my classes. It was 7th period during my second year teaching. Those students learned very little. Neither did I. I was just trying to survive. My confidence was shaken.

How can you be confident when a student, colleague, or even your principal makes a comment filled with doubt about your ability to teach? You feel completely inadequate and begin to question if you're even meant to do this.

And when it comes to confidence, it might seem like the rich get richer and poor get poorer. Success builds upon success, right? A lack of confidence results in all sorts of classroom practices that aren't helpful. You try to be the cool teacher. You fail to set boundaries. You lash out in anger. It even extends beyond the classroom. You're short tempered with your loved ones. You feel overwhelmed. You don't want to get out of bed in the morning. Lack of confidence tends to manifest itself in all sorts of harmful ways.

And then, when things go wrong as a result of your decisions, your confidence is shaken even further. You make even more poor decisions. And the cycle continues.

You need to be confident to be successful in the classroom. But you need success to help you feel confident in the classroom. It's a terrible Catch 22.

But let's look at this more carefully. Maybe it doesn't really work this way. Maybe our confidence doesn't have to be based on our success or lack of success.

The Truth About Confidence

1. Just because you have success in your classroom doesn't guarantee you will be confident. You probably know a teacher who all the kids love, who has amazing lessons, and who is respected by all her colleagues, and yet she still seems to lack confidence. And conversely, you've probably known teachers that weren't very successful and still seemed to be confident, even though they really didn't have much to be confident about. What the heck!?!

Could it be that confidence isn't determined by the external success you have as a teacher? Is it possible that confidence is actually more about our perception of ourselves regardless of any external results?

2. And since our confidence doesn't have to be dependent on any external reality, perhaps improving our external results won't guarantee an increase in confidence. Just because you have a better class, or get a compliment from your principal, or feel liked by your students, doesn't guarantee you'll be more confident.

You've probably experienced this before as an educator. You've received compliments, gotten recognition, or taught a killer lesson but still didn't feel more confident. If we don't have that internal confidence, we just write off our success to chance or give someone else the credit.

3. Confidence is a way of feeling. It seems we're all born with it. Ever see a toddler who wasn't confident? Somewhere along the way we start to lose it. It's based on our sense of selfhow we see ourselves. For a teacher, confidence is the belief that you have everything you need to be successful with your students. It's the feeling that you are fully equipped to be successful now and in the future. A teacher without confidence feels that they lack the knowledge, skill, or personality, etc. to be successful in the classroom. It can drive all sorts of behaviors that are not helpful.

One solution is to just convince yourself that you have everything you need to be successful. You just tell yourself you lack nothing. If you say it enough times, maybe you'll start to believe it. 

While some positive self-talk can be useful, it's not helpful to just pretend we don't have weaknesses. In other words, acting confident can lead to increased confidence. Fake it till you make it. But it doesn't work to ignore areas where you need to improve. You have to honestly self-reflect to grow and reach your potential.

So what is the answer to find peace and confidence in the classroom? It's not to pretend you don't have any weaknesses. Or act like you have everything you need. The answer is to recognize what you lack, but to accept and be comfortable with the ways in which you don't measure up.

You may not have good classroom management...yet.

Your students may not be motivated or engaged...yet.

Your relationships with some of your students may not be great...yet.

You may not have great technology skills...yet.

You might not be very organized...yet.

But if you can be comfortable with who you are right now, in spite of what you lack, then you can continue to grow and press forward. That's what it means to embrace failure. It's not that we are happy to fail. We just see our failures as part of a process of growing. When we embrace our failures it allows us the freedom to take risks, to fully engage without fear, and to care about our students unconditionally. You don't have to worry about the judgment of others.

So lean in to your shortcomings. When you start to feel sad, alone, or insufficient because of a failure in the classroom, remind yourself of the opportunity to grow and learn. No one has it all figured out. To be confident, we have to believe the best about ourselves in the moment and use our failures to our advantage.

Question: How will you grow your confidence as an educator? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

One Simple Strategy to Overcome Resistance to Your Vision

One of the most important parts of leadership is communication. And no matter how much you try to communicate, it seems there is always room for improvement. But why is it that so many new ideas flame out before they really get established?

