Professional Development That Doesn’t Suck

You know what I hate more than failing charter school parasites sucking funding from public schools?  (Man, that was quite the overgeneralization!) Professional development that sucks.  Let me qualify what I mean when I say sucky PD:

  • It’s disconnected.  Fall “training” doesn’t flow with Winter “training” which then has nothing to do with Spring “training”.  This tends to happen when whomever mandates said training hasn’t spent enough time developing collaborative, long-term district goals.
  • I hate referring to it as “training.”  It’s very Pavlovian-dog behaviorist.  We’re not talking about Pavlovian dogs, we’re talking about educated humans.  Let’s keep it with development or learning experiences or opportunities.  Something more honorable of the profession.
  • It’s one-size-fits-all.  You know what’s odd?  How similar adult and child learners truly are.  We preach individualization for kids, learning paths, formative assessments, differentiation…..but “we” (in this case, “the system”) are the first to neglect to provide teachers with these very experiences.  There are, unfortunately, situations when we have to one-size-fits-all some information– accountability issues, testing changes, state mandates, blah blah blah– but true professional learning opportunities should reflect what we know of high-quality instruction.  Educators, like the students they teach, check out when the PD doesn’t meet their needs/interests at a given moment in time.  If you’ve got people showing up with stacks of grading during your inservice, you’re not appealing to what they need.  (A little formative assessment may help with this.)
  • It’s not supported by building principals and/or with all the other initiatives taking place in the buildings/district.  I’m not sure there’s ever been a truly effective “handed down from on high in central office” PD.  Principals must buy in to the PD, and it must meet their visions for their buildings — they have to be able to envision how they will hold their building accountable and to what extent / level of significance the PD will permeate instruction and building culture.  If it doesn’t fit, if the flow of initiatives doesn’t work, the PD will not have enough internal support to last.

I wish I could say every PD I’ve ever planned has been amazing and life-changing, but it hasn’t.  I’ve made some major mistakes, but I’ve learned from the process:

  • Failing to bring people along through the process of thinking about and planning a PD is a set up for failure.  It takes time to have lots of conversations, both with administrators and with teachers, and it takes more time to give surveys and digest the feedback, but I have learned PD fails when I have failed to do these very things.  Why?  Because people don’t get it.  If I singularly connect the dots from fall to winter to spring and between initiative A and B, it doesn’t matter how many times I explain those connections — people won’t get them.  I have to have the conversations with others, let them figure out how the dots connect, and let others be the carriers of the message in order to be effective.  PD isn’t about me or my needs/wants/what I think is good, it’s about steering a collaborative ship in which we all have a similar understanding of what might be good for the collective whole and allowing all members of the ship to filter out common messages.
  • Making assumptions about what is needed.  This is one of the worst flaws I find in educational administration–we are quick to jump to solutions to problems that may not exist, but we are slow to collect evidence and data to uncover problems in the first place.  When I look at our standardized test data (or any data source, really), I make assumptions.  If I were to always roll with those assumptions, I’d be wrong 95% of the time.  If I then planned PD based on those erroneous assumptions, my PD would suck 95% of the time.  I have learned to step back from my assumptions.  I owe it to teachers and kids to spend the time collecting “evidence” whether it be through learning walks, surveys, or extensive data across multiple data points.  Returning to point 1 — these are not ventures best completed in silos.  My assumptions may give a collaborative group a possible starting direction (a hypothesis to potentially be proven completely false), but when a group of teachers and administrators works together to uncover potential issues, the resulting PD can be so much more powerful than that random PD based on my unilateral interpretation.
  • The structure of a District Leadership Team, Building Leadership Team, and Teacher Based Team is one of the most beneficial in ensuring quality PD if the teams are based on collaborative problem solving and organic leadership permeating the entire district organization.  If you’re in Ohio, you may have a sandpaper-on-tongue feeling when I mention the OIP (Ohio Improvement Process).  For some districts, this is a mandated system involving specific documentation, 5-step processes, and certain requirements.  The OIP gets bogged down in being so “required” and “regulated” that the potential power of it can be lost.  I have learned to embrace our district version and vision for DLT, BLT, and TBTs because we are building our own way, and it’s working for us.  I love the collaboration that comes from these teams, and I like feeling as if we are mightily making strides together as a group.

So wrapping back around to PD that doesn’t suck…I’d like to take you through some of the steps our district has taken in my two years.  It’s not perfect, but I think we’re on the verge of great things!

