Not Just About Students: The Importance of Personalizing Learning for Teachers

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My journey as an educator began thirty years ago and—I’ll admit—references to personalized learning were never mentioned or formally discussed back then. Yet, I knew the importance of building relationships with my students and reaching every student wherever she/he was with developing skills. I began this incredible career as a music teacher and there’s no question, every student was unique in his/her vocal development, especially with the adolescent changes that occur.

We consider physical changes as being individual and unique, yet do we recognize that each person’s learning journey can be just as individual? As we look at how how personalized learning has evolved over time, what was once considered accommodations, modifications (oftentimes reserved for special education students), and differentiation has transformed into personalized learning with students.

Notice, I said “students,” but let’s remember that lifelong learning is for all—including those educators who have direct impact on students. Just as personalized learning is important for our students, so is it imperative for our adult learners; and this includes truly knowing and building relationships with adult learners in order to be able to personalize learning opportunities.

How We Addressed All Teacher Learners

I had the honor of becoming the superintendent of a newly developed and growing school district, Tri-City United Schools, in southern Minnesota four years ago. In this short time, we have taken our mission “To Empower Learners, Create Opportunities, United for Success” to heart in everything we do, including empowering our educators and creating opportunities for their ongoing development.

The shift from “all get the same information and training at the same time in the same way” wasn’t easy, but it began simply by 1) listening to our educators and being open while 2) also encouraging them to take risks. We moved from the traditional workshop model (you know, the long, boring sessions you have to sit through) to building upon the internal capacities of our staff. Summer edtech camps with Tri-City United educators facilitating the sessions led to pilot projects with digital learning and instruction with this past summer’s professional developing moving truly into personalized learning.

But we didn’t just launch into it right off the bat. Setting goals for any personalized professional development is key.

Professional Development Goes ‘Project-Based Learning’

Mr. Matt Flugum, a TCU Teacher on Special Assignment and Digital Learning Specialist, networked with other districts and institutes, eventually developing a learning structure to implement research into the personalized art each teacher brings to the profession. In essence, he provided big ideas an a structure of time for teachers to create and develop those big ideas into their own learning and instruction with students. The result: TCU Teacher Summer Project-Based Professional Learning.

Here is an outline of the goals for the summer program. The target goals were to provide project-based, blended learning opportunities for teaching staff to—first off—gain tools which are useful when incorporating technology in the classroom. Specifically, this looked like:

  • Establishing definitions and elements of Project/Problem Based Learning and Authentic, Active Learning Experiences
  • Learning to integrate Google products and software into the classroom with Google Fundamentals I, focused on Technology Integration
  • Understanding the use of Moodle and Google in a student-led, hybrid/blended class setting

Ideally, teachers would essentially complete a project during which they would master the following terms: SAMR/TPACK, Flipped Model, Active Learning Environment, Project-Based Learning, Blended and Hybrid Learning, Moodle/Google Classroom, and Personalized and Individualized Learning.

The second target goals was for teachers to begin to essentially complete a “project” where they would build or refine the structures they have in place for “active learning environments.” To help, we:

  • Provided a structured approach with check-in dates and a final share of accomplishment, where teachers could share their “projects;”
  • Supported teachers in creating engaging courses which enhance student learning using:
    1. Formative responsive assessments (flexible grouping on “check-in days”)
    2. Cohort discussions and supports (forums/hangouts)
    3. Self-assessment and collaborative peer review

The timeline and format for reaching these goals was open and paced for what worked for each teacher. Our kick-off took place on July 11, when we introduced the program and design projects, timelines, and goals. But summer check-in’s were relatively unstructured to fit to the teachers' schedules, and a final share took place on August 22.

But for anyone who wants to adopt a similar model, the timing can be adjusted—such as for programs that run throughout the fall, spring, or entire school year.

Overall, the feedback from educators involved in this summer learning opportunity has been positive. Collectively, they are transforming their classrooms into personalized learning spaces with students—perhaps because they experienced it themselves.

The synergy from this personalized professional development is leading our district into a culture of stretching, supporting, and yes, empowering learners. But at the end of the day, giving teachers choice in their own learning—and making it relevant to their individual classrooms—is truly the way to spread personalized learning across a district. Anyone can see that—even a superintendent.

Teri Preisler, Ed.D., (@TPreisler) is the Superintendent of Tri-City United School District ISD 2905 within the communities of Lonsdale, Montgomery, LeCenter, Minnesota and the surrounding area. Matt Flugum, Technology Integration Specialist for Tri-City United Public Schools, contributed to this article.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Minnesota). 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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