Sunday / May 19

Personal Professional Learning – Dichotomy or Dyad?

This is a question that I have been exploring since last August when I returned to school for my own personal development and since last October when I assumed a new professional role in my district as a coordinator for educator effectiveness. To say that these are discrete concepts–that there is a thing called personal learning and another thing called professional learning with no likeness in between–is a hard sell for someone like me, who does not believe in a world that is black and white.

When the term blended learning first came on the scene, I was very excited at its potential to combine two modalities of learning. How thrilling it is to know that learning was no longer confined to the traditional classroom setting, but that it could be extended to any space, place, and pace. Perhaps this can apply in our case here…that personal professional learning is indeed a dyad, not a dichotomy.

Like many educators out there wanting to extend their own learning, I have lived the double life of student and educator for almost a year. This has afforded me with many experiences that I am happy to share to help you arrive at your own convictions on this matter.

Personal Learning

I think it makes sense to explore each of these terms so we can see if and how they bleed into one another. Personal learning, or personal development, has to do with the goals we have for ourselves that will help us to lead more fulfilling lives. An example would be the vision boards that many a life coach asks of their clients to help envision what they need to accomplish in order to achieve their dreams.

Professional Learning

Professional learning, or professional development, refers to the skills needed to help us be successful in our job, in the career that we have chosen to pursue. So how is it possible to seek professional learning that is also personal in nature?

It is very possible. In fact, in my humble opinion, that is what has been missing from the K-12 educational system with regards to professional development that has been made available to teachers, or even school instructional leaders. This is a bold statement, I know. But if we consider the rate of teachers leaving the profession to become real estate agents, or the staggering 14% teacher turnover rate in my district, it is worth examining whether we are indeed delivering opportunities for professional learning that allow teachers to make that personal connection…similar to what we hope for our students. After all, shouldn’t our professional life be as fulfilling as our personal life?

Personal Professional Learning

I do not have the all the answers, but I do have a couple of ideas. The first is that every educator should read Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. This is a game changing read whether in the context of the corporate world, in the public education system, or…in our personal lives. It speaks to the idea of motivation and what individuals need to thrive. There are three basic premises:

  1. individuals need to feel they can direct their own lives
  2. individuals need to feel they can get better at what they do
  3. individuals need to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves

These elements around motivation can be applied to the work in our respective districts so that personal professional learning becomes a reality rather than remaining a conundrum. I think the important questions to ask teachers and instructional leaders to gauge what they need are those framed around these very elements. So how can we approach the work using this book as our guide?

I am a huge fan of Richard Elmore at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Below is a graphic that I put together which illustrates what he believes will lead to increased student achievement.

Dr. Richard Elmore, Improving the Instructional Core, Harvard University, School of Education 2008

The idea is that the student, teacher and content make up the instructional core and are interconnected. In other words, one cannot change without impacting the other two components. Notice the interplay between these core components: relationships, relevance, and competence. I think this is where we can place our focus and connect it with what we know about motivation to really make professional development or professional learning a personal and fulfilling experience for educators.

We need to ask the following questions then:

  1. What do our teachers need to establish trusting relationships with students? Moreover, what do our campus instructional leaders need to establish trusting relationships with their teachers?
  2. What do our teachers need to feel competent in delivering content to students? What do our campus instructional leaders need to feel competent in delivering meaningful feedback to their teachers around content?
  3. What do our teachers need to determine what is relevant to teach to our students? What do our campus instructional leaders need to guide their teachers in determining what is relevant for our students?
  4. How can we deliver professional learning that addresses these needs that also furnishes the opportunity for teachers and instructional leaders to stay motivated and personally connected to the work?

I have discovered that I thrive when I can access learning that moves me to be a better person and a better professional. Personal and professional learning is indeed a dyad, with both of those elements closely connected. If we can emphasize this connection in professional learning, I think we have a better chance of retaining teachers and reinforcing the work of our campus instructional leaders. At the end of the day, it is about valuing the personal and professional needs of our people in the learning organization.

I stumbled upon this image and thought it captures, in a nutshell, what we should advocate for as a core belief when it comes to delivering personal professional learning.

It does not matter if you are a student, a teacher, a parent, an administrator, a school board member, a community member…our collective goal should be to value human life and our individual pursuits to be lifelong learners.

Written by

Thymai “Tina” Dong served as a French and Spanish secondary teacher for eleven years after which she transitioned to an administrative role as the District Coordinator for World Languages for seven years, both experiences situated within the K-12 public school system. Thymai recently made a significant change in her professional career by leaving the arena of foreign language education to become a Coordinator for Educator Effectiveness in Austin ISD, a position that grants her the opportunity to work with many more teachers across all content disciplines. Thymai also just began her first semester of doctoral school working toward a graduate degree in Adult, Professional and Community Education. Regardless the specific context, she is dedicated to a life of service helping others achieve their full potential and committed to learning right alongside them.

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