  1. We started in 15-16 with the formation of our DLTs and BLTs.  There was a whole lot of “What are we supposed to do now?” In those meetings.  We were primarily central office admin driven at this point because no one really knew what to expect from the group.  We settled on a 5-year goal and 3 strategies (1.  Implement OIP with Fidelity, 2. Providing a Full range of Continuum of Services and 3.  Providing Effective Feedback) to work on. Though I’m not a huge fan of standardization and its associated data (because I believe it to be inconsistent, ever-changing, and faulty), our goal was based on report card data.  As I’ve heard others say…yes, we are accountable to that data, but it doesn’t define us.  It provides a “tangible” measure against which to compare our work year after year.  (I firmly believe work in the two strategy areas will improve standardized test data, regardless of what goal we would have set.)
  2. The rest of 15-16 (4 DLT 1/2 day meetings, and monthly BLT meetings) was a continuation of the discussion — “What does this mean?  What are we supposed to do?  This is so abstract!”  People were frustrated…it wasn’t all rosy.  It was difficult because on one hand, as a DLT we were trying to spread the message that this work wasn’t a fad or a trend while on the other hand we were trying to figure out what the work was.
  3.   In 16-17, Year 2, we kicked the year off with a new superintendent (**SIDE NOTE:  administration is always changing in schools, which is why it’s that much more important that PD becomes a collaborative effort.  Who will carry on the work when the principal changes?  Who carries it when Central Office staff changes?  If the effort is not collaborative, it will die with transitions.).  We wanted to put our abstract strategies into more practical terms, so we took each strategy and developed action steps.  From there, we did a Round-Robin style of collaboration by dividing into groups, having each group start with examining a strategy (tabs in the image below), and begin charting out what we thought the action steps for that strategy would look like at Beginning, Approaching, and Accomplished levels.  We brainstormed timelines and responsible parties.  (See the sample images below for each Strategy Tab)
Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 8.06.52 PM.png

DLT Strategy 1:  OIP

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DLT Strategy 2:  Continuum of Services

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 8.08.22 PM.png

DLT Strategy 3:  Effective Feedback

What I love about this process was it’s collaborative nature.  Everyone (representatives from all buildings — teachers, principals, school counselors/psychs, SPED teachers, Central Office Administration) had a say in every description.  Is it perfect?  Nope — if you look there are lots of surveys for measuring progress, which is probably not feasible, but it was miles ahead of where we were and it gave us practical guidance for what to do next.

4.  Still in 16-17 (we had 4 1/2 day DLT meetings and buildings had at least monthly BLT meetings), our BLTs took these district rubrics, decided on what their building focus needed to be (building initiatives), and charted out their own action steps and rubrics in line with DLT expectations.  For example, at our Primary building, in line with DLT Strategy 2, the BLT chose Co-Teaching as a focus.  Below is their initiative rubric with timeline and responsible parties AND their method of measuring effectiveness:Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 8.13.19 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 8.13.31 PM

Each BLT completed their own similar rubric for each initiative on which they were focusing in 16-17 (and potentially beyond).

5.  At the end of 16-17, the DLT held its final meeting and identified areas of the district rubric in which we had accomplishments.  Again, this was a tangible means of measuring progress in terms of action steps taken.

6.  As we looked ahead to 17-18, the DLT was at the point of lining up PD with district goals.  As a group, we realized we needed to bring the abstractness of “Provide Effective Feedback” into something tangible district wide.  We wanted people to have a common language because our biggest struggle was making our TBTs effective when they were cross-curricular– what data could be used for discussion of student abilities and rigor between a math and language arts teacher, for example?  We brought in representatives from MAX Teaching who did a demo-PD for our DLT as one idea for possible PD.  The DLT was on board because MAX filled the hole we had identified — that common language piece — while also reminding us about high-quality instructional strategies that needed refreshed.  To avoid suckage, though, the DLT discussed developing a specific set of expectations for the entire district to follow that would include use of the strategies between the first and second training dates, clear ties between MAX and areas of the OTES (Ohio Teacher Evaluation System) rubric, and specific data sources to be collected for teachers to use in TBTs and reported back to BLTs (and then DLT).  In order to be effective, the DLT wanted the PD to connect with our other efforts, to not be “just one more thing”, and to fit teachers’ needs (MAX is differentiated by grades and subject areas).

7.  Our plan was in place by May, 2017, and shared in a DLT update (in line with our action step rubric expectations) and our DLT is meeting in early August before school starts to set those expectations.

From all of this….our PD meets the collaboratively-developed district needs, goals, and expectations.  It is a learning opportunity selected by fellow teachers for fellow teachers.  It is only one piece of a super comprehensive PD Plan for 17-18 (see image below), but I believe our PD is now connected, individualized, differentiated, and it is (hopefully) taught/run in a way that reflects what we know about high-quality instruction: starting with a preassessment, including formative assessment, hands on work time, modeling, practicing, data collection and analysis, and collaboration.

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 8.28.11 PM.png

Sample of 17-18 PD Plan — Color coding highlights connections to building/district goal areas

I am not saying we are a model of perfection or a well-oiled organizational machine, but we have such great things going on in our district it was worthwhile to me to share!  If what we’ve done can help any other district change it’s practices, it’s definitely worth sharing.  I am so proud of our work, and hopefully (!!!), we’re in the process toward developing PD that doesn’t suck for our teachers!!

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