Create Simple Personalized Professional Development #IMMOOC

In college, I had a professor who would read PowerPoint slide shows to us about the benefits of engaging instruction for students. The irony was not lost on me. It’s rare that a class is a perfect match for you as a learner, but I learned a great deal of what not to do throughout that course.

For all the innovation out there in education today, there’s still a lot more whole group lecturing about how we should differentiate and individualize our instruction for the students we serve than I’m comfortable with. Professional development that ignores best instructional practices is insulting to teachers and detrimental to leader credibility.

I understand part of the hesitation on the part of leaders. Differentiation in a classroom is an incredibly complicated, albeit rewarding, undertaking. There aren’t a lot of options out there for differentiated professional development, and creating something from the ground up seems like a monumental undertaking. So, we often opt for a standard delivery of a new idea. When we do that, we rob those in the room of the opportunity to experience something innovative. Sure, everyone hears the same content. But as Dave Burgess often reminds educators, “What good is covering content if people aren’t listening?” Professional development can’t just wash over you; you have to internalize it, wrestle with it, consider how to make it your own. It’s high time we stop measuring professional development in terms of seat time. That’s a measure of compliance, not learning. As George Couros reminds us, “Compliance does not foster innovation. In fact, demanding conformity does quite the opposite.”

Exploring Another Way

I’m in my first year on the campus I serve, and for our last two campus professional development days, we set out to do something different. We knew we wanted our PD to challenge and support teachers on their self selected goals for the year, and we also knew that we wanted staff to have time to implement some of the new things they learned about. More than that, my principal and I (both new to the campus this year) didn’t want to come in and talk at people for an extended period of time for professional development.

We decided to run the majority of our time as an EdCamp (with a bit of scaffolding). In a traditional EdCamp, participants design the day when they arrive to meet their needs with conversations among those who take part in the EdCamp. It’s highly organic (which I really like), but it is a bit of an adjustment for many not familiar with the style of learning.

For our purposes, we added scaffolding to not overwhelm anyone on the first iteration. We took the teachers’ goals from the beginning of the year and teased out four common threads: Student engagement, Social emotional learning, Growth mindset, and EdTech. With these in mind, we created a schedule for the day that allowed teachers to grow in their self defined goals, but also pushed teachers to learn not simply with presentations, but primarily through conversations with each other about the topics at hand. Check out the schedules below:

October 10th schedule

February 20th schedule

We sent teachers out to these conversations with these instructions:

When you get to your session, here are a few reminders:

  • If there’s a video, be the one to get it playing.
  • Find someone to add notes in the Google Doc.
  • Help get the conversation started. (Yes, you! You’ll be great!)
  • Find out where everyone stands on the topic.
    • Ask what experience people have with the topic.
    • Ask what people want to learn about the topic.
  • Make sure everyone who wants to contribute gets a chance to participate.
  • Encourage the conversation. Be patient.
  • Don’t let a little wait time fool you into thinking the conversation is over.

Our teachers loved these two days. The best thing about that for me is that it wasn’t about us as leaders at all. We got out of the way and let the teachers connect with and learn from one another. In those conversations, they challenged one another and worked through tough conversations about the hard work that teaching really is.

Selfishly, it was an incredible way to get to know our teachers on a deeper level. That wasn’t the purpose, but what an important benefit it was for us. We received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the day, and even heard some frustration in October that we wouldn’t be able to revisit this style of learning until our time together in February.

Compliance never got me that reaction.

Offering Empowering Encouragement

Before launching the October PD day, I had a chance to put one other support in place. It was probably my favorite part of the entire experience.

The unstructured conversations needed a secret leader, a plant in the room. Someone who would keep the conversation moving and focused on the topic at hand. So for each of the sessions, I thought through our staff, selected a staff member or two who had a lot to offer in that conversation, and went and had a conversation. I got to share that I was excited about our new, somewhat risky (but hopefully really rewarding) PD that was coming up. But more than that, I got to share that I saw greatness in them. That they had something that needed to be passed along to others. They they were an integral part of the success of the upcoming day.

Those conversations are some of my favorite interactions I’ve had with our staff.

In the end, each EdCamp was a great day. But more than that, I hope it showed teachers that we were willing to practice what we preach, to do something that might not run perfectly (but would be better than the way we’ve always done it). That’s what the Innovator’s Mindset asks of all educators.

Regardless of your role on campus, where do you need to make sure your methods match your message? Do you notice anything that’s contradicting itself? How can you fix those inconsistencies?

And as much as you have control over it, how can you drive PD toward something that honors, rather than sells short, teachers who are giving so much to serve their students?


I’ll be writing more about my own journey with innovation over the next few weeks as part of this MOOC (massive open online course) centered around George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset. Check out the #IMMOOC hashtag to see some conversation about innovation in education.

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