In Adam Grant's book Originals: How Non-Comformists Move the World, he writes about the exposure effect. People tend to gravitate to ideas or methods that are more familiar, while they tend to avoid things that are less familiar.
The mere exposure effect has been replicated many times—the more familiar a face, letter, number, sound, flavor, brand, or Chinese character becomes, the more we like it. It's true across different cultures and species; even baby chickens prefer the familiar. My favorite test was when people looked at photographs of themselves and their friends that were either regular or inverted, as if seen in a mirror. We prefer the regular photos of our friends, because that's how we're used to seeing them, but we like the inverted photos of ourselves, because that's how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror. "Familiarity doesn't breed contempt," says serial entrepreneur Howard Tullman. "It breeds comfort."
The exposure effect might explain why teachers tend to teach as they were taught. And why parents can get a little anxious when their child's schooling deviates from what they experienced as a student. It might also explain why new ideas may not gain traction right away, even if they are great ideas that might be game-changers for student learning. People need time to warm-up to a new idea, and the research seems to prove it.

So if you want to move your vision forward, you have to help people become more comfortable with the vision. You have to overcommunicate the vision. But usually the opposite happens. Leaders often communicate far too little and too infrequently. Grant writes that leaders tend to assume everyone else is familiar with their ideas. They spend hours thinking about the vision from just about every angle. It seems easy to the person most familiar with it.
You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it's no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that's listening to it for the first time.
It's easy to forget the perspective of the audience. But perhaps they aren't on Twitter all the time discussing the topic. They might not be constantly engaged in conversations with other forward-thinking educators. They may not have the opportunity to go to as many conferences or attend as many workshops. To them, the message seems foreign and difficult to understand. It's hard to take the message and fit it with their current thoughts and ideas. You possess a clarity they do not.

As I read this part of the book, I was reflecting on my own communication as a leader. I can actually think of lots of ways I've failed to consistently communicate our vision. It's easy to add just one more thing and make our goals too complex. Then the communication is just a muddled mess of one new idea after another. There isn't opportunity for people to really adopt an idea, get behind it, and see how it works in their world. The next new thing is just around the corner.

Just last year, our district admin team was reading Finding Your Leadership Focus by Doug Reeves. But in spite of the study of priorities, I don't think we eliminated a single initiative. We just continued spinning plates. You work on spinning a few over here, and then give attention to some others before they come crashing down. Because nearly everything seems to be a priority, in reality it means that nothing is a priority. We are killing any chance at a transforming vision by initiative fatigue.

Retrieved: https://workingmomadventures.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/man-spinning-plates.jpg

But I actually thought of one example that was a success. So let's focus on the positive, right? 

In the years leading up to our 1:1 initiative, we didn't have the budget to make it happen. We just didn't have the money. That provided plenty of time for staff to warm-up to the idea. They heard me tell stories of other schools who were going 1:1. I constantly was dreaming about how awesome it would be when all of our students had consistent access. I talked about it a lot. And other people talked about it too. I think all those years helped most everyone embrace the idea. Our budget woes may have been a blessing in disguise. The delay was probably helpful in setting the stage for the success of 1:1 at BHS.

In the fall of 2015, when 1:1 became a reality, we totally hit the ground running. I'm not saying it was perfect. But the buy-in was at a high level, and our digital transformation was off to a great start. For several years, our team was getting ready for this future reality. There was plenty of time to become familiar with the concept of 1:1, why it was important, and how it could be helpful in each classroom. We communicated the 'why' of 1:1 over and over again. 

As Grant suggested, "If we want people to accept our original ideas, we need to speak up about them, and then rinse and repeat."

