Leading an Annual PD Revolution

Part 1 of this 3-part blog series can currently be found as part of CraftED’s February 2017 PD Revolution campaign, as well as below.

Check it out here: https://craftedcurriculum.com/leading-an-annual-pd-revolution/ 

In my home state of Michigan, educators in public districts can pretty much count on their in-district professional development satisfying the vast majority of what’s required of them for state re-certification. Although this potentially simplifies a teacher’s life, it doesn’t mean districts and schools are building professional development systems that are relevant or meaningful to those they are positioned to grow, nor does it mean those systems are producing better outcomes in teaching and learning. In fact, stories of district provided professional development (DPPD) producing measurably improved outcomes, or getting rave reviews from staff, are still far too rare.

If you are a school leader or an instructional leadership team, here are 5 steps to change that narrative – to become intentional architects of adult learning in your building, honoring what so many educators are calling for: deeper professional learning.

Get collectively (re)clear about what you care about most.

Simon Sinek says it well in his TedTalk “How great leaders inspire action”: People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.

What gets you and your staff up every morning and excited to come to work? What is your ideal graduate? Do you have a graduate profile (New Tech Network’s sample)? What is it, truly, that you are striving for as a team? What do you believe? This is something you don’t just talk about once in a mission and visioning session. This is something that should easily roll off the tongue of anyone on your team whenever asked, because it flows through them and inspires every single one of you. Start here, and keep coming back to it. And don’t assume a new staff member will pick it up. Create moments where the team regularly re-owns it, so your “north star” is always informing your efforts.

Collaboratively and courageously make sense of how you’re doing in service of what you care about most.

Collective capacity building in response to where your students need you to grow takes intention, vulnerability, and care. Grounding yourselves in your purpose, take steps to…

Decide WHAT information about teaching and learning (data) is most relevant to your purpose. What’s going to help paint the clearest and most aligned picture of how you’re doing in relation to your ideal? This might be student work samples. It might be standardized test data. It might be student or parent surveys. It might be a combination of these things or maybe it’s data you commit to creating.

Decide WHO will do the collaborative sense-making with that information about teaching and learning. If you’re a large staff (30+), consider smaller team analyses of data first and then synthesize as a collective. If you’re a smaller staff, do that sense-making together.

Decide HOW you will go about making sense of the most relevant data. This step is not to be taken lightly. This is a key place to model the deeper learning principles and practices you’re asking your staff to embody in their classrooms. This is where you can honor John Heron’s assertion that, “The dynamic of the group is grounded in the life of emotion and feeling.” What is the current state of the culture of your staff? What kinds of constraints (this doesn’t have to be perceived as negative) are most likely to help you and your team be the best versions of yourselves, so that you can critically critique the current state of your outcomes? National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) is stacked with protocols to support this. Protocol facilitation takes deliberate practice – don’t give up.

Read Part 2 for a trip from the big picture over to zeroing in on a laser-like, purpose-driven focus for improvement.


Leading an Annual PD Revolution – Part 3

This blog is part of a #pdrevolution series featured on CraftED’s blog.

Organize yourselves around learning in pursuit of that thing about student learning you want to improve.

“Organize around learning” can sound pretty ambiguous. Here are some practical questions to help you pull it off:

  • Time: In what ways is our master schedule already designed to clear the path for us to prioritize and maintain a deliberate improvement focus? Where are there opportunities for us to adjust? What might we stop doing, so that we can truly commit to a singular focus?
  • Leadership: Who is most logically positioned to design and facilitate this ongoing learning effort (i.e. department chairs, grade level team leaders, curriculum specialists, instructional coaches)? What support and development will those leaders need, and how we can ensure structures are in place for this support as a regular part of this process? (Bonus questions: Will those leaders change over time? How can we articulate this distributed leadership system for future use?)
  • Culture: Do we already have rituals and norms that will lend themselves to the level of discipline and collective capacity building this focus will require of us? In what ways? What rituals and norms are most likely to help us bring this improvement vision to life? Who might need some additional or unique support through what will likely be some periods of “disequilibrium” (Heifetz, 2009)?

In addition to ensuring you consider and plan intentionally for tending to the conditions for learning (questions above), this type of learning pursuit implies a cyclical inquiry process. Whatever framework you choose, it will likely prioritize 4 things – data, analysis of that data, strategizing informed by the analysis, and testing strategies (which then creates your new set of data!). Be sure the team leading this improvement effort carves explicit and regular time to “see things from the balcony” (Heifetz, 2009). Reflect upon where you’ve been, where you are in the process, and determine the most thoughtful next steps to continually strive towards the improvement you want to see – just like a good teacher does!

