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August 18, 2011


Redefining Professional Development

by Chris Lindholm

As an athlete in my childhood (yes… past tense…) I relished the feelings following a hard-earned victory or long workout that mixed total exhaustion with exuberant energy or excitement.  The same feelings emerge after a large musical production following weeks of long, hard rehearsals, and I believe we educators thrive on the ebb and flow of exhaustion and passionate energy in the ongoing cycles of the school year.  Today I am both exhausted from two weeks of long-planned leadership retreats and absolutely energized by the excitement of passionate leaders focusing on the right work in ISD 191. 

Returning to my office after the retreat today I spotted a post by fellow blogger and elementary school leader Lyn Hilt that captures much of what we have focused on for the past two weeks.  Her post “Out with professional development, in with professional learning” calls out the need to move away from sit-and-get professional development and to embrace the ongoing journey of continuous improvement, inquiry, professional learning, and the collaborative work necessary for growth.  It’s affirming to read this post and to reflect on the past two days with the ISD 191 District Leadership Team (DLT) and the previous two days with school principals.  Our work has focused on empowering and supporting principals and Building Leadership Teams to lead faculty through the continuous improvement processes of completing needs assessments, goal setting, creating action plans, implementing plans, and evaluating results.  We’ve discussed the challenges of change and the leadership strategies necessary to do this work at building and district levels.  We’ve identified anticipated pitfalls and reflected on the need to “embrace the questions” instead of demanding simple answers.  Today I am tired, but I am incredibly appreciative of the passion, talent, and courage of each DLT member.

What’s ahead in 191?  A re-commitment to the hard work involved in being a true Professional Learning Community.  We are committed to focusing on results, learning and collaboration.  Building Leadership Teams are writing School Improvement Plans supported by ongoing professional development/learning to help us reach the SIP goals.  Building teams are empowered to create collaborative teams that are meaningful and to bring alignment to our professional learning so it directly impacts our work with students.  Teacher leaders are trusted and expected to lead, and our focus is tightly held to student learning.

The 2011-12 school year is already off to a great start here in ISD 191 with teacher leaders and principals establishing focused plans for the collaborative work ahead.  I am grateful for the support of an excellent Teaching and Learning Team, and my fatigue today is full of anticipation and excitement!

Clock picture by CanadianAEh

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nathan Mielke
    Aug 21 2011

    Like you Chris I’m excited about some PD we’ve done in our disrtrict, and the work to come. Seeing the picture where “job embedded learning” was highlighted hit on all the reading I’ve done since I wrapped up grad school for the summer. Not that these titles are anything new to you, but The New Social Learning, Personal Learning Networks and Informal Learning are helping me to envision where we need to grow with all our learning, be it student or staff. Personal Learning Networks is fairly new and lays out a step-by-step process for rolling this out into a district. Worth a look. Best of luck moving collaboration forward in your district this year!

    • Aug 22 2011

      Thanks for the ideas Nate. It’s a big shift for a lot of people, but I believe we all want to engage in meaningful, rigorous learning to be the best we can be for kids. The most difficult part seems to be “unlearning” what PD has been. It’s scary for many when they realize meaningful PD requires a lot of hard work. If it’s no longer ok to just show up, then PD becomes something added to our to-do list… That’s not an easy sell right out of the gate!!! After some time has passed however, we learn that the harder, more meaningful PD work is far more valuable and can/will result in better results in the classroom. If it’s done right, it is aligned to what we are already doing and truly becomes part of the “doing” of teaching and learning. At that point it is not an additional “to-do” but the very heart of our work. It may take a while, but that is what we’re after!!!

      Thank you for engaging in conversation and good luck to you this fall!

  2. Oct 11 2011

    Chris wrote:
    Building teams are empowered to create collaborative teams that are meaningful and to bring alignment to our professional learning so it directly impacts our work with students.


    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, Chris—specifically about the idea of creating teams that are meaningful—and my thinking has taken an interesting twist.

    All too often, we define a “meaningful team” as a group of people who are teaching the same content area and/or grade level—-and while that certainly has the potential to be a meaningful team (studying student learning results with people teaching the same content just makes sense), I’m not sure that those are the ONLY types of meaningful teams we can create.

    More importantly, I don’t think content-specific teams are AUTOMATICALLY meaningful.

    There’s a ton more that goes into a meaningful team—-personalities of members, professional experience of members, discovery or delivery abilities of members, personal commitment of members.

    And while it would be ideal if content-specific teams possessed all of those traits/characteristics too, that’s not always the case.

    So my question for you is what kind of advice are you going to give to school leaders about working with content specific teams that just aren’t working out?

