When you’re in the midst of school improvement planning to address some of the biggest pain points in your school—like literacy, equity, or leadership—there are plenty of options to choose from. You could attend events, fly in expert consultants, or send your staff to workshops that will put the tools for reform directly into their hands.
But a good deal of these PD initiatives fail. Why?
It could be (among other things) because the PD wasn’t sustained, because it wasn’t job-embedded, because everyone wasn’t fully on board, or because, when results aren’t immediately visible, momentum suffers and people lose heart. There’s no single thing at fault, but if you’re spending thousands of dollars on big PD initiatives and your school isn’t ready, you might as well be throwing that money into a wood chipper.
Before you roll out any schoolwide PD initiative, here are 3 things you need to know that could make all the difference:
1. Don’t expect quick change.
We live in a world of same-day shipping, instant downloads, and online streaming and we’ve become accustomed to this kind of instant satisfaction. Think about the commercials you see for the latest “miracle” diet programs or pills that all emphasize instant or fast results. We all know weight loss is no easy feat and that it takes months of dedication and hard work to slim down and train yourself to keep the weight off, but we’re still drawn to that promise of immediate results.
The thing is, PD isn’t immediate. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you go into a large PD initiative expecting the culture and conditions at your school to dramatically change overnight after a single session, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
The causes of many of our schools’ issues are often deeply ingrained within the school system and culture and built upon years and years of doing the exact same things. A single session or even multiple sessions over the course of a single school year won’t be enough.
So, rather than viewing your PD plan as single event or workshop, view it as a journey. Only by planning for the long term is real, sustainable progress possible.
As Mariko Yorimoto, principal of Ka’imiloa Elementary School explained, “This is going to take time. As long as you implement it with fidelity, with collective efficacy, when your group of teachers is working together for one common goal with the same attitude and the same input of energy, you’ll see tremendous growth.” You can read Ka’imiloa’s full story here.
2. Having everyone on board is critical.
Successful implementation of any PD initiative requires support and buy-in from every level, but gaining buy-in from both leadership and staff isn’t always easy.
Does your leadership team see the learning as vital and understand its worth or does it seem like just another box to be checked?
As PD is implemented, much of your staff’s reactions will be influenced by the spoken and unspoken messages communicated by leaders, whether you’re aware of it or not. Leaders need to model the attitude they want their staff to have toward the training and be seen as participants rather than passive observers.
If leadership isn’t on board, you can’t expect teachers to be.
To help get your leaders on board, try providing them with evidence of impact. Any PD worth its salt should have readily available evidence that the program has worked with other schools before. If leadership has any doubts, the evidence should show them what they can expect and instill their confidence in the training.
Additionally, by actively engaging leadership in the learning and gaining their participation, they’ll be able to see the learning and benefit from the training for themselves and, ideally, play a part in working to affect some of the systematic issues that are more deeply ingrained and can only be addressed from the top.
But leaders aren’t the only ones that might struggle to get on board right away.
Teachers are all too familiar with initiative fatigue. After implementing unsuccessful initiative after unsuccessful initiative, one after another, it’s no wonder that they become disenchanted by the time the next PD initiative comes around—no matter how effective that particular PD might be. As Mariko Yorimoto said of her own school that had lost some of that spark and passion for teaching before they began a new PD initiative, “No matter what staff development we bring in, if you don’t fix the heart of the school, nothing will stick.”
At the start, try creating a committee including people from all grade levels and positions and empower that committee to set the direction and speed of the program to ensure people are engaged and actively participating in the work. Instead of the initiative coming from the “top down,” this committee can be a force of motivation from within and generate a feeling of shared ownership for learning.
Furthermore, the Visible Learning research from John Hattie has shown that one of the most important influences of student achievement is how teachers think about their teaching and learning. Address their mindframes. If teachers approach their own learning in the mindframe that they are, first and foremost, evaluators of their impact, they will be able to see the impact of the training on their students for themselves as the training goes on.
3. Know where you stand.
Imagine that your desktop computer isn’t working. No matter how vigorously you move the mouse or how hard you press the power button or how desperately you plead with it to work, nothing appears on the display. There could be any number of issues with your computer, but let’s say that you decide that the issue must be with the monitor, so you replace it with a brand new one.
Did you fix the problem? Maybe. Maybe not.
The thing is, you didn’t know what the problem was to begin with. You didn’t do any evaluation first and operated on an assumption. It could just have easily have been that it wasn’t plugged in or a malfunctioning cable. If it worked due to the new monitor, that was by pure chance.
Just like that example, many PD initiatives fail because we rush to a solution before we have understood our impact.
We can’t leave the education of our students to chance. Each school begins at a different place in terms of their improvement trajectory and there is no way to determine which approach is most appropriate for your school without a thoughtful evaluation first. Figuring out “where you are” is the first step to figuring out “where you’re going.”
Furthermore, truly effective professional learning is an adaptive process of self-evaluation that helps you and your school make strategic, evidence-based decisions that make the greatest impact while maximizing your time and resources via ongoing cycles of evaluation. Just one evaluation at the very beginning isn’t enough. You need to know where you stand all along your journey in order to be sure you’re always headed in the right direction.
You can get a head start on knowing “where you are” with tools like the Visible Learningplus Self-Assessment Matrix here.
Of course, there are other considerations that may affect your plans to roll out your school wide PD initiative, but this is a start. And maybe—just maybe—it could make the difference between another failed program (and a colossal waste of your time and money) and an opportunity makes the difference that you set out to achieve.