Guest Blog Post: Personalized Professional Development

The following is a guest blog post from Jessica Shaw, Director of Staff Development and Special Programs, K-12. I am sharing with our school community her vision for professional development. It embodies a personalized process of life-long learning consistent with the #MTPSpride model for students and staff.  

William O. George III, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools

By Jessica Shaw, Director of Staff Development and Special Programs, K-12

When I began in my current role two short years ago, I remember thinking….staff development for 900 teachers-how will I ever be able to deliver all of the professional development to that many people!   I was exhausted just thinking about it and unnerved by my discomfort about it. But as we preach to our learners day in and day out, discomfort is the breeding ground for growth. After reflecting upon my first year in this new role, I felt that even though I fulfilled my responsibilities something still bothered me- was I really providing teachers the opportunities to grow as professionals and increase their capacity?  When I tried to answer that question, the truth is-I really did not know. And more importantly I got the vibe that the staff felt the same way. Another year’s worth of hum-drum PD had come and gone. In conversations with countless colleagues on the topic of PD, I have come to realize that this is pretty typical when talking to educators about professional development in general. Sentiment is always mixed, and unfortunately, largely apathetic, when teachers are asked about their experiences with professional development.  Were we missing a large opportunity to grow the capacity of our teachers who have the greatest impact on our students and wasting a lot of valuable time delivering a menu of useless professional development? As educators, we all know what professional development is supposed to do, but why haven’t districts been able to make that a reality especially? Our business is educating, but why couldn’t we effectively educate our own adults?

As the first school year in my role closed and the new year loomed large, I knew something had to change, but in my heart I believed it was bigger than just planning and facilitating strong professional development.  In a series of “a-ha” moments perfectly timed with a powerful message by a force in education, Jimmy Casas, it started to become apparent that I was approaching it all wrong. It wasn’t about the professional development opportunities that we were, or were not, providing our staff members.  It wasn’t about expertly crafted workshops and implementation of initiative-driven trainings carefully aligned to curriculum. It was greater and more powerful than any of that. Effective professional learning would need to stem from two key pieces: autonomy and mindset. In education our inclination is to control, control, control.   Unfortunately this is a product of the massive accountability that we all face everyday. However, if we try to control professional learning, we take away individualization, ownership, and motivation. If we continue to dictate the course of professional learning for our teachers we will continue to get a paltry return. Instead, I have come to realize that we must do exactly the opposite-we must give up control and foster autonomy, choice and personalized pathways for our teachers.  This way we can meet the interests, passions, and needs of our teachers, while providing guidance and support for their individual learning journeys. Like we promote with our students, the process is more important than the product. Paralleling this message of autonomous, self-directed learning is a required shift in mindset. Renown Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, referred to this as “the power of not yet” or the possession of a growth mindset. By promoting this idea for teachers in their own learning, we would be creating a professional culture of continued growth and progress.  

The marriage of these two ideas has the potential to change the face of professional development and really begin to grow the capacity of our teachers with renewed sense of ownership, motivation, and passion for individual growth. So what are the takeaways that can create an evolution and increase the return on our efforts? True learning is a messy endeavor, fraught with stops, starts, restarts, and redos.  Being okay with the uncertainty and discomfort and failing forward breeds true growth and progress. So as I think of my role now, I realize that it is my job to promote the messiest, celebrate the failures, shift mindset, and ignite the spark in our teachers to pursue individual learning endeavors that will help them grow in their roles, and ultimately positively impact the outcomes of our students.