Faith Restored: Thank you, Teachers!

Professional learning and development (PL&D)* enhances learning for students. I know this is true. I knew it as a teacher, when a well-designed professional learning experience would cause immediate adjustments to my practice. Or over the long term: I took a course with a facilitator who I had great respect for, and one day she mentioned offhandedly that her school didn’t give out grades. That comment stuck with me, through future course conversations about assessments, rubrics, and grades, and caused me, over time, to truly examine my understanding and beliefs around the purpose of assessment. The end result was a more thoughtful, nuanced way of assessing my students; better practice leading to better outcomes for children.

And OF COURSE I know that professional learning and development enhances learning for students, because my job is that of professional development coordinator for my school district! It has to be making a difference for students, right? Well…I have a secret to admit. While my head knows this to be true, I’ve had a hard time getting my heart on board. I’ve grappled with this since taking the job–sitting in Central Office, spending hours on emails and technical challenges and research, I feel light years away from teaching. How could what I’m doing have any impact on kids? In the classroom, you get the instant gratification of seeing your students through the ups and downs of learning. In my new role, not so much. So here’s where some fantastic teachers come into the story: over the last month, a series of events have reminded me of the enormous impact quality PL&D can have on educator (and student) growth.

First, it was a Friday night event in town where educators shared projects they had developed and implemented for their students. Five educators, three projects, impact on students = immeasurable. To take on this work meant a huge investment of time, energy, and learning on behalf of the educators, and the results were far-reaching: elementary students, middle school students, high school students; science, social studies, engineering, performing arts, foreign language, empathy and connection, leadership, the list goes on. It was clear that PL&D had led directly to positive outcomes for kids, and I was thrilled to see it through these dynamic presentations.

Then, the due date came for educators to propose courses that they want to teach, as part of our summer PL&D program. These due dates always get me (we have one for fall courses, spring courses, and summer), but perhaps because I had been struggling to see the impact of my work, this one was especially meaningful. Educators throughout the district had spent their evenings and weekends doing the reading and research to put together a concept paper and proposed syllabus for a graduate-level course, to facilitate learning among their colleagues, over summer vacation. That is dedication to the craft! Educators within the district are going to share their expertise this summer around the progression of fraction understanding, the impact of executive function on language, and memoir writing, among other topics! Seeing the effort put into these course proposals, as well as the content to be taught, reminds me that our students are in the care of a most capable, professional teaching faculty.

Finally, a thank-you note came in the mail this week. A teacher thanked our office for supporting her to develop and teach a course (her proposal came in back in December, and she taught a course this spring offering strategies for engaging reluctant writers). She said, in the letter, that teaching her colleagues was one of the most valuable experiences of her career. I cried.

So thank you, teachers, not only for what you do every day for our students. Thank you for making it abundantly clear, over and over again (I never said I was the quickest learner!) how professional learning and development opportunities allow you to improve and enrich your practice, and how all of our students and school communities benefit from this critical work. I needed this lesson!

* A note on the phrase “professional learning and development”– in my interpretation, learning new knowledge is not necessarily the same thing as developing as an educator. Yet both professional learning and professional development are critical levers to improving educator practice and outcomes for students. This is why I prefer to talk about PL&D, as encompassing a whole suite of opportunities for growth.  

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Where is MY professional learning?

As a teacher in the MetroWest of Boston, my professional learning was EVERYWHERE–the immediate network of teachers and PLCs around me, a robust district professional learning program, and first-class trainings and workshops out of district.  Now that I am the professional learning coordinator, though, I’m in a stand-alone position in Central Office.  I have no job-alikes in the district, no PLCs to be part of; I get to sample tons of professional learning for educators, but (most of the time) it’s no longer directly applicable to my position.  Where do I get my professional learning now?

In this first year, I’m finding the answer to that question is in the networks we create.  I have two networks that have guided me, sustained me, and contributed greatly to my growth and development as professional learning coordinator.  Interestingly, both networks bridge a personal/professional sphere, shifting and telescoping to be what I need, when I need them.

