Creating a Predictable Structure for Professional Learning
Fueled with coffee and the remaining adrenaline from wrapping up the academic year, I gathered with a partner school’s Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) for an annual end of school year reflection and planning retreat. A fourth-grade teacher 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 from the previous year, 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?
By the end of the day, our plan was rough but our hearts and minds were full!
Throughout the rest of 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. One educator 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 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 known constants, such as 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 and meetings. The school’s principal 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 to help visualize the coming year.
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 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; that study groups need to meet frequently—but not too frequently—to maintain momentum; 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.
After careful planning, established professional learning opportunities followed a similar pattern each month, 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 does everyone need to know, understand, and improve—and why? Think about contextualizing that vision into an engaging learning target or goal.
Then, brainstorm the ways in which your staff will learn and collaborate together, both in small groups and individually. Ask yourself: What elements of professional learning will be differentiated and which elements will serve the whole community?
With a clear plan for professional learning, your leadership team should feel well equipped to plan 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—and be ready to gather formative feedback along the way and make changes as needed.