So as your leadership team plans to move your vision forward, consider the importance of the exposure effect. Really listen to the feedback from your team to understand how the ideas are being received. And make sure you don't underestimate how much exposure your audience needs to understand your vision and embrace it.
When Harvard professor John Kotter studied change agents years ago, he found that they typically undercommunicated their visions by a factor of ten. On average, they spoke about the direction of change ten times less often than their stakeholders needed to hear it. In one three-month period, employees might be exposed to 2.3 million words and numbers. On average during that period, the vision for change was expressed in only 13,400 words and numbers: a 30-minute speech, an hour-long meeting, a briefing, and a memo. Since more than 99 percent of the communication that employees encounter during those three months does not concern the vision, how can they be expected to understand it, let along internalize it? The change agents don't realize this, because they're up to their ears in information about their vision. 
So as a result of Grant's ideas, I'm considering ways I can be more consistent, focused, and systematic in my communication. I need to refine the message and then use the "slow-drip method" to keep it in front our staff. And I want to listen to feedback and revise the vision as needed. Ultimately, the vision should belong to the team. It's really about giving an idea time to "percolate" so there is opportunity to process, evaluate, and ultimately act upon it.
An unfamiliar idea requires more effort to understand. The more we see, hear, and touch it, the more comfortable we become with it, and the less threatening it is.
Question: What are ways you are communicating a focused message to your team? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Too Many Want To Quit As Soon As It Gets Hard

This past weekend, I decided to teach our 15-year-old daughter Maddie how to mow the yard using our zero-turn-radius mower. We have a pretty large yard to mow, and it takes about three hours to do the job. All summer I've relied on the two older boys to take care of mowing the grass, but now they are both at college.

Maddie is doing a great job learning to drive, so I thought it would be no problem to teach her how to mow. She was very excited about doing it, and I was happy to have help so that I'm not spending three hours every week on this task.

Well, it didn't go as well as either of us had hoped. She had a little trouble at first getting the mower to steer in a straight line. And at times, she was missing sections of grass. A zero-turn mower can be a little tricky till you get the hang of it.

I was coaching the whole time. I would stop her and give her a little feedback, lots of encouragement, and even hop on the mower myself to demonstrate.

But in spite of my best efforts to keep everything positive, I could tell it was stressing her out a little. She was struggling. And I was just a few steps away when the mower hit a pipe right next to the wall. It broke right off. She was crushed. Her head dropped, and she looked so sad.

I tried to reassure her, but there were tears and she said, "I'm terrible at mowing."

I really felt for her. I explained that everyone is a beginner at first. I did my best to comfort her. "You are just learning. You're not terrible at mowing. You're just new to mowing."

I asked her if she wanted to take a break, and she said yes. I mowed for a while, and then she got back on and did fine until we finished. I felt it was important for her to get back on the mower, even after the accident. But I stayed with her the whole time.

As I was reflecting on this, I was thinking about how many kids feel like Maddie when it comes to school. They may be excited at first, but then it gets harder or doesn't go well, and they really want to give up.

Our job as educators is to stay at their side and help them. We shouldn't rescue them, but we shouldn't leave them floundering either. We have to find the right balance. They need support and encouragement, but they need to learn perseverance too. These skills will serve them well for their entire lives.

A few of our teachers participated in an externship program this summer with GOCAPS (Greater Ozarks Center for Professional Studies). The main purpose of GOCAPS is to provide intership experiences for our high school juniors and seniors. But they also have a summer experience where teachers get to work in business and industry and get a better understanding of the working world outside of education. It's called an externship.

At one of the meetings, business leaders were asked what schools could do to better prepare future employees. What is the one thing you wish your new hires could bring with them from their school experience? The response: We need people who don't give up easily. Too many want to quit as soon as anything goes wrong or gets hard. We need young people who can face challenges and keep trying.

In the end, I was very proud of Maddie for not giving up. She didn't enjoy mowing nearly as much as she thought she would. But she finished the job. Together we did it. And even thought it was hard, it was a good learning experience.

How are you teaching your students to be resilient? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

5 Challenges to Your Best School Year Ever

As the new school year is just around the corner, it's a great chance to commit to making learning more effective and meaningful in your classroom or school. Here are five challenges to make it the best year ever. 

1. Greet Your Students at the Door

Everyone can make it a point to greet students at the door each day. But it's also easy to get busy with other things and neglect the doorway greeting. It's easy to get pulled away by paperwork or visiting with colleagues or other things. That's why I decided to include this as a challenge. It's a challenge for me too. I always try to greet students in the morning, either at one of our entries or by mingling in the hallways. But sometimes I let other things get in the way. I want to commit to make this a top priority all year long.

