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Thumb_pammoran10_100x100_scaled_cropp Pam Moran ·

'Makers' Of Their Own Learning

Albemarle County's professional development puts teachers in charge of their own learning

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” John Kennedy intended to say in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

These words are as relevant to us today in Albemarle County as they were when John Kennedy asked America to relearn the world - through efforts such as the Peace Corps - and relearn the universe - through the then seemingly improbable “moon shot.” If our students are to be successful in today’s increasingly complex and demanding global environment, we must be constantly learning and we must be modeling learning. To do that we must help our educators develop the learning and leadership skills which help our children learn to become leaders.

This only happens when professional learning supports educators in becoming “makers” of their own learning and not simply consumers and re-transmitters. Professional learning in our district is not found in “one size fits all” training packages created by corporations or even universities. It is discovered through the research and imagination of our highly innovative professionals.

Recent history is a guide. Dramatic gains in the manufacturing quality movement in the U.S. over the past 30 years happened when those closest to the process were empowered to make decisions. No one was better positioned to know how to produce a quality outcome than the professionals actually doing the hands-on work.

The same is true in today’s learning laboratories. What better way to energize and capture the highest levels of enthusiasm, creativity, and to stretch goals for student achievement than to call upon the talents and capabilities of more than 1,200 Albemarle educators who know our students better than anyone else. In doing this, we help our educators to become “pedagogical entrepreneurs” by supporting them in exploring, creating, connecting, and communicating their own innovative approaches to curricula, assessment, and instruction. And we leverage contemporary tools to do this.

Making Teachers “Makers” of Their Learning

Our first step, in Albemarle, is to familiarize our staff and faculty with the tools of today. We use social media and web-based tools such as Yammer, Twitter, YouTube, TodaysMeet, Instagram, Vine, Blackboard Learn, and Collaborate.  We employ Google Apps for Education to plan and deliver professional development that instantly lands in a teacher’s lap or on their laptop. We are also building engaging, complex environments for face-to-face sharing and learning. Our professional learning model is built on a collaborative Professional Learning Network within schools and across the district and personalized through globally accessible social media.

We see two catalysts as supporting our change from a traditional professional development to a contemporary professional learning model; a combination of our Instructional Coaching program and a 24/7 informal peer education model which can be observed most closely by watching our Twitter streams at #acps. Both offer a collaborative environments in which educators are supported to self-initiate learning, cross-pollinate ideas, test new strategies, and share resources.

In concert with such technology affordances, is an equally robust human capital strategy. Coaches focus on helping teachers develop and reach thoughtful and even unconventional professional goals such as how a middle school science teacher can introduce more play into learning.  In our model, teachers take ownership of their development by seeking out a coach, rather than a coach being “assigned” by a principal.  

We also know that the most effective support is often the one-to-one, just-in-time assistance available from the classroom down the hall or the answer to a Twitter ‘call for help.’ For instance, when Robert Munsey, @Munseyclass shared the YouTube video below he solicits ideas about how to engage middle schoolers in 3-D printing of toys as strategy for learning science concepts.  


Teachers in Albemarle imagine and promote, “Pedagogical Entrepreneurship”

Beyond Traditional PD Spaces

Flexible professional learning provides more varied opportunities for teachers to work together in groups or as partners, replacing “sit and git” sessions with interactive environments with multiple screens/focal points and multiple simultaneous activities.  Flexibility also comes through choices - where, when, and how - face-to-face or online - teachers gather. And while more of our teachers are attending and presenting at global and virtual education conferences, we are also developing outreach to alternative learning spaces, with professional learning trips to museums, parks, and retail environments.  

This past summer, a team traveled to the Children’s Museum in Chicago to spend time learning how to choose elementary-level maker tools and set up Tinker labs. They returned and helped create maker summer school programs in four elementary schools that have carried forward into the school year.  A few of our Middle School “Career Tech” teachers joined us on a trip to the World’s Maker Faire and New York Hall of Science early this fall and within a month three of of our Middle Schools had cross-curricular environments using the tools of museum-informal learning to drive engagement.

This combination of access to virtual resources, face time with colleagues, and different learning opportunities leverages a global talent pool.  Our connected educators learn from and with others from other schools, states, and nations.  At “Making Connections,” our annual professional learning gathering day, teachers plan and share with each other in formal sessions as well as informally similar to the edcamp model. In our “Breaking Traditions” virtual conference our international friends join us annually to share creative practice. In our our professional learning Seven Pathways work, all content and methodology are developed by our teachers and presented in ways which encourage viral learning.

To encourage learning and leadership in our educators we cannot have professional learning scripted from afar – instead we need to harness the tremendous transformative power of our teachers to lead the way.  

That’s why we believe grassroots leadership and professional learning are inextricably linked to empowering young people to embrace learning, excel and own their future. And that’s our moon shot.

Additional Contributors to This Article:



Ira Socol is Design Program Manager at Albemarle County Schools.



Becky Fisher is Director of Education Technology, Professional Development and Media Services at Albemarle County Schools.


Phil Giaramita is the Strategic Communications Officer at Albemarle County Schools.

About the Author

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Pam Moran is superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia.

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