Monday, February 17, 2014

Personalizing Professional Development

I recall seeing a recent Facebook post by ASCD asking teachers to finish the sentence: Professional development should be…. Not surprisingly, relevant and personalized were top responses. At some point, each of us has sat through a well-intentioned and/or even brilliant PD experience wondering, What does this have to do with me and when can I get back to work?

As an administrator, I have been guilty of creating such situations for teachers despite intention to do otherwise. This time around, my colleague and I vowed to get it right. For our upcoming professional development day, we decided to let teachers control their own experiences and to structure them around personalized growth goals. Here’s a summary of our approach:

Personalized Growth Plans
A differentiated PD experience begins with a constructive and teacher-oriented growth plan for each person. Instead of rating tables, we used standard domains to generate reflection and goal setting by both teachers and administrators. Using a professional growth plan template, teachers reflected on their performance within each domain and identified target goals. We then met with each teacher to review his or her goals, contributing our target goals for teachers based on our observations as well. These goals then formed the cornerstones for observations and professional development.

PD Day Proposals
Using a Google form, we had teachers submit proposals for their personalized learning day. The following questions comprised the form:
  • Identify the target domain: professional responsibilities; planning & preparation; teaching; or class environment.
  • From your professional growth plan, list the goal to which your experience will correspond.
  • Describe the professional development experience in which you would like to participate.
  • Where will the experience take place?
  • Will you work collaboratively or independently?
  • Describe the task outcome (the deliverable from your experience). For example, will you be generating scheduling paradigms, producing integrated units, writing up a reflection from a school visit or workshop?
  • Would you like additional suggestions for experience?

As teachers submitted proposals, we were able to synthesize the data in a spreadsheet and sort by various items, such as those working within the same domain or toward the same goal, to suggest collaborations where appropriate.

Though the PD day is still on the horizon, we are all set with everyone having a plan for his or her learning. Here’s a sample of the variety:
  • groups traveling to various schools to observe other practices in action
  • scheduling brainstorming and analysis; discussions with another school with similar scheduling goals
  • robotics workshop
  • technology workshops
  • professional article writing
  • book reading and revision of planning based on learning

As the experience wraps, teachers will share their learning in faculty meetings over the next few weeks. I will post a follow up with teacher feedback from the experience. Our hope is that teachers will not only feel the experience is relevant, but that through the process, they will feel validated. Further, in our goal to provide differentiated experiences to students, this form of personalized PD may prove beneficial as a model to those learning how to implement different paths in the classroom.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Would Churchill Have Been Accepted?

It’s that time of year again when the NYC winter vortex is really generated by the storm surrounding semester 1 report cards (Oh, those narratives!!!) and high school decisions. Not even this recordsetting snowfall and chilly weather can make a child feel colder than an intolerant reaction to their natural, age-appropriate, and beautiful imperfections or send more chills than a regret letter. Here was our approach to both…

image credit:
Report Cards:
Email middle school parents a copy of Winston Churchill’s school report card (, a document in which the headmaster (whose name did not go down in history) outlines all of Churchill’s horrible qualities as a young human being. Of Churchill, the headmaster wrote “Very bad, is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape with others. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere. He has very good abilities” (

When I first saw this on display at The Morgan Library, I was reminded that our greatest strengths often get in our way and present as obstacles, until they are channeled in the right direction by either maturity or guidance. Our goal as educators and parents is to value those qualities, even in their messy stages, and figure out how to redirect them to a more constructive, positive outcome. We asked our parents to allow for honest conversation and fail forward moments along the way.

The reality in NYC is there are too many kids fighting for too few spots to selective schools (public and private), and even more students competing for even less available aid in independent schools. Any number of factors go into a high school acceptance, wait list, or regret decision, but the other reality is students see none of this. 
They only see, I'm good enough. I'm not good enough. or I'm good enough if my parents could afford it. They need our additional support through this outcome.

We approached this with a blend of counseling, team-building, and distraction. First, we had a “what if?” session during which we threw out all possible outcomes, from the best to worst case scenario. One student said, “What if I don’t get into any school and I have to move to Florida and be a beach bum?” to which we replied, “The weather is very nice in Florida!” To goal was to bring levity and optimism to an experience perceived by many to be solemn and all too final.

We followed that by discussing how to be a friend to each other during this decision process. What if I get in and my friend doesn’t? was a much more prominent worry than the opposite. It reminded us how magnanimous and selfless teenagers can be.

Finally, we stripped them of all their devices during decision day so that they would be with family when receiving the news and took them off campus for a little distraction therapy. The morning of decisions found our students taking pictures with the Lincoln statue at the NY Historical Society (with teacher devices, of course) and the afternoon engaged in offline learning in the rest of their classes.

It’s difficult to navigate this adolescent landscape where more and more, one feels either overinflated from the removal of obstacles or ostracized after stumbling on one. The benefit of failing and of subsequent disappointment is a hackneyed sentiment but still far from the reality of acceptance, much less encouragement. Thus, it’s important to keep reminding each other, parents, and students to embrace mistakes or disappointing outcomes...and to recognize them for what they are: opportunities.