Dealing with a 'Culture of Fear'—Administrators on PD in the Age of...

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Dealing with a 'Culture of Fear'—Administrators on PD in the Age of Blended Learning

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Mar 15, 2017

Dealing with a 'Culture of Fear'—Administrators on PD in the Age of Blended Learning

It’s pretty clear that very few people in education enjoy those typical sit-and-get professional development sessions. And when blended learning gets thrown into the mix, the situation gets even more complicated—what happens when educators seem afraid of products? Who should deliver PD, the administrators or the teachers?

Talk to administrators, and they have some answers to these questions—as well as thoughts about what parts of PD should be left far, far behind. At the EdSurge Tech for Schools Summit in Riverside, EdSurge’s own Michelle Spencer led a panel with Steve Kong (instructional services specialist for Riverside Unified School District), Stepan Mekhitarian (blended learning coordinator for Local District Northwest in Los Angeles USD), Brad Hellickson (student advisor for online learning in Corona Norco Unified) and Michelle Clavijo-Diaz (Global Education Solutions Product Line Manager, HP Inc.) to get their thoughts.

Take a look at their answers below, or listen to the entirety of the panel on the EdSurge podcast.

EdSurge: I'm going to open with a really broad question… Generally, when it comes to professional learning, how do we get our staff to grow? And what does the research say?

Stepan Mekhitarian: I think what's very important is for blended learning to not be a separate, compartmentalized aspect of learning at a school site. Sometimes when I go to school sites, I'll hear people say, "English, math, science," and then blended learning is its own separate category. I think what's very important is for professional development to model that blended learning needs to be an integral part of the learning process.

If we're talking to classroom teachers or to students or professionals in a development setting, the learning should be happening in a blended format. The second thing is that a lot of teachers have said that they want to see what it looks like, so it's very important for them to get opportunities to go and observe other classes—to see the theory in action. It all sounds great but, if you didn't experience it as a learner, then you really will need an opportunity to see it.

Steve Kong: I think that's completely true in that teachers have to experience what you're expecting them to do. For our district… we're going into schools and giving staff an opportunity to choose what they want to learn in a blended setting.

You'll have some teachers who are completely new to it, so they'll say, "You know, I'm not ready for that, but I want step-by-step instruction on how to do this. I just want guided instruction." But then, you have other teachers who are really good with technology and they'll say, "Well, you know, if I have to sit here and go through this slide deck, it's not really useful for me, so I'm going to take advantage of a resource like Kyte and pick something that I want to learn.”

Brad Hellickson: With traditional PD, we're bringing people in constantly and we're taking them out of their classrooms. But I think one of the effective strategies for teachers is to actually bring them into classrooms, to see [blended learning] in action. It's one thing to sit at a table and be given pedagogical practices and do the variety of things we normally do at a traditional PD. But to actually go into a physical classroom and see this in action, you begin to craft in your own mind, "Well, how might I take some of these things and start applying them to my own environment?" I think is absolutely critical—and that's one of the things we don't do frequently enough.

EdSurge: A few of you have mentioned the value of getting teachers to observe each other. But I wonder, how do you get the culture ready, where they're willing participants? What are your tricks for engagement and culture building?

Brad Hellickson: I think one of those pieces to start building that culture is to not make professional development an isolated event. I think we've probably all sat through events where we sit there, and it is from 8.30 in the morning till 3.30 in the afternoon. It is strategy after strategy—and very, very pedantically-oriented. There's never time for that internal collaboration to start within the PD event itself.

In blended learning, we can move a lot of that more pedantic stuff to an online environment, and then the actual PD becomes collaborative. The facilitator, at that point, then becomes like a blended learning teacher where if we do have people that are ready to move on to bigger and better things, we can differentiate within the PD itself and then continue that collaboration outside of it. That is, I think, the hardest thing to get started. I don't know if anybody has any ideas on how to really inspire people to continue that protracted collaboration piece, but I think that's how you start to build that culture.

Steve Kong: So, if you're going to change culture, it can't just be, "Come get PD," and then the districts provide that PD. One of the most powerful things I think is to actually empower teachers at the site to be the agents to shift that change.

Brad Hellickson: Can I jump in with one other thing here before we move on? We're talking about shifting the culture and how we approach PD. I think one of the things that we might want to consider is the “fear factor” involved…. It's overcoming fear and not overwhelming teachers, and that's why delivering PD in a blended environment gives them that time to absorb, I think. I think that's absolutely critical.

EdSurge: I'm glad you mentioned the fear issue because I think that's very real, and yet, often individuals might not even be aware of it themselves. Several of you have talked about the importance of it coming from the teacher level and teacher leaders and teachers doing and supporting and learning from each other, but at the very top, there’s the superintendent leading the charge. What do you do to build the capacity of the administrators and those edleaders?

Steve Kong: For us, what we did last year was we created a menu of opportunities for teachers, so they got to self-select what they wanted to learn about. But then, we revised all that content for administrators and put out a similar menu, so they could choose what subjects they wanted to engage in. For principals that couldn't join in because they have super busy schedules, we recorded everything, had a webinar and put it on YouTube, so it was accessible for them afterwards.

Stepan Mekhitarian: We offer a four-part professional development series that is essentially a crash course in blended learning. A lot of principals have taken that, and so they know the concept behind blended learning. They may not feel comfortable leading that work at their school sites. So, we've combined that with classroom observation so they can see what it looks like, and then offer school site trainings where we can go and customize the training to that school so the principal can see staff reaction

Michelle Clavijo-Diaz: What they said was fantastic. Actually, in my children's own middle school, a principal has Coffee Talks with her families that can come in. Principals are extremely busy. They've a lot going on, but they also recognize that there are things happening in the classroom that they have to make time for.

EdSurge: You've all mentioned really good advice about what we should start doing and the kinds of shifts we should make. So I want to flip that question and ask you point blank, what should we stop doing?

Michelle Clavijo-Diaz: Stop forcing it on [educators]. Don't just purchase, drop it and walk away.

Stepan Mekhitarian: I'd say along similar lines—stop introducing products or resources or tools out of context. So, if you say there's a great new tool you may consider using and you just show the tool but there's no context for it, I think it's going to be difficult to get teachers to buy-in because it just seems like one more thing.

Steve Kong: I think just using technology for technology's sake. I was in a classroom, and two students were sitting close; they had Chromebooks out and were working on a collaborative document. But, they could've just as easily looked over at each other and talked about what they were doing. When I asked them about it, they said, "Well, our teacher wants us to use the Chromebooks." So, find meaningful reasons for using technology, outside of just saying, "Hey, we used technology today."

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