Personalizing PD: Moving Beyond "Sit and Get"

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Dr. Kristin Schulze, instructional coach from Greenville School District in South Carolina, shares six of her tips for personalizing professional development to more effectively develop teachers and gain buy-in beyond compliance.

For more experiences, skills, and tools from instructional coaches visit our original series, "Your Coaching Toolbox": resources, tips, and reflections for instructional coaches, by instructional coaches.


he teachers shuffle into the meeting room, faces drawn, shadows beginning to surface under their downward cast eyes, avoiding eye contact with the presenter. It’s almost as if you can hear the teachers’ thoughts cutting through the thick air of the meeting area: “Maybe if I avoid eye contact with him, he will disappear and I can go back to work in my classroom… I’ve got papers to grade, materials to prepare, lesson plans to write…”

But to no avail, the presenter begins, droning on about the latest and greatest professional development topic, pushing through the beautifully designed presentation much to the dismay of the teachers present.

The content area, strategy, or focus area of professional development may vary, but the teacher thoughts peppering the air will more than likely be consistent in any given school on any given afternoon regarding Professional Development. Most of these thoughts will center on same variation of “Why am I here?”

Too often, teachers are subjected to whole-group presentations designed to be the latest cure-all in the efforts of improving student performance and developing teacher capacity.

In order to really make lasting changes that positively impact teaching practices, move beyond these “why am I here thoughts?” and build teacher capacity which will ultimately increase student learning and achievement, we must grow beyond the “sit and get, one size fits all” model of PD and move towards a personalized model of professional development. Much like the students at our schools that learn most effectively when we differentiate our instruction to meet their needs, teachers learn best when we personalize our professional development to meet their needs as well.

How Can We Personalize PD?

1) Vary Groupings, Delivery Methods and Formats

While some whole-group sessions may be necessary to lay foundational elements and to build the framework upon which differentiated sessions will take place, consider varying the delivery method. Rather than meeting whole-group for a presentation, deliver the content online and allow teachers to complete the training at their own pace. Furthermore, when delivering information and training for the good of the whole, consider building in time for teachers to personalize the professional development by reflecting on how the information conveyed relates to their current teaching practices.

Professional development should also take place in different groupings. Meet with grade levels or departments to make the training specific to teachers’ work. In these small groups, provide teachers with resources that will aide them in implementing the desired skill to support their work with students. Professional development can include working with individuals one-on-one, either supporting them in areas needing growth or building teacher capacity to support colleagues.

Professional development is not just delivering information and can take place in many different formats, including: participation in coaching cycles, modeling lessons, engaging in reflective conversations around content and observed lessons, co-planning,and designing resources for instruction.

2) Active Learning

In all professional development sessions, give teachers time to engage in active learning and allow teachers to interact and share ideas with one another. Ensure that your professional development gives teachers the time to take the new learning and apply it to their work, which will make it more meaningful and relevant to their context. Teachers best master material when they are actively engaged in the learning process.

3) Seek Teacher Input

Ask teachers what they need and want training on and try to incorporate that in your professional development plan to the greatest extent possible. This can sometimes be difficult to do since effective professional development should also be data-driven and aligned with school and district initiatives. If because of mandates or data, the topic of the professional development does not mesh with teacher desires, give teachers choice within the selected topic as much as possible.

4) Know Your Teachers

What are their strengths, their weaknesses, their likes, their dislikes—what are they passionate about? Knowing this is a matter of simple data collection. Observe teachers, talk to them, ask them what they need, look at their lesson plans to see how they align with desired outcomes, and survey teachers to find out the areas in which teachers feel they need more training. It is important to know teachers’ specific skills, as this will help you tailor your professional development to meet their needs.

5) Meet Teachers Where They Are

In order for PD to be effective, we have to meet teachers where they are. If teachers don’t have a strong foundation in content areas, then training on the nuances of said area are all for naught. The same stands true for teachers who have surpassed fundamental concepts—after all, you aren’t going to teach Algebra 1 to a Kindergartner who doesn’t understand numeracy and you aren’t going to teach the alphabet to a high school senior who is reading Shakespeare. These same principles apply to teachers.

After having ascertained teacher capacity in any given area and meeting your teachers where they are, take it one step further. Build the capacity of stronger teachers and encourage them to take more of a mentor role in supporting others in the building by presenting their ideas and sharing their experiences with others. Teachers in need of growth can be given the support they need in the form of model lessons, co-teaching, planning or reflective conversations.

6) Monitor PD

Don’t forgot to consistently monitor professional development throughout the process. Seek out teacher input on the PD plan and how it can be tailored to best meet their needs while meeting intended goals.

For example, we conducted a session on Reading Benchmarks at the beginning of the school year. In order to determine where teachers needed the most support, we conducted a brief survey asking what teachers needed help with next. Based on this feedback the next session was designed that met the teachers’ request for more help on designing “mini-lessons” based on the benchmark data, as opposed to another previously planned topic (all the while staying focused on our data-driven, district aligned professional development focus).

Final Thought: Envisioning a Bright New Future

She springs into the classroom, bubbling with excitement, eager to share the latest idea she has implemented based off of new learning, the words tumbling out, leaving the teacher almost breathless, her excitement is palpable: “You aren’t going to believe how my students did today! I tried the new strategy you talked to us about at our last meeting, and it was awesome!”

Is this a dream? Yes, it is a dream for a new effective model of personalized professional development, but by following the principles outlined here, we can turn this dream of excited, energized teachers utilizing best practices with students into a reality.

About our Guest Blogger

Dr. Kristin Schulze is an instructional coach at AJ Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering with Greenville County Schools. This is her 4th year as an instructional coach. Prior to coaching she taught Kindergarten and First Grade as well as working at a local technical college first as an adjunct teaching ESL and Developmental reading, and then as a full-time instructor in the Early Childhood Department. Her dissertation research focused on instructional coaching and how coaches can build relational trust with teachers. Dr. Schulze is passionate about all things education, particularly anything related to Literacy, supporting diverse learners and Early Childhood Education.

Follow Dr. Schulze on Twitter @IC_at_AJ

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Topics: Guest Blogger, Personalized Professional Development, PD, Your Coaching Toolbox, Instructional Coaching, Listening Skills

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