Greeting students is helpful for several reasons: 

  • It shows students you care and want to interact with them. 
  • It allows you to read students' body language and see how they're doing, if they're ready to learn.
  • It earns buy-in from your students and motivates them to engage in your classroom. You might be surprised how much difference it makes when you make greeting students a top priority.

2. Teach Your Best Lesson on the First Day

I think it's fair to say there is too much teacher talk overall in K-12 classrooms. Learning would be better served if students were more actively processing content and skills instead of so passive receiving. And that's and every day concern. But is there any school day with more teacher talk than the first day of school? 

Teachers talk about the rules, the procedures, grades, the seating chart. We talk about the syllabus, about the class objectives, and more. I remember a teacher who even discussed at length the organization of the textbook. Really?

Why would we want the first day of school to be the most boring day of the school year? Shouldn't we want students to actually be excited about returning to school for the second day? I think the first day should create enough excitement and intrigue that students are more excited about learning tomorrow than they are today.

I recently read that we tend to make first impressions of people we meet within the first 7 seconds and then spend the rest of the conversation trying to convince ourselves why our impressions are true. I'm betting that's true in the classroom, too. Your students will make assumptions from the first day that may be hard to change later.

So I'm suggesting you try to teach your best lesson on the first day. Make it so great that students will be rushing to your class for day two. Don't talk about all the boring rules and procedures on day one. You can communicate all that stuff a little at a time the first few weeks of school. Some of it you can address as teachable moments arise. I understand the importance of rules or procedures, but don't start the year with that stuff.

Instead of the boring pitfalls of the first day, here are some alternatives. Challenge students with a problem. Have them work in groups to create something. Use a team builder to get students active. Here is an Epic List of Team Building Activities. Use Brain Teasers to get your students thinking immediately. Here's another set of Brain Teasers that might be a little less challenging. You might even be able to use the brain teaser to illustrate something about your rules or procedures, if you are determined to squeeze some of that in on day one. 

Another possibility would be to jump right into your content. Have students read something interesting and even mind-blowing from your subject. Have a discussion about it. Get everyone talking and sharing as much as possible right from the start. Set the stage for high levels of engagement on the first day.

And another possibility, I would always do this when I was teaching high school English. I would tell my students on the first day that I was going to learn everyone's name, today. I had six classes with nearly 30 students per class. So this was always a big risk. It's tough to learn 180 names. And I always failed. But I would try. And I would learn most of the names on the first day. 

Think of the lessons that flowed from this. The kids were interacting with me. There was suspense. They couldn't wait to see if I would remember their name on the next cycle through the class. It was a great chance to talk about taking risks and failing forward. We would laugh together at my mistakes. I also did this to emphasize the importance of relationships. I try to learn your names because I want to get to know you.

Whatever you do, make your first day memorable. Try to teach your very best lesson!

3. Make Questions More Important than Right Answers

I'm guessing many students have come to believe that success in school is closely tied to delivering right answers. And if you deliver enough right answers you get a good grade. But this type of learning doesn't necessarily stick. Students will deliver right answers on the quiz or test that is right in front of them, but what about months down the road. Do they still retain much of that information? I'm guessing no.

But focusing more on questions can lead to deeper understanding. And when students have deeper understanding, the learning tends to stick. It helps with applying information, seeing the big picture, and transferring learning to new contexts. Questions are the foundation of all inquiry. Physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said, "There is NO learning without having to pose a question."

But not all questions are created equal. Many questions are asked in the classroom that do not generate deeper thinking. These questions are the ones that seek a single right answer with very little explanation of thought. But my challenge is to make a shift. Try to make your classroom more about questions than answers.

A couple of years ago, we asked our students to select schoolwide essential questions to guide inquiry across all subjects. Our students actually voted on the questions. We had one question each quarter of the school year. You could do the same thing in your classroom or school. Here's a Giant List of Really Good Essential Questions.

