Creating a Predictable Structure for Professional Learning

Fueled with coffee and the remaining adrenaline from wrapping up the school year, the Bill Roberts Instructional Leadership Team gathered for our annual June reflecting and planning retreat.  Val started things off by asking, “So what went well this year, and where are we headed?” 

After reviewing teacher surveys, exit slips from various professional learning sessions, student data, and district initiatives, we crafted an overarching goal, identified specific outcomes, and brainstormed a variety of learning activities to support our essential questions, “What is understanding?  What does deeper level thinking look like and sound like? And how might we assess understanding and deeper level thinking?”  Wiggins and McTighe’s, Schooling by Design was a touchstone text for us as we drafted our plan.  By the end of the day, our plan was rough but our hearts and minds were full!

Over the summer, we read various resources, attended district trainings, exchanged emails, reflected on the previous year, and recharged our batteries.  At our August planning retreat the ILT was brimming with energy, anticipation, and excitement for the year ahead, today was the day to draft our plan for the upcoming school year. Carla commented, “I am so excited for this year, my hope for today is that we can create a structure that makes sense without overwhelming us or the staff.”  One of the most daunting tasks of any professional learning plan is actual implementation, moving from a space of ideas to actual actions.  What will professional learning actually look like and sound like on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis? 

In order to support our planning process, we wallpapered the room with calendar charts and began the process of marking down all of the constants like holidays, in-service days, report card deadlines, testing windows, etc..  And then we began listing all of the “time” that could be leveraged for collaboration, meetings, and collaboration. Trich Lea, the principal of Bill Roberts, intentionally created a schedule that provided early release time each Friday for professional learning.   As a team we assigned all of the professional learning activities and meetings specific colored sticky notes. 

  • Pink = Bi-Monthly Staff Meetings
  • Blue = Grade Level Team Meetings
  • Green = Planning for Understanding (whole staff professional learning)
  • Purple = Standards, Collaboration & Planning (content or grade level teams)
  • Yellow = Data Teams & SMART Goals (content or grade level teams)
  • Orange = School Focus PD (whole staff professional learning)

As the team placed the various sticky notes on the calendars we looked for patterns and problems, asked big questions, made some tough decisions, and created a variety of options by simply moving the sticky notes around. We were able to balance the professional learning goals and plans with the landscape of the school year.  The team discovered that “testing” season was not an ideal time for teachers to observe one another’s teaching, study groups need to meet frequently to maintain momentum but not too frequently, and that it was critical to plan for celebrations.  Ultimately, the team created a road map for the year that included both a “Month-at-a-Glance” and a “PLC Schedule” that were distributed to the staff and updated via google docs as needed. As we reflected on the process, Jamie Salturelli noted, “I loved the visual and flexibility of the sticky notes. It also allowed us to see things big picture that probably would have been missed on a computer document.”

Each month professional learning followed a similar pattern and the schedule began to feel like a routine.  The staff knew when they would be learning in whole group and when they would be collaborating with teammates, few were asking, “What are doing this week?” It also allowed the members of the ILT to delegate planning and facilitation responsibilities far enough in advance so that plans could be thoughtfully developed and implemented. 

As you gather with your leadership team to plan those early professional learning opportunities, take some time to think about the year as a whole.  What are you going after this year?  What is everyone going to be “getting smarter” about?  What does everyone want to know, understand, and be able to do better?  Why?  Think about contextualizing that vision into a juicy guiding question, learning target or goal.  

Then brainstorm the ways in which your staff will learn and collaborate together, in small groups, and individually.  What elements of professional learning will be differentiated and which elements will serve the whole community?  How might your colleagues work in like teams as well as unlike teams?  What materials are you going to need?  What resources do you need to leverage?  What assets do your colleagues hold that you can access?  

Finally, begin to build your plan.  What does professional learning look like across the year?  

  1. Do your professional learning activities connect to one another and the school-wide goal or vision? 
  2. Do you need to adjust the goals or reprioritize other initiatives so that you can reach the stated goals?  Do you have enough time to meet your goals? 
  3. Have you considered opportunities to differentiate and support a variety of learning styles?
  4. Considering the importance of depth, time, and routine, how can you build a predictable and effective schedule for professional learning?    

Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”  With a clear plan for professional learning, your leadership team should feel well equipped to plan, facilitate, adjust, reflect, and meet the needs of your colleagues.  Of course, we all know that change is the only constant, so keep in mind the importance of situational awareness, gather formative feedback along the way, and make changes as needed.  

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