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Leading Change in A Personalized Environment: Right from the Start

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By Sarah Towler, Director of Instructional Support at New Classrooms Innovation Partners for Learning

Four years ago, I was a few months into a new professional journey when I discovered a Georgia school embarking on an adventure of its own.

After 27 years as a principal, administrator, and classroom teacher, I was now helping schools implement personalized learning models that affected all components of a student's learning experience--from the instructional and academic to the operational. Bear Creek Middle School, of Fulton County Schools, was among the first schools I worked with.

Officially, I was their guide as they learned about Teach to One: Math, our personalized learning model, and toured other schools in the TTO network. But as the partnership flourished over the years, I learned as much--if not more--about how their approach to leadership helped them to weather and ultimately embrace the changes that come with a new learning model, including new schedules, reorganized classrooms, and refined instructional practices. It's often about the decisions we make before anything launches.

Since then, I've had the opportunity to work with and learn from many other schools as they've shifted to personalized learning. Every implementation is different, but crucial leadership decisions typically fall into some common areas.

Communication: In all of my years in education, I've rarely seen a case of too much communication. It is especially true when leading schools through change. Effective communication plans start with an audit of key stakeholders and an assessment of a school's communication channels (e.g., email blasts, events, texting, website, and social media). Make sure they are coordinated and aligned to significant milestones on your school calendar; it helps to define this role and assign the responsibility to someone. The changes associated with personalized learning are substantial, so be sure to schedule at least a few open-house events, tours, or parent-teacher nights per term dedicated to giving people a chance to visit, talk with teachers, and see the student learning experience in action. Bear Creek's food-themed parent-teacher nights are one example of how creative and engaging these events can be.

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At "Taste of Bear Creek TTO Math," Bear Creek parents got a taste of how their students learn math through Teach to One during an after-school event. (Photos courtesy of Bear Creek Middle School.)

Teacher Time: Leading schools through change means giving teachers the support they need. Personalized learning models are centered around the student, but they can't run effectively without adult collaboration. Teachers go from being neighbors to roommates, sharing students, materials, space, and routines. This shift can't happen without dedicated time for teachers to regularly meet and plan, and it should be accounted for when the upcoming school year calendar is scheduled. It's also not just about time allotment. School leaders should push teachers to think about how they want the time to be structured, define what their meetings look like, and clarify roles and responsibilities around keeping agendas to make the time productive

Professional Development: Part of supporting teachers during this time is making sure they have opportunities to refine and develop related professional skills. Professional shifts in a personalized learning environment range from facilitating small-group and independent learning to learning how to use new technologies and tools. But again, school leaders need to be more strategic when planning PD opportunities. Are there other school-based staff or district personnel who could attend as participants, observers, or in a more formal role? What are the preferred methods of teacher development from the perspective of the school's instructional leader and how can you ensure alignment?

And this shouldn't be limited to teachers. School leaders prepare others for professional growth, but what about their own? They should think about this time as an opportunity to reflect on their skills. For instance, if an area of focus is developing as an instructional leader, that could mean becoming more data-driven when measuring learning and program effectiveness or improving as an instructional coach who can observe and provide feedback to teachers.

Classroom Culture: Shifting to personalized learning means that students become more actively engaged in how they learn which, in effect, gives them more ownership. But it doesn't mean they're on their own. Students still thrive on routines, structure, and high academic and behavioral expectations, so it's crucial to build a classroom culture that reflects these values. Consider the school's culture, and how it functions in a personalized learning environment. How can you recognize students who flourish? Think about how you can promote best practices around how students learn. What systems can be used to hold students accountable for their learning? There may be other systems or activities that can support student motivation.

Don't think of this list--or any list--as definitive. After all, it isn't Bear Creek's box-checking that stands out to me all these years later. Underlying these decisions are core values about how to move forward as a school. The Bear Creek team, from school leaders to teachers, understood from the very beginning that real reform takes time. They were committed to building a culture of collaboration during the infancy of our partnership and firmly believed in the power of planning.

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