The first network has been a horizontal(ish) one: I’m lucky enough to live in close proximity to several other districts that also have PL coordinators; six of us meet monthly as a job-alike group.  We share what’s going on in our respective professional worlds; we trade resources on everything professional learning, and reach out to one another when we encounter a question in our home districts.  Our job titles are all slightly different, and our responsibilities vary from district to district, but I have found this group to be hugely important to my professional growth.  Networking with my job-alike group has helped me identify questions I didn’t know I needed to ask, close gaps in my understanding of the bigger picture in state education policy, and offers a fantastic barometer of what’s trending in our area in terms of professional learning.  In addition to all those benefits, occasionally the discussion shifts to venting about some of the frustrations of the job–not in an unhealthy way, but in a way that helps me remember that working with humans is not always easy and I’m not the only one who struggles sometimes.  And then last month, we went down a rabbit hole and debated the nuances of supervision and evaluation as a tool for improvement–most of us don’t have a huge role in the district supervision and evaluation systems, but collegial debate amongst professionals with different perspectives is a learning opportunity that I don’t think we get to engage in often enough. It’s FUN, too!

The key piece about my job-alike group is that it is a space for flexible support–I have found it to be true professional learning and development.  The group members themselves hold a wealth of resources and connections that I can draw from to improve upon the work I do in my district.  They each have different experiences and perspectives that push my thinking forward and open me to new ideas.  Finally, they are kind, caring people who love education and professional learning, and make time each month to share their expertise and passion with someone new to the job.

I did say there were two networks that I draw from for professional learning– I’ll save that second network for another day!  If you’re in a stand-alone position, how do you find your professional learning networks?  Please share!

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End of Year: Teaching vs. Central Office

No!  I’m not pitting teachers versus Central Office!  It has been a year since I reflected here about the end of the school year, and a lot has changed.  For the first time since–well, before I started PreK, I guess–the last day of school did not mean the start of summer vacation.  This June, I wasn’t counting down the days, field trips, and projects that would bring us to the last day of school.  In fact, I was shocked when a teacher told me earlier in the month that there were nine days left.  Nine days?? And I hadn’t realized??

Well, it makes sense that you wouldn’t realize, my colleagues told me.  Your year doesn’t end on June 22; you’re still setting your alarm on June 23, and scheduling meetings for the summer months.  And they are right, and that isn’t really what jarred me about this June.  There is a feeling, a mood in the air for teachers and schools that starts about that first week of June, and I miss it from my new vantage point at Central Office.

June, for teachers, is INSANE.  As mentioned above, the schedule blows up with field trips, presentations, special events.  Plus grades are due, plus the classroom needs organizing, plus cleaning, plus making careful considerations about how to arrange students in classrooms for the next year and learning bits and pieces about the new students you’ll have in just eight weeks.  June is also just a lovely month in Massachusetts (and in most places, I’m sure), with longer days that get warmer and warmer.  There are retirement parties, and end-of-year gatherings; you’re staying up later than normal on school nights and weekends are busier in June.  There’s an anticipation of summer vacation that permeates every day, and it’s exciting, and then there’s the nostalgia for the year coming to a close.  Kids from previous years come back to visit, parents are so appreciative of your time and efforts, and you get to spend a lot of joyful time with your current students.  On the last day, you close your classroom door as you leave and drive away with the windows down, feeling exhausted and proud and exhilarated because it’s summertime!  June as a teacher feels almost a little bit magical.

June in Central Office sucks.  I’m sorry for the juvenile word, but it does.  You get to participate in some of the fun end-of-year activities at the schools, but without having a personal connection to the kids, it doesn’t feel as real.  The work doesn’t wind down, as most people (myself included) expect, it ramps up to become one of the busiest times I can remember in the past year.  Teachers and school employees are all trying to wrap up loose ends and clear their plates before leaving for summer (which is good!  They should be!), but all those loose ends fly straight to Central Office and the phone is ringing off the hook.  Now, I’m not meaning to be completely negative here.  I LOVE it when work is busy, when you’re constantly on the go, things need to get done and there is a sense of urgency around the office–that’s exhilarating.  I love getting things done, and helping people get things done, and solving problems.  It’s awesome!  But the dissonance for me this June is that while I’m still crazy busy (same as when teaching), there’s none of the joyfulness of June as a teacher.  You don’t get the magical student moments, you don’t get the rush of closing that classroom door and walking down the quiet hallways.  It’s business as usual in Central Office.

