Adults Need Space, Time, and Encouragement to be Lifelong Learners Too
By Jennifer Ferrari, Chief Schools Officer, and Jin-Soo Huh, Executive Director of Personalized Learning, at Distinctive Schools
Educators come to the education space with unique passions, interests, and proclivities. When allowed to personalize their areas of deep study, educators pursue a wide range of topics, and in turn, our system benefits from a well-rounded knowledge-base with diverse expertise. While one teacher may be motivated to study strong female characters in British Literature, another may be equally motivated to study a specific domain of personalized learning or student self-regulation strategies.
As educators, our work and efforts are not motivated by our earning capacity. Rather, we are motivated by our potential to ignite curiosity and wonder in our kids and to have a profound impact on our students and their life trajectories. When we couple our ability to pursue areas of personal deep interest and our ability to have profound impact on kids, magic happens. It is this combination that promotes freshness and longevity in our field. However, with the daily load that teachers face with lesson planning, grading, and the many other tasks that make their way on the to-do list, cultivation of personal interests often falls to the bottom of the priority list. Educators often fail to model the lifelong, passionate learning we so desperately try to impart to our students. We simply don't have the time or space to make it happen.
At Distinctive Schools, we are committed to deep, relevant, personalized learning for all learners ...including the adults! We strongly believe that to truly instill the value of lifelong learning in our students, we must model this at every level of our organization. To that end, we practice what we preach. As an innovative network, we value risk-taking, exploration, experimentation, and discovery. To nurture the design spirit and to promote our trailblazing identity, we have designed a process to promote inquiry and intentionally protect time for personalized professional practice and growth.
Just like our students, all adults in our organization create a learner profile. Through the development of this personal overview, our educators reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for development, learner preferences, personal goals, areas of interest, and ways in which they like to be recognized. This living document, which evolves over time, guides collaboration efforts and helps set the foundation for each educator's Personalized Professional Learning (PPL).
"Yes And" for Practice and Growth
We broadly believe there are two areas adult learners need to develop: professional practice and professional growth. Professional practice is the technical side of the work. For teachers, this is developing skills like classroom management, assessment, lesson planning, and student engagement. At Distinctive Schools, the skills of professional practice are tied to our Teaching Framework, created for and with teachers, and skill development is supported by instructional coaching and targeted professional learning sessions.
Professional growth, on the other hand, is the passion work. This is what fires educators up and motivates them to stay engaged and deeply connected to their work. Cultivating this passion work is a critical part of our organization's model. We promote innovation and nurture transformative trailblazing by providing time and space for our educators to pursue areas of interest. We provide a platform for study, reflection, and sharing so that we continually evolve in our thinking and remain at the designing edges of school transformation and improvement. This year, we rolled out professional growth plans to provide a structure for our team to develop these interests (template).
Professional Growth Plans
Distinctive Schools educators build their professional expertise in an area of personal interest through the development of a Professional Growth Plan (PGP). Aligned to the efforts in our strategic plan, PGPs are highly personalized opportunities to support professional growth and learning. Educators choose a question, problem, or topic to deeply investigate and study throughout the year. Throughout their learning process, educators reflect on their learning, apply the new learning in their practice, and share their experiences, understandings, and new resources with colleagues. The PGP process we have established allows adult learners to design their own learning experiences and allows flexibility and self-direction throughout the process. The only requirements of the work are: 1) the PGP must connect to and support the DS strategic plan (Social Emotional Learning, complex math instruction, etc.); 2) reflection and progress must be reported quarterly; and 3) leaders must "pay It forward" at the end of the year by sharing their learning experience and growth with colleagues.
Educators can choose to work independently as they grapple with their driving question or link up with teammates to explore the question collectively. Through the process, the learner explains the importance of the question and articulates the hopeful learning outcome. Quarterly check ins with managers around the PGP are not evaluative but rather a chance to share updates, celebrate, and brainstorm next steps.
This year, several leaders are taking a deep dive into math instruction through their PGPs. A passion to develop conceptual math knowledge and curiosity in students rather than teaching procedures and discrete skills is driving this project. As a group they have signed up to take Jo Boaler's online course "How to Learn Math for Teachers" with a final product of incorporating complex math instruction and low-floor/high-ceiling tasks to promote deep conceptual knowledge.
Professional Growth for All
Just like in the classroom, PGPs are not reserved for our top performing educators. All educators are expected to engage in personal study and inquiry, but the depth and complexity of the study varies based on each learner's readiness. For example, while a new teacher will likely have several areas to develop in the area of professional practice, he will also be expected to push himself in a passion area to demonstrate professional growth. Small projects like reading articles and participating in regular Twitter chats in areas of interest are great, manageable options for new teachers. All Distinctive School members address professional practice/growth at appropriate and personalized levels. This is analogous to making sure we do not just reserve deeper learning tasks like projects and inquiry experiences for high performing students.
This year, to initiate this well-rounded learning experience for adult learners, we have charged our campus and academic team leaders with creating PGPs. Our goal is to roll it out to all adult learners in our network next school year. By providing structures so that adult learners have the time, space, and support to grow in both professional practice and professional growth, learners can cultivate their passions, push innovation, and develop their teaching skills for stronger learning experiences for our students.