4. Put Students in the Driver's Seat

If our goal is to create independent, lifelong learners it's important to create classrooms where students are taking greater ownership of their learning. We know that a student-centered classroom is more effective than a teacher-centered classroom. So how can you put your students in the driver's seat this year? 

Our school went 1:1 last year with Chromebooks for every student. Many in our community probably thought this was about keeping up with technology. But the greatest benefit to every student having a device is student agency, the ability for each student to make some of the decisions about the direction of their learning. Access to a device and consequently access to the sum of human knowledge via the internet creates opportunities for empowerment.

But we can't keep teaching the same way and expect empowerment to increase. Just giving a student a device will not lead to empowerment. We have to give up some of our control and help guide and facilitate learning instead of making every decision ourselves.

Here are some questions for you to consider about agency and empowerment in your classroom?

  • How often do students have input on how they will learn?
  • How often do students have input on what they will learn?
  • Are students given opportunities to lead conversations?
  • Are classroom goals developed by the teacher alone or in partnership with students?
  • Do students have some time to pursue their own goals?
  • How often do you ask students for feedback on their experience in your classroom?

In classrooms where student ownership has flourished, I've noticed that it's usually because teachers really listen and spend a considerable amount of time understanding their students' perspective, what's important to them, what their experiences with learning have been in the past. There is a feeling that the students and the teacher are co-creating the classroom together, instead of the teacher delivering lessons.

5. Eliminate the Trash Can Finish

Where does most student work ultimately end up? Unfortunately, most of it is destined for the trash can. It will never be shared with anyone beyond the classroom. The teacher will review it and assess it, and finally it comes to rest in a landfill. Sometimes, the work will be shared with other students in the classroom. But why aren't we seeking more authentic audiences for student work?

When students know their work will be shared with a real audience, it changes the mindset. Instead of just producing work that is good-enough to get the grade, they will want to produce work that represents their best efforts. The sense of audience is an opportunity to practice empathy and try to see the project through the end-users' eyes. It's what professionals do in their work all the time. Our students need to be practicing the skills that all people use when they are completing a project or developing a product that will no doubt be presented to a real audience.

And there are more ways than ever to share student work. With social media and other digital platforms, student work can be shared across the world. Students can create blogs, produce podcasts, or compile digital portfolios. Twitter is a great way to share out links or images of student work. The #Comments4Kids hashtag is one great way to connect with audiences and get feedback too. 

According to a Forbes magazine article, your online presence will soon replace the traditional resume. But most students haven't done anything intentional to establish digital presence or personal brand. Your classroom could help change that. You can find ways to share student work so that their great ideas and best efforts can be accessed in the present and the future.

Besides digital sharing of work, there are other ways to make learning visible and include real audiences. Elementary schools are great at displaying student work throughout the school. Why don't more secondary schools do this? One idea a teacher developed in our school invites professionals in our community to examine student projects. It's kind of like Shark Tank, with students pitching their ideas to a panel of "sharks." Schools can also have maker faires or other showcase events where student work is on display for parents and community.

Avoiding the trashcan finish can be as simple as a Tweet or as complex as a schoolwide fair. Everything students do can't be shared out, but we need to start sharing more. It brings relevance to learning and allows kids to contribute ideas and products to the world right now. Students shouldn't have to wait until they are out of school to make valuable contributions.

Question: Which of these challenges will you try this year? Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Does Your School Build Dreams or Crush Them?

Yesterday, I had a conversation with one of our teachers about some new ideas she wanted to share with me about her plans for the coming school year. She shared ways she wanted to create more relevance for her students, give them more ownership, and create a more engaging learning experience in her classroom. Wow! Those are awesome goals.

She had several specific ideas for achieving these aims. So we chatted about them. She was seeking feedback so I made some comments and asked some clarifying questions. I also handed her a book I thought might be helpful as she's thinking more about where her ideas will lead.

After the conversation, I was reflecting on it. I thought to myself, I wonder if she is more excited or less excited about her ideas after our meeting. Of course, my intention is to generate excitement around new ideas and create a culture of risk-taking and innovation in our school.