So that feels like a bit of a loss, moving from teaching to CO.  There’s plenty to love about the work I do now, but the magic of June I think might be reserved for teachers, and I’m jealous of that.  A colleague in Central Office came to my office to “check on me,” yesterday, and I just now realized why–this June shift must not be my experience alone.  Luckily, I unknowingly built myself a bit of a “bridge” this year, to help me make the adjustment.  Yesterday was the last day of school, and today I’m home because I have a dishwasher being delivered sometime between 10-2.  So I got to stay up a little late last night, and sleep in a little bit this morning, and sip coffee while writing and reflecting.  This evening I’m heading up to Maine to spend time with a friend, and so just for a little while, I get to pretend that I’ve finished up the last day and I’m on summer vacation.  Then I’ll come back to the office on Monday, and I’ll find it to be a little quieter, with fewer emails.  I’ll happily dig back into the important work of professional development, finding ways to help rejuvenate, engage, and inspire teachers as they gear up for their next set of students, coming in just eight short weeks!!

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A very personal survival toolkit

It has been so hard to write.  First it was just a holiday hiatus, and then a busy new year, but for the last few weeks, I have not been able to come up with much to write about…at least not in this space.  I started this blog with the idea that it would be strictly professional.  Then, as I found my voice and the topics that made me want to write, I realized it would be professional/personal.  Or something.  Whatever that means.  But this was never meant to be my diary, and in the last few weeks, I have been channeling all of my rage and grief and fear about the political situation into…not writing.  I’ve been treading, or perhaps more accurately, flailing; trying to reconcile this new reality and grasping at whatever wisdom I can find to not get swallowed up.  Here’s what’s kept me sane:

I work in a wonderful place with wonderful people.  We developed a bit of an inside joke about Christmas miracles this season.  My boss maintains that they always happen, you just have to look for them.  So, throughout November and December, every possible positive became the new Christmas miracle!  And sure enough, once you start noticing the miracles, you remember how to reflect on, and take joy in, the little things.  Finding a meeting time that works for everyone = Christmas miracle!  A professional learning course getting enough participants to run = Christmas miracle! Today’s snow day = Christmas miracle!

Marie Kondo, KonMari-ing.  Oh my goodness, I had no idea how much I would love doing this.  I got the book, I read the book, I am KonMari-ing my entire house and life and it feels so good and everyone should do it.  De-cluttering and getting rid of mountains of stuff has the side effect of bringing back into focus all the good memories you have associated with “stuff,” and I kid you not, it’s like a spiritual experience and if this is a cult, please let me be in it.

Putting down my phone.  This one is so hard.  When the executive orders (and reactions to them) are coming fast and furious, it’s been hard to find the balance of being informed versus being immersed.  I am trying to limit my phone/news time, with mixed success. Work in progress.

Meaningful things.  I know, I know, this sounds nauseating, and I’ve written and deleted this section twice because it sounds so self-righteous…but it is honestly part of the mindset that is keeping me sane, so you can take it or leave it.  It’s like my Christmas miracles and KonMari fetish had a baby.  As I scale back on the things in life, particularly the things that we buy for little reason other than to accumulate things, I’m looking for ways to put my money and time towards things (material or otherwise) that are meaningful.  Unexpected notes, calls, and gifts, making a connection to someone that hadn’t been there previously, baking a chocolate cake because it will make my husband really happy, lots of nice ideas in my head that haven’t been put into action yet, hugs, donations to the orgs making a difference right now, etc.

So there you have it.  My grab-bag of strategies for staying sane in Trumpland. How are you doing it?

