How Administrators Can Design the Best Learning Experiences for Teachers

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At the recent U.S. Education Learning Forum, Bill Gates talked about an exciting shift in ed policy, which puts a strong focus on what happens inside the classroom. The focus not only elevates understanding and admiration for the invaluable role of effective teachers, but aims to support all teachers in moving up the learning line.

In order to do this, professional learning must reflect the kind of learning we want to see for our students. We are moving toward true learning cultures, which are personalized, relevant, and empowering. To that end, the antiquated ideas around teacher training and development will fade out, and a new era of professional learning experiences that support and push educators can come out into the sun.

In order to support teachers’ growth along the learning line, it’s important for administrators to consider four things when designing learning experiences for teachers.

Set a vision to speak to people’s passion

My work with schools and leaders always begins with a clear vision for the kind of equitable teaching and learning we want to see in all classrooms.

Back when I worked for Highline Public Schools in Seattle, Washington as the Learning Technology Manager, the school principals and I always set aside time to review and interact with Highline Public Schools’ vision of blended learning before planning PD.

By starting with this vision, our collaborative time together and any decisions and action steps we design have a clear goal. Because our work feels urgent and time is a precious commodity, it is tempting to jump straight into specifics or details. However, I think it’s vital to take time to reconnect with our values around the power of education and our commitment to access and equity for all students. We are primed to tackle the challenging work because we remember why it matters so much to us in the first place. It also means we can let go of the multitude of small details we’re juggling for long enough to really ensure that anything we pick back up is directly in service of the big goals.

Provide whole learning experiences (rather than trainings)

In the days of PD “trainings,” educators would say that they couldn’t do something because they hadn’t been trained. But here’s the big issue: education is much too complex to assume that if input X [a training] has been delivered, output Y will be met. 

This is problematic, because shifting to a true learning culture means that everyone is responsible for their learning and has their own agency. It’s what we want to see in our classrooms, where we bristle against a student who doesn’t take responsibility for their learning. Our system must mirror the same expectations for adults--specifically, by providing learning experiences.

Take a look at this diagram below.

Recently, I met with a regional team, and we created a chart of professional learning experiences for our districts. The chart was designed to expand thinking around PD to encompass more than just an initial experience using a digital tool. By focusing on the experience, rather than mere “seat time” or training, we saw that different opportunities had power to inspire different growth--all of which is much more powerful than a training.

Focus on instructional practices, led by the right practitioners

Learning experiences need to be lead by the right practitioners. Every school has expert teacher-leaders who can share their great instructional moves which give power to the tools and resources (digital and otherwise) that they are using.

Take, for example, the sessions at Hazel Valley Elementary School were focused on instructional practices and pulled in various tools. Initially, the 90-minute professional collaboration time was conceived as training on specific online programs. But we realized there was greater power in focusing on the instructional moves teachers were making, and as a team, the principal, an instructional coach, and I designed an afternoon of learning at her school.

We examined our document on “best practices for using digital tools,” and then identified teacher-leaders in the school who employed these practices on a regular basis. We created breakout sessions where teachers had choice in what they attended and were supported by the experts in their own school. The exit ticket at the end of the day (filled out by grade level teams to reflect on their learning for the afternoon) revealed that teachers felt energized by this work, because each team had chosen to work on an instructional practice that aligned directly with the school’s annual action plan. 

Empower teachers to be innovative and take risks with their learning

We, administrators, can create more of those challenges in our systems, and teachers can create more of those for themselves by developing PLCs, staying involved in the national conversation via Twitter, and reading up on the latest news on EdSurge. So empower them! In fact, Valerie Lewis has several great recommendations for how to encourage your teachers.

Starting with vision allows professional development work to be messy. Learning isn’t linear, and it isn’t easy. It’s strongest when it involves challenge, is collaborative, and is supported and celebrated along the way. Teachers are going to create strong learning environments for their students when they are involved in similar environments themselves--and it’s up to you to support them, administrators.


Ellen Dorr is currently the Director of Instructional Technology for Renton School District in Seattle, WA.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Washington). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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