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Unstoppable PD

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By Sajan George, Founder & Chief Executive Officer for Matchbook Learning

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?  This is an old philosophical question with no real answer.  It can also feel like the same dilemma we face today in preparing our teachers for tomorrow. 

What does professional development look like for teachers when you are trying to prepare them for innovation (personalized, competency-based learning) in the context of a deeply historical societal problem (poverty)? 

Meeting every student where they are (competency-wise) and providing them with both the time and agency required to demonstrate true mastery of the relevant competencies required of them tomorrow is not just a clever style or mode of learning. It is the inevitable future we long for so that every child, regardless of their starting point, will achieve the upper limits of their potential.  But this inevitable future buttresses up against the harsh realities of poverty that often strip even the basic necessities needed by students to learn and excel (i.e., confidence, character, and courage) in critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. 

True to the very innovation those of us at Matchbook Learning seek to deploy in our model for student learning, we also seek innovation in training teachers.  Perhaps more clearly stated, we must continue to iterate on our professional development program and not be afraid to risk, fail, and try again to support every teacher where they are.  Over the past 6 years of training a few hundred teachers, we've tried and designed, and then redesigned, our professional development program every year to be a little better than the year before.  Over the course of this 6-year journey, I can summarize 3 key formative ideas of our professional development approach:

1.  Immersion.

To paradigm shift from teaching all students at once to teaching individual students in small groups and one-on-one settings, teachers must immerse themselves in this context first.  In our two-week back-to-school training, or what we call "MBL U," teachers are immersed in a personalized classroom where they are the students and Matchbook Learning administrators are the teachers.  Some say seeing is believing.  We have learned that experiencing is believing.  Our teachers learn the required strengths and weaknesses of our model, navigate our Spark technology platform, calibrate their moves, and master teaching competencies all in the context of a personalized learning classroom for adults. 

2.  Rapid, Real-time Feedback. 

So many teaching skills involve micro adjustments.  The framing of questions, the follow-up on student responses, facilitating discussions of rigor, designing applications of appropriate depth of knowledge, classroom management techniques, data analyses, and planning strategies are just a handful of competencies teachers can continuously improve.  There is no one singular way to become proficient at these teaching competencies but rather a series of micro adjustments can help scaffold a teacher's progress.  Waiting for a scheduled PD session after school every two weeks loses the opportunity to adjust and correct errors or deficiencies as they occur.  Our administrators provide real-time classroom feedback as they observe teachers in action.  To interrupt a teacher in the middle of delivering her or his craft in order to give short quick feedback may seem disruptive or even disrespectful .  However the very best schools understand that this kind of tuning and adjustment in front of students demonstrates that everyone is a learner and everyone can improve, including their teachers.  This allows the students to observe the kind of growth they themselves are expected to demonstrate.

3.  Multiple Perspectives Multiple Times.

The average teacher in America is lucky to receive one and likely no more than two or three formal observations from their supervisor a year.  Our teachers receive over 40 observations a year--from their designated coach, their peers, their principal, and other members of our management team.  This gives a holistic picture of the teacher and ensures we do not over-index what may be, say, a particularly tough day for the teacher or a particular observer's reference point or bias. 

These elements of professional development:  immersion, rapid real-time feedback, and multiple perspectives multiple times require a fair amount of effort to maintain.  This is why we built a learning management platform to assist teachers in staying immersed in what and how their students are learning, to provide rapid real time feedback to their students, and to allow for students to receive multiple perspectives in learning how to learn. 

The intractable or immovable nature of generational poverty requires a relentless almost unstoppable assault on breaking the component pieces of how teaching competencies are mastered one student pathway at a time. 

Talent + Process + Technology + Professional Development  = our secret formula for designing an unstoppable force of teachers that we intend to unleash on the forces of poverty in Indianapolis.  Stay tuned.  

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