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Walking with Wayne, or Mindfulness at Learning Forward

Today I made a plan to use my time in between the start of breakfast (7:30am) and the start of my first session (10:00am) to go explore the nearby Stanley Park.  It’s about a 20-minute walk along the waterfront from the Vancouver Convention Centre to the park, and it was forecast to be a bright, sunny day today!  So I donned my hiking boots with my business-casual-wear and headed off to grab a quick breakfast before exploring.

The short walk from my hotel to the Convention Centre showed me, though, that the after-effects of yesterday’s surprise snowstorm were still in play–while the city sidewalks were salted and clear, the water’s-edge walk was covered with a thin sheet of ice.  I realized that it would be not only a slow, treacherous walk to the park, but that the park walkways and trails were likely even worse to navigate.  Ok, fine, I thought, I’ll stay at the Conference Centre, get that morning blog post out while I eat breakfast, and wait for the sun to come up a little further.  So I waited, and at about 8:40, I decided it was now or never–I would have just enough time to get to the park and explore a bit, and still make it back for my 10:00 session.

I set out, power-walking to the west.  I made it to the park in that 20 minutes, but promptly had to slow down.  As I suspected, the park trails were still solid ice.  I tromped along on the grass wherever I could, and grew increasingly more stressed–I was nervous about falling, about being late to get back, and about trying to navigate wooded trails on my own.  I was angry and upset about the realization that I would not get to see very much of the park at all before having to turn back.  I couldn’t find the trail I had planned to take, instead getting stuck walking along a main road.  This wasn’t the experience I wanted!  This was my only chance to see the park, and it was bombing.

I’ve never had formal training in mindfulness, but I thought I had sort of gathered the gist of things–as I realized I was close to tears, I started taking deep breaths.  I started telling myself, it’s ok that it’s not what you planned.  That is disappointing, and that’s ok.  Around this time, I did find a trail that took me off the main road, so I ducked down it.  I studied the scenery as I walked, and noticed how gorgeous this temperate rainforest is.  Lo and behold, I came to the lake I had been trying to find, and while I knew I didn’t have time to continue to the north trail, I found the southern one to start looping back towards home.  I took some pictures. Once I got back to the main (icy) walkways, I came across an older man gingerly picking his way as the walk sloped downhill.

“It’s an adventure out here, isn’t it?” I called out.

“Yes, and you don’t want to fall on your arse!” he crowed back.  His name is Wayne, he is 65 years old, and he sports a precisely waxed handlebar mustache.  He was born and raised in Vancouver, but only recently moved back.  I asked him to point me on the best route back to downtown, and he offered to show me, as he was headed there himself.  His pace was much slower than what I needed to be going (or so I thought), and my anxiety went ratcheting back up.  But as we meandered along the path, Wayne told me stories about riding an Amtrak train to the east coast and then along the eastern seaboard for six months, and how he used to be a hippie and once hitchhiked through California to Mexico.  We talked about American politics, and how Canada had to keep an eye on things, “like the bear and the mouse, eh?”  He took me past the lost lagoon, and we came face-to-face with a heron, who I didn’t even see until he hopped nervously to put a few feet of distance between us.  I decided it was ok if I was late to my session.  Wayne made me slow down, made me connect with someone, and was thoroughly enjoyable to talk to!

When we did finally part ways, I hurried back up, and checked the time on my phone–I still had 20 minutes to get back to the Convention Centre.  I made it into my session with three minutes to spare, and then in the session learned about professional development trends towards the mind, body, and soul.  The instructors shared with us the acronym SNAPP–Stop, Notice (what you’re feeling), Allow (the feelings to be there), Penetrate (with deep breathing), and Prompt (compassionate action).  I had unknowingly followed those steps, which allowed me to enjoy my time at Stanley Park.  And in the very next activity, I was asked by a fellow participant, “What lesson is life teaching you right now?”

What lesson is life teaching you right now?

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What Scared Me About a Professional Conference

I am in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, attending my first-ever major professional conference! When I started my new position in the summer, it was written into my contract that I was to continue my own professional learning by attending one national conference a year. I asked around, and it quickly became clear that Learning Forward was the preeminent conference that focused specifically on the professional learning and development of educators, and one that could not be missed. When I found out this year’s conference would be in Vancouver, it was a no-brainer—sign me up!

