The Challenges of Individualized Professional Development

It’s been about three years now since our school switched from a whole group to an individualized model of professional development (PD), and along the way, we’ve made plenty of mistakes and run into a fair number of challenges. Although sometimes these challenges have felt frustrating and overwhelming, in the end they’ve been great catalysts for our program’s growth, so I have to look back at them with gratitude.

These are some of the issues we faced and how we overcame them:

Meeting everyone’s needs

When we first opened our school we had three teachers; we now have around 50. We sent students home at noon every Friday so that teachers had dedicated time for PD each week. Our weekly PD was a traditional workshop that covered a topic or skill that teachers were working on. We thought weekly PD was an awesome idea. And it was, but… while creating workshops for 10 – 20 teachers who were all fairly new to our school was pretty easy, as we grew, creating PD sessions that would meet the needs of 50 teachers, at all levels of experience, was definitely a battle. A battle that we were swiftly losing.

The Fix

As it became unmanageable to teach all our teachers together  in one large group, we took the decision to hold separate sessions for elementary and secondary teachers. This worked for a while, as we were able to meet the differing needs of the two groups, but the split added a new problem.

Cliques happen — and cliques are negative

Although we split into two groups for good reasons, we didn’t foresee the consequence of this decision: very quickly, for all intents and purposes, we became two separate schools. In a school called The Community for Learning — because community is the backbone of our philosophy — this was not acceptable. We knew that teachers learned more when they shared across grade levels and that we needed to rectify this. But we discovered that although it’s fairly easy to rip something in two, it’s much more difficult to glue it back together again.

The Fix

In secondary we began moving from whole group PD to individualized, but then decided to invite the elementary to join us so that teachers of different levels could work together and become more of a team. It took a good long while before the feeling of two separate schools began to fade, and we’re still working on becoming one school again. We learned that splitting teachers into groups is fine as long as we keep switching it up to avoid forming cliques

Communicating our WHY

In order to have buy-in for our individualized PD, it was important to let teachers know why we were taking this approach. But in our eagerness to bring the elementary school on board, we skipped that crucial step. Because communication is difficult, we had jumped straight into applying our PD without taking the time to explain our goals. There was no way around it: if we wanted teachers to care about their learning, we had to take the time to truly communicate. We not only had to explain our objectives, but we had to listen openly to their feedback.  

The Fix

In a Friday PD session, we decided to share our reasons for moving to individualized PD and the challenges we were facing. We explained the why behind our professional development and how hard it was to create something that met all of their needs.

We asked teachers for their feedback and to share ideas about what they’d like to see in our individualized PD. Although teachers expressed feeling isolated, they didn’t complain. Instead, they focused on solutions, coming up with ideas for more small group sessions. Not much actually changed in the way we ran PD after this meeting — but the simple fact that we asked teachers for their opinions seemed to change the atmosphere in our PD sessions to a much more positive vibe.

Individualized PD can become too individual

When we began our individualized PD, we created learning modules, which we physically kept on an interactive wall. Teachers would choose a module and work in groups. But as our lesson bank grew, there was too much information for a single wall, so we transferred everything to hyperdocs that we put on Google Classroom. Cool: Hyperdocs, Google Classroom… teachers should love it, right?

But they didn’t.

Teachers missed having discussions, sharing ideas, and helping each other learn. We had no intention of turning our PD into a lonely venture, and we envisioned them sharing lessons and learning together both online and offline. But the reality was that teachers working on computers and completing online lessons very quickly began to feel isolated.

Teachers solving BreakoutEdu 

The Fix

We interspersed regular individualized PD with Edcamp-style sessions, playDATES, brainstorming protocols, and anything we could think of to break the monotony of online PD. These sessions were awesome: teachers felt refreshed and inspired when they worked together. But we found that the computer PD sessions were still too lonely and teachers were going through the motions without actually applying what they learned to their classes. 

Learning is social

Teachers repeated over and over that just because they wanted to follow their own interests didn’t mean they wanted to work alone. Although we told them that they could work on the hyperdoc lessons in groups, once they were at the computers, most of them either continued to work on their own or they gravitated to teachers in their grade level or subject area that already felt comfortable with.

The Fix

In an aha moment, we decided to mesh Edcamp-style PD with our individualized learning modules. We asked teachers about their interests, and then created eight overarching topics. We put these on an Edcamp-style invitation board and asked teachers to sign up. We told them the groups would be together for at least four weeks as they learned, applied their learning, reflected, and shared with one another.

This solution has actually been magical! Teachers of different grade levels and subject areas are enthusiastically learning together. With the support of the group, they’re taking risks and applying what they’re learning in their classrooms. They ask coaches to observe them as they try new strategies, and they come back to share their successes and failures, tweak their ideas, and laugh together.

It’s taken a fair bit of adapting and experimentation, but in our Friday PD sessions, we finally feel a true sense of community.

The big takeaway from our individualized PD adventure

  • Humans are social animals. They learn best when they learn together, sharing ideas and reflecting on their challenges and successes. 
  • Teachers must know the why behind their professional development and they must have a say in how it’s run.
  • Cross-grade-level and cross-curricular collaboration is enriching. When groups are too homogeneous, the learning tends to stagnate. Yes, it’s important for the science team to meet together consistently to share common issues. But it’s equally important for them to draw new ideas from new sources. For instance, when they meet with the language arts teachers and hear about a “spiderweb” technique, they may be inspired to try something that they never considered before.

Three years in, after much agonizing and tinkering, we finally feel comfortable with our individualized PD. We’re seeing real change happening in the classroom, as teachers learn from each other and apply what they learn. There are still improvements to be made, but this is education — as long as we have a school, we’ll continue to learn and grow!

If you are experimenting with individualized PD, I’d love to hear what you’ve tried. After all, we learn better when we learn together.

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