Professional Learning

Flexible Professional Development

Moving from one-size-fits-all PD to a flexible model can make professional learning more effective for your whole staff.

December 9, 2021
MBI / Alamy

When I accepted a social studies position at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School (MBA) a decade ago, I was excited for so many reasons. The move into urban education was a purposeful one, and I knew that entering the Philadelphia charter school network meant that I could be part of a system where innovation, creativity, and problem-solving was the primary lens through which educators answered the question, “What is best for students?”

Additionally, although MBA was a small charter school, its tailored approach to professional learning immediately caught my attention. I wasn’t a brand-new teacher, but I was new enough to know that I had grown very little in my first year as an educator. That year, my professional learning consisted of many “sit-and-get” professional development (PD) sessions where I left the room wondering, “How is that going to help me tomorrow, next week, next month, or even next year?”

I realized pretty quickly that if I was going to become the kind of teacher that my students deserved, I was going to need professional learning opportunities that would help me get there.

Luckily, I had found a new home where personalized, professional learning was at the center of its Instructional Flex PD model. Similar to the flexible learning method that affords students freedom in the how, what, when, and where they learn, MBA’s Flex PD recognizes that an educator’s professional learning needs depend on their skill, their experience level, the subjects and grades they teach, and the individual needs of their students.

If you are thinking of bringing a flexible PD model to your school or suggesting it to your administrative team, here are some important lessons we’ve learned since adopting this model.

5 Keys to Adopting Flexible PD

1. Let go of the one-size-fits-all mentality. There is no doubt that inviting your entire staff into a PD session makes life much easier on the administrative side. This is especially true in our K–12 school, where we often require different schedules for each academy, but if your instructional staff isn’t walking away with rich learning experiences, what is the point?

While we do hold some all-staff professional development sessions throughout the year, we try to be intentional about how we schedule them. We typically have teachers and support staff attend and sit with their grade-level or content-area teams to ensure that staff is able to engage in targeted and thoughtful discussion. We often prep presenters on particular connections or challenges facing our academy specific teams, and we build in time for those teams to reconnect and reflect together.

2. Put educators in the driver’s seat. One reason our model has worked well for more than a decade is because it’s driven by educator choice and voice. Twice during the school year, we survey all instructional staff and leaders to determine what research-based and best-practice strategies and topics they’d like to see offered in our PD catalog the following school year.

We also ask them to rate their preference on times, dates, types (all year, one day, summer) and learning models (virtual, asynchronous, blended) that they believe will work best for them. More important, we work with support staff, school counselors, and specialists to make sure their learning needs are met, whether that happens in-house or through outside PD opportunities.

3. Elevate the facilitators. Once the workshop topics are selected, we collaborate as a leadership team to determine who will take the lead on each PD offering. Sometimes we bring in external presenters and experts, but more often than not, we lean on our experts in-house. This provides a targeted growth experience for those facilitators but also signals to our staff that there are a variety of thought partners available to them.

For that reason, each spring we send the upcoming year’s facilitators through two reflective and collaborative sessions about how to teach adult learners. Presenters come prepared with research, ideas, and an end goal in mind and leave the spring sessions ready to craft the best learning experience for their participants.

4. Don’t forget about your teacher leaders. MBA’s leadership team is an integral part of our school’s success, particularly in the areas of student learning and achievement, school culture and climate, articulating a shared vision, and serving as agents of change. As direct stakeholders, we recognize that continually cultivating this group benefits our entire school community.

Each year the leadership team selects a topic that focuses our work for the entire year. The topic drives our summer reading, serves as the central feature for our summer leadership training, and weaves its way into our grade-level and content-area teams’ work during peer review, data analysis, and student-concern meetings. This year, our work is centered on equitable grading practices.

5. Reflect on professional progress. One of the most important factors in the success of a model like ours is constant self-reflection. We build many opportunities for instructional staff throughout the school year in both formal and informal ways. It’s often through this self-reflection that staff members begin to identify their areas of strengths and weaknesses and begin creating next year’s professional learning path. During our end-of-year meetings, administrators discuss with each instructional staff member what their goals are for the upcoming school year and what they believe it will take to reach them.

Today as school leaders grapple with a national teacher shortage, we need to seriously rethink the professional learning experience and subsequent growth opportunities we are providing our educators. How are we cultivating, supporting, and embracing those who have chosen to enter the field? And how are we inspiring and empowering those who stay? If we really want what’s best for students, professional learning cannot be an afterthought.

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