I’ve been looking forward to this conference for months, but as my date of departure got closer, anxieties began to crop up. I was very nervous about “doing it right,” because I’d never had the opportunity to attend a conference before and wasn’t sure what to expect! Now, on the morning of Day 2 of the conference, those anxieties are subsiding. Here are a few of my biggest worries, and how I know it will turn out just fine:

I want to make it abundantly clear that I am fully engaged in the professional learning—I don’t want anyone to think I’m slacking off on the conference and enjoying a vacation! Perhaps this wouldn’t be as big of a concern if the conference were in, say, Cleveland. But it does cost my district a decent amount of money to send me to Vancouver and put me up in a hotel for the four days I’m here. In the days leading up to the trip, I started planning some systems for how I would demonstrate my strictly professional focus: I would keep a running reflection journal, and share it with my boss! I would be tweeting constantly! I would be using every break to stay on top of the emails accumulating from “real-life work” back home! But after just one day participating in the conference, I’m realizing I didn’t need to worry so much. First of all, it was gently suggested to me that perhaps it wouldn’t be very helpful for me to share my reflection journal with my boss—picking out some key points and highlights to share would be more powerful. As far as Twitter goes, I did tweet a bit, when I had a moment and there was a particularly pithy sentiment that I could get across in 140 characters. Using the breaks to keep up with the work of my job? Um, that didn’t happen so much…I kept an eye on email, but really used my breaks to network, to continue conversations, and to recharge (more on that later). But the big realization I had yesterday was that I didn’t need to try to create ways to demonstrate my learning to my colleagues back home—the opportunities would arise naturally from the work I am doing here at the conference. Yesterday, I spent five hours learning about Linking Walks, an evolution of Learning Walks or Instructional Rounds. There was so much good information in that session, and so much immediately relevant to my work back home, that I am drafting a presentation to share with my superintendent and the union president, and then hopefully to bring back to our Learning Walkthrough Task Force. I see now that I don’t need to try to construct evidence of my learning just to show I’m not fooling around here—I can bring back actionable ideas that move our work forward.

It’s going to be exhausting to be “on” all the time! Trying to make conversation with strangers is scary, and exhausting to me. I am not one of those people who is good at schmoozing. As I thought about this conference, I imagined how difficult it was going to be for me to be going from meet-and-greet events to 2-3-hour learning sessions (where I have to be focused!) to more meet-and-greets, and repeat for three days! But again, I’m finding that my worry was unwarranted. This experience has been truly exhilarating, not exhausting. Of course it is still not easy to enter a ballroom with 3,200+ educators, and find a table to sit at for lunch. But once I do find a table with an open seat, the educators there are warm and welcoming and become part of my learning experience.  I’m getting to know so many fascinating people from all over the country and around the world, who are doing amazing work for students.  And you know what? When I do need time to recharge (figuratively, and literally—it’s hard to keep the phone and computer going all day!), the lovely Vancouver Conference Centre has tons of cozy chairs and tables, and I can find a spot to sit and rest and reflect before moving on to the next event. So I am finding the balance that works for me, but it’s a very different balance than I imagined—I am gaining so much from the interactions I have with the people I meet!

Finally, I’ve never been to Vancouver before! I don’t want to spend the whole time at the convention center! This worry is exacerbated by the first one—I know I’m here for business, but (as I’ve explored before) I believe so much learning comes from traveling and seeing new places! How do I reconcile the two? First, I had to come to grips with the fact that since the conference ends at 4:30 every day, I would not be able to do much sightseeing in the daylight. So I picked my #1 must-see place (Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, if you’re curious), and on Wednesday when the conference ends an hour earlier, I’m going to jet out to see as much as I can of the park before the sun sets. I’m also making the most of my time by conducting a self-guided culinary tour of the city, seeking out yummy restaurants in different neighborhoods for dinner each night. The city is decorated for the holidays, and nighttime walks on the water or through the city are absolutely beautiful. And today, I’m pushing the envelope on business casual by wearing my hiking boots (Working Girl, Canada style, I call it); I have a two-hour break between breakfast and my first session, and instead of staying inside the conference center and getting work done, I’m going to explore the nearby Stanley Park. I’ll get the work done in the afternoon, when it’s too dark to hike!