    Do they have the flexibility to make adjustments to team compositions? Do they have the know-how to spot struggling teams? Do they have a sense for the other kinds of skills/traits that are necessary for teams to be successful?

    Just thinking out loud here. I’m really pushing towards more nuanced team choices in my own professional work. Wondering if others see things the same way.

    Rock on,

    • Oct 11 2011

      I really like the questions you’re presenting here Bill, and I very much agree on two key points: 1) Content based or grade level teams are definately NOT the only way to construct meaningful teams (nor are they automatically meaningful in that structure) and 2) creating a true professional learning community, school wide (and definately district wide) requires much more nuance in how we construct, develop, lead, and work with collaborative teams.

      When I served as a school principal I insisted that every licensed staff member be part of two structured collaborative teams. One team was content based and was directly aligned to the district level vertical team. This forum drove more traditional PLC work focused on common assessments, analyzing results, and modifying adult work to improve those results. The second team was structured around an advisory program in an effort to systemically address our improvement work around relationships, building climate, and some of our PD work. We were very intentional when creating these groups to address some of the nuances you are thinking about. We truly did our best to map out groups balancing age, gender, advisory leaders, curriculum leads, nay sayers, promoters, PD advocates, tech geeks, boomers, millenials, Xrs and traditionalists, and on and on… Once in our groups we did a Myers-Briggs assessment and put our differences front and center as an asset to healthy teaming. The work and results we focused on was both focused on climate and relationships (exit ticket kind of assessments gathering perception data) and on adult learning (more exit tickets, stop light activities, gathering evidence of learning, etc…). I won’t argue that we had it all working perfectly, but I can argue that synergy really kicked up as we dug into these two purposeful team structures.

      My advice to leaders is to be very clear about what the goal is and to build teams, structures, and processes that drive that work. While much of the literature on PLCs claims that the teams learn to do the work without identified leaders of each team, I simply don’t agree. Both of the team structures we created were linked to leadership teams. One was the team of department chairs or curriculum leads and the other was the Building Leadership Team. This direct line of accountability and clear purpose gave us great focus on the purpose of our work. I also believe strongly in the power of great teacher leaders. Not sure why it has taken me this long, but I’m just now enjoying The Collaborative Teacher (2008). Great stuff!

      One last key point… You raised a point about teams that are not working…

      As a classroom teacher, coach, and principal, I have intentionally created teams that I knew would result in some conflict. Each time this was a purposeful decision. Sometimes the right thing to do to move the organization forward is to get a problem out front and center. The dance for a principal, just like for a teacher, is that you can’t share information about the other members of the team to give them a bigger picture of understanding. There is a great deal of nuance in navigating these tough situations but at the end of the day, the principal is accountable for moving the whole organization forward. I often compare this to being the coach of a team. One player can ruin the whole game, yet it takes every single player working in symphony (orchestra metaphor is just as good here) to win or perform well. This means ignoring the weakest link just is not acceptable if being great is our goal. Sometimes it takes the uncomfortable pressure of a collaborative team needing some help from the coach to get a door into those tough conversations to address the issues. I believe this scenario is hard to swallow for a teacher doing great work and feeling held back or bogged down. Interstingly, it has made me reflect quite a bit on how we structure our group work for students. Hopefully we don’t ask students to do what we paid professionals struggle to do…

      Many more thoughts here Bill. Your basic premise – that there are more nuances to meaningful teams – is dead on the money. Real structures that end up in improved student achievement are full of nuance and must be directly aligned to specific goals.

      Keep digging on this as I’m not finding a great wealth of work in this area just yet… A least not in the PLC work.

  3. We’ve been starting the process of beginning PLCs in my building. I can’t believe the negativity that some people bring to the process. The attitude of “oh, another thing I have to do”. It’s hard when you feel that not everyone is committed to being life-long learners, especially when we expect our students to do so. Don’t people realize that collaboration makes your job easier? That’s one of the reasons I often turn to other networks to help keep the fires burning!

    • Oct 11 2011

      Hang in there with your passion!! Collaboration is not always easy (see Bill’s comments above), but it improves our work in the end. It is a real paradigm shift for many educators who were brought in to the profession as I was. I remember breaking into the file cabinets of colleagues on weekends just to survive and be ready for Monday during my first year…

      I often say “plumbers know how to collaborate better that we teachers do.” I wish that statement was not so true… We MUST be deliberate about collaborative work if we are truly going to get better at preparing our students. Keep up your passion and stay focused on what the research tells us is necessary. Thanks for touching the future!


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