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Honoring Three Principles of High-Quality Professional Learning

In my role of Director of Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Schoolcraft Community Schools, my favorite tasks are providing innovative classroom strategies to my teachers and collaborating with them to lead to greater student success. After seeing the new report from Educators for High Standards, “Lifelong Learners: How Redefining Professional Learning Leads to Stronger Teachers and Improved Student Outcomes,” I was encouraged to see other educators around the country leading high-quality learning similar to what I do. I am too passionate about improving the quality of professional learning for teachers, and hope that ESSA will be the lever that will create a large scale change. In addition to the components of redefined professional learning outlined in the report, there are three basic principles I also try keep in mind when creating and leading professional learning:

1. Teachers are busy – so keep things in bite-sized amounts;
2. Allow teachers to access help on their own schedule as much as possible; and
3. It’s important to model what I hope they are doing in class.

There are a few things I keep in mind to ensure I honor these basic principles, which not surprisingly, are three of the components that ESSA requires of “high-quality professional learning” :

1. Classroom Focused: Resources and learning should be focused on what teachers need for their individual classrooms and what is realistic for them to implement. I curate the most relevant content and resources to allow for easier incorporation in the daily classroom.
2. Job Embedded: Professional learning should be done on teachers’ time, integrated into their regular schedule, not additional work after the school day ends.
3. Sustained: Learning should allow time for practice and reflection, which is modeled after effective teaching practices.

Classroom Focused Professional Learning

I love teaching and learning and am an avid reader of Ed Blogs, Twitter, Facebook Groups, G+ groups, Flipboard, and traditional books/articles. I curate the best and most relevant pieces I read weekly in “Convocation of Learning” (built with Smore.com), which I email to my colleagues on Mondays allowing teachers to read it at their leisure when they have time during the week. All resources are brief and collected in one digest which allows teachers to check back when they have the time or when something presents itself as a need later.

In addition, I always remind teachers that utilizing this newsletter can not only help amplify and enhance the good teaching they already are doing, but also can be documented as professional learning needed for their evaluation! I originally started this newsletter to reduce the “HEY LOOK WHAT I FOUND” emails I was sending out daily to teachers. While teachers appreciated my sharing of resources, these emails were getting lost in their inbox deluge. To echo the sentiments of Teach Plus teacher Candace Hines, teachers really are “just looking for more opportunities to learn more.” By providing teachers with regular bite sized pieces of information on resources and strategies, it keeps them constantly learning and accessing the most relevant topics for their classroom.

Job-Embedded Professional Learning

Teachers are busy. Yet, they crave professional learning. Youcanbook.me is a website which allows users to create a booking calendar connected to your personal calendar.  Early in my instructional coaching career, I would attempt to set up observations or teacher visits via email. The classic exchange was,

Teacher: “Are you free ____?”

Me: “No but I can do ____.”

Teacher: “That doesn’t work for me can you shoot me a few more dates and times?”

Me: “Sure what about ___, ___ or ___?”

Teacher (1 week later): “Sorry I’ve been super busy and those dates are passed.  When else are you free Matt?”

Wash, rinse, and repeat for another week.

Now, Youcanbook.me has shortened those exchanges to,

Teacher:  “Are you free _____?”

Me:  “No, but just click the youcanbook.me link in my email signature and pick the best free date, time and length of time you need and I’ll be there!”

Allowing teachers to fit me into their schedules makes my coaching not ‘one more thing’ but instead a job-embedded piece of what they do to reflect and get questions answered. I love being ‘ordered up’ to answer questions, share resources or model a best practice whenever is most convenient in my teachers’ schedules.

Sustained and Reflective Professional Learning

Professional learning should mirror the type of learning we provide for our students. “Do as I say not as I do” only works when parents eat cookies before dinner. It does not work well for professional learning facilitators to send the message that classroom instruction needs to be varied and interactive, only to ask participants to sit for hours to hear about the latest classroom strategy of the time. “Lectures are bad now sit here and listen to me tell you how to do this cool thing” as even adult learners do not best process learning this way. With this in mind my PD recipe is as follows:

1. Here is what I have planned.
2. Now, what do you hope to get out of this?
3. Here is a little bit…now go explore/practice it.
4. (While they are exploring/practicing stuff I rearrange my presentation to hit what they hoped to get and/or find additional resources).
5. Looky here….exactly what you asked for (sometimes in stations according to what people wanted).
6. Leave a good chunk of time at the end to explore/practice/build because I know you are way too busy in your ‘regular’ day to do ‘one more new thing’.

I have found if I allow for processing, practice and reflection, learners are more likely to retain and implement topics we have discussed. Modeling this with the educators I support allows them to see this in action and to take strategies back to their own classrooms.  Teachers are booked pretty tight for time so they typically thank me for letting them explore and try the resources and not just take notes on them. I take that opportunity to remind them that today’s students are also very busy and their classrooms can and should mirror this type of instruction.

While I have been a “Director of Innovation” for only a year and a half, I have found my three basic principles have helped me to increase my effectiveness as a professional learning facilitator. I am encouraged by the innovative work highlighted in “Lifelong Learners” and the opportunity that ESSA presents to improve professional learning across the country. My only hope is that states implement the law with fidelity and truly begin to see the strong connection between professional learning, high quality instruction and student outcomes.

Matt McCullough, the father of 4 biological children and father-figure and educator to 1000s more, labels himself an educational enthusiast.  Matt is the Director of Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Schoolcraft Community Schools and a current Teacher Champion.