What do you worry about, when preparing for business travel? Or am I the only one who worries about these things?? Please share!

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Personalized Professional Learning

As we shift schooling back to the student, with differentiated instruction and project-based learning, it makes sense that we follow the same trend with professional development for teachers–self-directed, highly relevant, differentiated learning opportunities.  Now, for some people and districts, personalized professional learning means a tech-heavy approach: everyone selects the online courses and trainings they want, and completes them independently on their own time.  Sure, that can be extremely differentiated, and choice-based, but…is it high-leverage?  Does that learning stick, does it get implemented in the classroom, and result in positive outcomes for student learning? How do we know?

Luckily, my district understands that while tech-rich trainings can be valuable, and offer more flexibility for busy adult learners, the crux of powerful professional learning lies in collaboration with colleagues.  We believe that when learning is done collaboratively with teammates, there is a much higher rate of return when it comes to teacher satisfaction, classroom implementation, and impact on student learning.  That’s why, in our professional development offerings, it’s possible that you’ll find an online course–but if you sign up for it, you are placed into a cohort of colleagues that meets regularly to discuss, share, and reflect upon the online content!

All of this was a very long intro to my favorite day of personalized professional learning.  Last week, about 1,000 educators came to the high school for our professional day, #lexlearns16.  The day has an opening convocation, followed by two breakout sessions, lunch, then a third breakout session.  During each breakout session, educators had the choice of attending between 45-48 different sessions, for a total of 138 sessions facilitated entirely by our own faculty.  Two hundred eight facilitators.  It was AMAZING.  There were sessions on: mindfulness, productive struggle, quality questioning, Hamilton, #BLM, robotics, writing fiction, diversity in literature, using SMART technology, supporting transgender students, badminton, homework, playing a string instrument, standards-based grading, math problem-solving, integrated performance assessments, Google Classroom, the list goes on and on.  The expertise we have in our own district is awe-inspiring.  For much of the day, I was busy behind-the-scenes, but during the third breakout session, I took a moment and just walked the second floor of the main building, where classroom after classroom was filled with educators engaged in learning from one another about a variety of topics, and it was truly powerful.

Of course, the day had some glitches!  Registration for one thousand educators into 138 sessions is tricky.  Registration opened at 5:00 p.m. on a Monday, and by 5:30 all five mindfulness courses were full.  Many other “hot” classes filled up quickly as well, and we ended up with educators not being able to take their first, or second, or third choices because the classes were capped and closed.  That certainly makes the day less relevant and enjoyable  for some people.  In addition, facilitating a session takes time for preparation and planning–teachers and staff volunteer for this, and do this on their own time.  We know how busy teachers are, and it’s hard to ask them (beg them) to take on this one more thing on top of all they are already doing for their schools and students.  So there are certainly things to look at on the logistical side of this event, to keep improving.

But the feedback!

“What a gift to have a day to learn from each other.”  

“One of my favorite things is that we can come together across schools and across grade levels to discuss things that impact all of us and our students.”  

“The sessions that I attended energized me as a professional. They were outside of my specific teaching discipline, so they allowed me to gain a different perspective and nurture other interests.”

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A Hamilton flash mob, during the convocation.  To quote an audience member, who starts PD days like this??  We do! 

I have no doubt that this collaborative, teacher-driven model of professional learning is one of the most high-leverage models districts can engage in.  In addition, as coordinator of professional learning, I get to take the feedback from the day and start to think about how to continue the conversation through other avenues of professional development.  Can we turn a 75-minute session into a 1-credit course?  Can a #lexlearns16 discussion spin off into a book group? or a PLC?  Let’s try it!  I’m completely energized and excited to craft the professional learning opportunities that will enhance and deepen the learning initiated on this one day.  Personalized professional learning is absolutely the PD of the future, but we can’t think that means educators should learn and apply on their own, in a bubble.  Collaboration is key–we know this for our students, so it should be no surprise that we need it as adults, too!

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