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4 Ways to Make Professional Development Sticky Systemic

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This past year at the elementary level we spent the entire year familiarizing ourselves with Writing Workshop, with the idea all teachers will hit the ground running with this framework in 2016-2017. Formal professional development included: three three-hour sessions, a six-hour consultant workshop, an all-day site visit to a school in New Jersey, optional planning time, and an optional book study…That being said, it would be a shame (and nonsensical) if all of this time and effort didn’t result in noticeable, pedagogical shifts in regards to the way our students engage in writing.

Nonetheless, from what I have experienced…Far too often, professional development involves throwing a bunch of loosely related ideas at a wall, crossing our fingers, and hoping something will stick and the necessary instructional shifts will be made.

When a topic is the primary focus of professional development, the goal should be for change that is sticky systemic. That is, the change should be (1) sustainable and (2) prevalent across the district/school(s).

With these thoughts in mind, here are four ways to make professional development sticky systemic.

1. Begin with (and stick with) “the end in mind”

According to Tom Guskey, to ensure professional development processes are intentional, we must “begin with a clear statement of purposes and goals.”  I also believe this information (1) should be communicated with teachers and (2) should be as specific as possible while leaving room for teachers to “make it their own.” For example, a focus of this upcoming year’s elementary level professional development will be close reading. Rather than delivering the vague message/directive, “Close reading should be taught,” we can start with, “Students will engage in close reading on a regular basis to deepen their understanding of texts.” The latter statement places the emphasis on learning (not teaching), touches upon why these instructional shifts are beneficial, but still leaves room for teacher ownership (what the close reading will look like, how often it will take place, etc.).

Also, resist temptations to schedule “learning detours” that focus on the trendy while detracting from time that could be spent on your primary focus/topic. Doug Reeves writes, “Large-scale improvement is most likely to occur when a few school initatives are implemented deeply, not when a laundry list of initiatives is implemented in a scattershot manner.” Finally, create short-term wins by ending each professional development session with a “What can you do tomorrow?” These wins can generate hope/excitement en route to a final destination that may initially feel unreachable. John Kotter explains, “Nonbelievers have even higher standards of proof. They want to see clear data indicating that the changes are working and that the change process isn’t absorbing so many resources in the short term as to endanger the organization.”

2. Provide ongoing support

One form of ongoing support involves evaluating the effectiveness of professional development and teachers’ perceptions regarding an initiative. While I routinely distribute anonymous surveys following each session, I also make it a point to get into the classrooms of teachers who recently attended professional development I helped to plan/facilitate. These “walkthroughs” allow for informal conversations, which assist in gauging teachers’ reactions to what they experienced, and at the same time these teachers are provided with opportunities to talk about potential questions, thoughts, or concerns. In other words, they are given a voice. (It should also be noted that while evaluating professional development doesn’t end at participant reaction, it is a first step.)…Most importantly, all feedback should be taken into consideration, and at least some of it should be used to guide future decision-making.

Another form of ongoing support involves making sure learning is a continuous process. For example, for Writing Workshop we created a digital hub that houses all of our resources, and for our project-based learning initiative there is also a hub.  Also, once again, administrators getting into classrooms (and teachers getting into each other’s classrooms) can assist with learning, as can some form of a walkthrough tool. (Although we are currently not using such a tool, we did generate universal Writing Workshop “look-fors.” More on this later on...) Ultimately, I believe the goal is to take a sledgehammer to the idea that learning takes place only on specified days. As Guskey exclaims, “Although allocating certain days during the school year to professional development is appropriate for some activities, it also reinforces the perception of professional development as separate from the ongoing, day-to-day tasks of educators.”

3. Eliminate hoops

Our new Writing Workshop materials come with rubrics, which teachers are to use for a small handful of writing prompts throughout the year. This is great, other than the fact that the wording used in these grading instruments doesn’t entirely align with our new report cards. I was initially aware of this discrepancy, but was under the impression teachers would be able to “figure it out.” Even when a few teachers raised this concern, my mentality did not waver…However, upon further consideration, I decided I would create some type of alignment guide for teachers to more easily derive report card grades from the rubrics. Even though such a tool will not be all that difficult to put together, it will (1) promote more consistent grading practices amongst teachers, and (2) be one less hoop teachers have to jump through for Writing Workshop to run smoothly in their classrooms.

As administrators promote change, we ask teachers to refine their practices for the benefit of our students. But, we must be cognizant of the fact that although we have everyone’s best interests in mind, in reality we are often creating more hoops through which others have to jump. And, if we want our teachers and students to be successful, we must ensure the hoops we create are (1) worth jumping through, and (2) subsequently destroyed (or never constructed in the first place), if possible. In Accelerate, John Kotter writes, “Innovation is less about generating brand-new ideas and more about knocking down barriers to making these ideas a reality.” Sometimes these barriers/hoops are obvious, but other times not so much. And if we don’t communicate with our stakeholders, we may fail to identify some of these obstacles until it’s too late.

4. Co-created expectations

As previously mentioned, following teacher learning, often times administrators simply hope for the best as opposed to following through with a clear vision for “What’s next?” If this is the case, and there are no consistent expectations regarding what should be happening in classrooms, sticky systemic change is less likely to occur as everyone may end up doing “their own thing.” According to Sharratt and Fullan, “…effective district-wide reform depends upon deep interdependent practice – the opposite of the promulgation of plans and policies without collaboration or sustainability.” Furthermore, when these expectations are created, they should (1) provide teachers with enough flexibility to “make it their own,” and (2) primarily focus on student learning (not instruction), if possible, as ultimately, the impact our actions have on students is what matters most.

Towards the end of this past school year we created a Writing Workshop expectations document to “establish minimum expectations for what should be taking place in every classroom.” This document was made by administrators, distributed to teachers, and it will be refined as necessary. Next year, when we focus on close reading, I hope to end the year’s professional development with an activity in which teachers more directly contribute to the first draft of the expectations (in very much the same way students contribute to their classroom’s rules during the first week of school). As a result, I believe (1) there will be more attention to detail, as teachers truly understand the realities of their day-to-day classrooms, (2) there will be more teacher ownership, and (3) teachers will have a deeper understanding of how and why the expectations/changes can benefit their students.

In the End

The bottom line…As facilitators of professional development, we owe it to teachers (and all stakeholders) to not waste their valued time and energy by exposing them to hours upon hours of learning, which subsequently end up having minimal or no lasting impact on teacher instruction and student experiences. (Yet, time and time again, educators are putting in countless amount of work, and no noticeable progress is made.)

Michael Fullan tells us that “systems thinking in practice…is the key to sustainability.” So, rather than crossing our fingers, hoping professional development sticks, and possibly creating pockets of greatness while others get left behind…Let’s make sure we’re intentional about professional development moving everyone forward, with ongoing support and a clear vision in mind.  

What are your experiences with any of my four ideas? Also, in what other ways do you think professional development can be made sticky systemic?

Connect with Ross on his blog and on Twitter.


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I am the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Teacher. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. Also, I regularly engage in speaking, consulting, and presenting. I have conducted keynotes, speaking engagements, and workshops ranging from 15 minutes to all-day. A list of what I have previously offered, and testimonials, can be found on my blog.

When I am not educating or going to school, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, and playing on my computer…Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and/or Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Tuesday, 25 October 2016