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Personalized learning reshapes school PD

Coaching, #EdCamps and other education models allow educators to brush up on targeted skills
  • COACHING IN TENNESSEE—At Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County Schools, data coach Rachel McMahon, on right, helps science and math teacher Chelsey Shepard, middle, and math teacher Amy Brewer improve teaching.
  • HOW TO— Instructional Technologist William Deyamport III, standing, helps a K12 teacher at Hattiesburg School District with technology training using online modules. Above, he explains how to add assignments to a program. (Priscilla A. Smith)
  • MICROCREDENTIALS IN WISCONSIN—At a recent RechargEd event, which gathers educators from the Kettle Moraine School District and neighboring districts, above, educators discuss personalized learning tactics in education. Kettle Moraine implemented microcredential training two years ago—and recognizes teacher development via salary bonuses.

Hattiesburg School District designs technology training to empower teachers to take charge of their own professional development by letting them decide what they want to learn, when they want to learn it and how.

The Mississippi district provides basic technology training through a series of self-paced, online modules. Teachers can then register for in-person workshops, request customized trainings and even schedule private coaching sessions—all through an online scheduling program.

It’s a system that encourages teacher buy-in and streamlines professional development time, says district Instructional Technologist Will Deyamport.

“By having them go through the modules on their own time, when we get together we can really get into how technology can transform the learning experience of students—instead of spending 20 minutes on how to add a user,” Deyamport says.

Hattiesburg is one of a growing number of districts extolling the virtues of personalized professional development, a popular but still somewhat amorphous concept. Some districts are finding new ways to personalize learning through new technology while others use the approach as a catchy new label for existing PD strategies.

Defining a trend

New technology platforms—along with a growing body of research about the most effective ways to hone teachers’ skills—are helping to drive the shift toward personalized professional development.

It is less about customizing the way teachers learn a specific skill, and more about identifying the different skills individual teachers need to improve instruction. Beginning teachers don’t need the same training as mid-career teachers, just as teachers in rural or urban districts may need different kinds of support.

“Personalized professional development is about meeting teachers where they’re at and helping everyone to move forward as far as they’re able,” says Jason Bretzmann, a Wisconsin public school social studies teacher and co-author of Personalized PD: Flipping Your Professional Development (2015).

“It’s an ongoing, continuous process.”

In practical application, personalized PD often encompasses a variety of strategies that many districts will find familiar: Teacher observations and feedback, professional learning communities, and increased access to digital learning.

But it’s also a shift from measuring development by the hours a teacher spends in workshops. The newer competency-based learning models focus on specific classroom goals and gives teachers a sense of autonomy, Bretzmann says.

Bring on the badges

Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin started using microcredentialing in 2015 to personalize learning and implement a compensation system that recognizes teacher development, says Superintendent Pat Deklotz.

Microcredentials are digital badges that teachers can earn by taking short online courses, completing project-based work or creating “artifacts” like a test they designed or a journal for tracking health goals. Teachers at Kettle Moraine can increase their salary anywhere from $200 to $600 for each microcredential they earn.

The district offers about a dozen microcredentials, including in Competency Based Rubric Design, Foundations of Practice in Learner Motivation and Productive Research. The digital badges are listed in teachers files and can also be added to resumes or digital portfolios to delineate skills.

Although teachers decide which microcredentials to pursue, the district carefully selects courses each year that align to larger district goals. Teachers also have to be pre-approved for the microcredential so that the district doesn’t go over budget.

Occasional trainings are mandated districtwide, but those are limited to big changes—such as implementing a new student information system —that require everyone in the district to get the same information, Deklotz says.

An unexpected result of the new system has been a greater alignment and support for district goals among staff. A greater number of teachers participate— and even collaborate—in professional development they wouldn’t have had in the past when advanced studies were offered only as part of a master’s degree.

All kinds of coaching

Collaboration, particularly with a coach, is an important component of many personalized learning initiatives. Coaches, who are often teachers or support staff with specialized training, work one-on-one to strengthen teachers’ skills.

At Hattiesburg, for example, a technology coach might help one teacher learn to use a specific program and then work with another to make math lessons more engaging.

Wichita Public Schools in Kansas started developing personalized learning pathways for teachers in 2012, during the rollout of a new student behavioral supports initiative.

Each building in Wichita has at least one assigned leader (such as a teacher or vice principal) who attends weekly professional development sessions. That leader then acts as an instructional coach to help guide professional development for the rest of the site.

Wichita also offers special training events, including a day of live “virtual” trainings offered via videoconferencing software on the last day of the fall semester. Teachers are given the autonomy to choose from a variety of workshops and are offered prizes for participating.

To get support for a new mentoring system, Maury County Public Schools in Tennessee asked teachers to hold an election to select fellow teachers as coaches.

The district also circulates annual surveys in which teachers suggest what kinds of professional development should be offered the following year to best support student growth.

Regular observations and feedback through video coaching has become a linchpin of ASPIRE to Teach, a teacher licensing program in Colorado that allows professionals from different career backgrounds to earn their credential while working in the classroom.

Teachers in the program use a low-tech option, such as a laptop with video capability placed at the back of the classroom, to record their work, says ASPIRE Director Suzanne Arnold. Then they share that video with an ASPIRE instructor who gives them detailed feedback and helps them address targeted improvement areas.

Equity and flexibility

While districts are working to create more personalized PD, teacher-led virtual options are exploding at an even faster rate.

Teachers can attend peer-organized conferences such as #EdCamp and Twitter Math Camp, join Google Plus learning communities, or seek advice through Facebook groups and Pinterest pages. Teachers also organize #Playdate meetups to gain hands-on experience with new apps and classroom technology.

However districts define and approach PD, careful planning is critical, adds Ilana Seidel Horn, a professor at Vanderbilt University whose research focuses on teacher development.

“Is it just about ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ PD where teachers get to decide whether to go to workshop A or workshop B?” Horn says, “or is there more of a long-term commitment to giving teachers feedback about what’s going on in their classroom?”

One concern Horn raises is that the #EdCamp-style of professional development can lead to a “rich-get-richer” dilemma. Teachers who already self-identify their weaknesses are the most likely to seek learning opportunities. Teachers who need the most help can get left behind.

“The problem with this sort of romantic notion that all we need to do is let the teachers lead, is that we know that our educational system has entrenched a lot of stratification and inequality. And teachers are embedded within that system,” Horn says.

“Simply letting teachers have more time to lead each other isn’t going to shift that.”

While many district leaders might want to hold off on handing over the reins of professional development entirely to teachers, training must remain relevant and should also leverage the flexibility of digital platforms, says Cara Skaggs, school improvement coordinator for Maury County schools.

The reality is that young teachers entering the workforce today are digital learners who expect more flexible and personalized professional development, Skaggs says.

“They don’t want to come to a workshop at 3 p.m. They’d rather go home and get personalized learning on their tablet or their phone,” Skaggs says. “We’re trying harder and harder to give them that.”

Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.