But trying to be a good coach, I shared some cautious comments too. While I loved the direction of her ideas, I wanted to interject some wisdom from my experience. I'm not sure how helpful that was. It's difficult for me not to launch into my own ideas about how I would do such and such. For the most part, I think I avoided that. But the last thing I want is to be a dream killer.

I remember a conversation I had with someone who was a leader in my life. I was sharing some ideas that I was very excited about. My passion was in this area and my energy flowed when talking about the changes I was planning. 

My leader didn't completely reject the ideas I shared, but every comment seemed laced with caution and barriers. I can remember two words distinctly from that conversation my leader used over and over.

Yeah, but...

Those two little words cut my enthusiasm in half. I didn't feel energized by our discussion. I felt deflated. Instead of throwing gasoline on my dream, they poured water all over it.

I believe successful organizations are dream building organizations. They tap into people's passions and create a sense of excitement and enthusiasm in the culture. I guess there are successful organizations that aren't great at this, but I would venture there are no incredibly, extraordinarily successful organizations that don't have a dream building culture.

Image source: http://goo.gl/jSxnpQ

And I think this post is challenging for all of us in schools, not just principals or others in formal leadership positions. If you're a teacher, how does your classroom support students' own goals and dreams, not just your goals for teaching a subject well? Does your classroom allow students enough freedom and flexibility to pursue things that are important to them?

And when your students share their dreams with you, do you pour gasoline on their dreams or douse them with water?

We've all had students share dreams with us that seemed impossible. Or, we felt they didn't really understand what it takes to achieve the dream. Their actions weren't lining up behind the words of their dreams. I think we must be very careful about how we show up in these conversations. We have a delicate balance to help build dreams and guide actions. 

Unless someone in our life is about to go off a cliff, I think we should do everything possible to lift them up and speak support and encouragement into their lives.

Jim Carrey was once a struggling young comic from a poor family trying to make it big. He didn't have much, but he had a dream. And he wouldn't give up on it. When he was 10-years-old, he even mailed his resume to Carol Burnett. He was bold and audacious believing he would someday entertain millions and make them laugh.

In 1990, he wrote himself a check for $10 million dated Thanksgiving 1995. He placed it in his wallet. At the time, he was broke and struggling to find work as a comic. In the notation on the check, he scribbled 'for acting services rendered.' He carried that check with him as a powerful reminder. It was the tangible representation of his dream.

By 1995, he had starred in multiple films, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective and Liar, Liar. He was earning nearly $20 million per movie!

I wonder how many people in Jim Carrey's life thought his dreams of being a comedian were misguided? I bet there were lots of people who thought he'd never make it. Those people probably doused him with water. But there were probably others who saw something special in him, who threw gasoline on his dreams of being an actor and comedian.

Image source: http://goo.gl/kKYxWA

When we see students or teachers who struggle with apathy, I think it's often because they've given up on their dreams. Everyone must have something to aspire to, something that makes you want to get up in the morning and push forward in life. We need dreams to chase. As educators, we should be that spark of inspiration for both our students and our colleagues. 

When someone shares their dreams with you, how will you respond? Will you be the 'Yeah, but...' voice in their life? I would suggest a different response. How about these two little words, instead? 

Yes, and...

1. Yes! You can do it.

2. Yes! I believe in you.

3. Yes! Tell me more about that.

4. Yes! Why is that important to you?

5. Yes! How can I help you?

6. Yes! You are on the right track.

7. Yes! Your dreams matter to me.

If you are going to inspire others in your life to dream big, you can't get stuck in the where, when, who, and how. Dreams are about what you want and especially why you want it. I feel so guilty about this in parenting my own children. I feel like sometimes my expectations have placed limits on their dreams. Our adult minds are so practical and boring.

But today I am reminded to help those around me dream big, audacious dreams. I don't want to crush dreams. I want people to be excited about their dreams and not the dreams I have for them.

How will you encourage the dreams of those in your circle of influence? Reflect on who the dream builders were in your life. I want to hear from you. Share a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Does Your Professional Development Honor Teachers as Learners?

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. 

Greater Ownership

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.

Increased Choice

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.

Providing Time

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.

What's next?

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.

Transformational Ideas

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.

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