Here are two visual examples of approaches to cyclical improvement efforts:

Example of 3 data-analysis-strategy cycles in service of improving students’ disciplinary writing knowledge and skill through implementation of New Tech Network’s College Readiness Assessments. Cycle of inquiry is an element of New Tech Network’s Learning Organization Framework, which is heavily informed by the work of Peter Senge.


Example of year-long virtual PLC effort in progress with a cohort of AP Instructors from Michigan Virtual School. Process leverages improvement science principles and practices from Anthony Bryk’s, Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. See my A True PLC series for details.

Frame with intention – over and over again.

The more I interact in the field of education, the more strongly I believe a school or district leader needs to practice the art of framing, which requires both communication skills and a certain level of emotional intelligence. How you communicate must change based on stakeholder, and it can be a great benefit to internalize the communication nuances inherent in working with adults who fall across a broad adult development spectrum (see Drago-Severson or Berger). Committing to a singular focus for improving student learning as a staff will require leadership to communicate strategically in a variety of ways.

  • How is what you’re doing aligned to broader layers of the educational system (i.e. district initiatives/mandates, state policy and accountability measures, federal policy and accountability measures, grant opportunities), and how can you make that connection simple to understand?
  • Who on your team might find your particular focus an adaptive challenge (i.e. it doesn’t naturally feel aligned to their content area), and how can you help them to see the relevance to their work?
  • Who might struggle most with focusing on one thing (i.e. curriculum director who is used to planning a cornucopia of PD), and how can you help them through that struggle?
  • What about this effort is likely to build stakeholder support (i.e. what should parents appreciate about this?), and how can you proactively harness your message about it in ways those stakeholders will value? How will you share bright spots, no matter how small?  

In, “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform,” Michael Fullan asks us to, “Imagine that you would become a better teacher just by virtue of the fact that you are on the staff of a particular school in a particular district in a particular state or country.” Imagine. This is what I believe leading an annual #PDRevolution will accomplish. You are blazing the trail!

Leading an Annual PD Revolution – Part 2

This blog is part of a #pdrevolution series featured on CraftEd’s blog.

Identify something specific about student learning that you want to improve.

As the former Director of School Leadership at New Tech Network (NTN), I sometimes had the privilege of co-facilitating with my friend and colleague, Jim May, Chief Schools Officer at NTN. In one of our sessions designed for school leaders, we focused on the concept of identifying a singular focus for student outcomes improvement. To kick off the session, we started with the following warm-up prompt:

Take 5-10 minutes to write down all of the things you and your staff worked on this past school year – all of the professional development. List as many things as you can remember.

After participants vigorously drafted their lists, we followed up with the question: What did you get better at as a result?

We tended to get blank stares.

Jim is notorious for these gotcha moments. He prides himself on creating experiences that have learners bump into insights. He also often uses the simple quote, “You get better specifically, not generally.” This was the point of the warm-up (if that’s not already clear). He recently told me that this quote is his way of synthesizing what he’s found to be the main point made over and over again in literature around improvement. In my own reading, I’d tend to agree with his paraphrase.


Here’s the deal: Picking something specific about student learning you want to improve is actually a pretty foreign concept in the field of education. As educators, we are multi-taskers. We’re used to wearing many hats. We’re used to working 12-hour days. We’re often wrestling with multiple accountability measures and initiatives coming from multiple layers of the complex education system. Agreeing as a team to commit to a singular improvement focus takes courage and an element of risk. It will likely receive push-back. And the path to improvement is not clean. It will be messy, and the focus will likely evolve as you learn. See this case study of New Tech West in Cleveland, OH for a great example of the messy long-term path to improvement led by someone committed to a singular focus.

My advice: Just pick something, and go for it. There is something special about committing to getting better at getting better. And by focusing on one thing, I believe you’ll get better at many things along the way.

Here are a few examples of a singular focus:

  • Improve students’ ability to use evidence to support claims in their written communication
  • Increase from 5% to 50% the number of students who achieve college math credit within one year of continuous enrollment (from Learning to Improve by Anthony Bryk)
  • Increase the quality of final products through evidence of student work revision over multiple drafts

What does the analysis of your current outcomes, in line with what you care about most, tell you you need to get better at specifically?

Read Part 3 to consider what it looks like to organize yourself and your team around learning in pursuit of the specific thing about student learning you want to improve.