A Word of Caution Before Hiring a Director of Personalized Learning

Hiring & Recruiting

A Word of Caution Before Hiring a Director of Personalized Learning

By Blair Mishleau     Mar 26, 2018

A Word of Caution Before Hiring a Director of Personalized Learning

Taking a position with a title that includes a buzzword is risky—especially in a school.

It’s not just because the buzzword could go out of style next year. It’s also the fact that when a school hires a singular position to own a large change, it sends a message that one person owns the responsibility to change practices across an entire staff. That isn’t good for buy-in.

After five years of teaching, most recently as a technology teacher at an elementary school, I was recruited for a role outside of the classroom. In 2017, I began a new position as the director of personalized learning at a public charter school serving students in grades 7-12 in Phoenix. The school wanted to move into personalized learning, and was looking for someone to lead the charge.

It was an exciting transition for me. The hiring process for my new role was a dream. The principal shared historical context on where the school has been and offered insights on where he thought it could go. He offered me an opportunity to develop my own vision for personalized learning at the school and to design my role. Participating in the creation of a new position, leading the change management process, and having an office (even if it was shared) got me really jazzed about my transition.

My vision initially focused mostly on developing strategy for change management. That included identifying stakeholders, gaining buy-in and designing systems of change to implement the new model. I knew the process of change should involve observing teachers, meeting with instructional coaches and communicating with administrators about what our staff needed and how they were growing.

That isn’t how things played out.

Three weeks into the school year, I was sitting in my still new-feeling office glancing at my inbox—zero emails. I looked at my schedule for the day—zero meetings. As I reflected on my lack of work for the week, I quietly wondered what had gone wrong.

As a classroom teacher, I knew how to move the needle with my students. I could rapidly prototype a new program or model in my classroom and experience improvements in student outcomes.

As the director of personalized learning, I was the mastermind behind the vision, but didn’t have the power to pull the levers of change myself. While my schedule included observing teachers, I didn’t have the support of their coaches. I had lost my on-the-ground power to lead change in a classroom and I didn’t have a direct line to the senior administrators. I needed one or the other to kickstart the changes I was looking to make.

I quickly realized how siloed my role was. Teachers met weekly in content teams to plan curriculum, and on data teams to surface trends in student performance and discuss their implication on instruction. Senior administrators met weekly to talk through schoolwide issues and priorities. I didn’t have a seat at those tables. Instead, I sat on the Instructional Cabinet, a team of teachers and administrators that discussed instructional priorities but generally didn’t have the power to make decisions that would enact schoolwide changes.

I decided to have one-one-one meetings with the decision-makers at my school. Some administrators refused to meet with me at the start of the year to discuss the vision, failing to make the connection between my role and theirs even when prompted and provided with examples. Others engaged in awkward check-ins with me, but they were confused about how their role related to personalized learning.

After a few of these meetings, I realized that I had become the “personalized learning guy.” As a result, perhaps unintentionally, other staff members felt limited accountability for making learning personal at our school. It felt like they were opting out of personalized learning, which wasn’t productive. The kind of change we were looking to make required shared responsibility, multiple perspectives and enthusiasm for this work.

This challenge was rooted in buy-in. When my principal and I mapped out our vision and my role, we didn’t consider the school’s capacity, interest or readiness for making this kind of transition.

Shifting the mindsets of other administrators became an uphill battle. While my role does ultimately own organization-wide investment, there should be a baseline interest from senior administrators before hiring a role like mine.

After banging my head up against the wall for awhile, I realized that though there were some people in key positions pushing back, there were teachers who were ready and excited for this work. I needed to find a way into their classrooms. Following my principal’s guidance, I started meeting with teachers regularly, popping into their rooms and intentionally spotlighting the work they were doing that made learning personal. Teachers appreciated the recognition and started reaching out to me to collaborate. Eventually, I was able to assemble a Blended Learning Team, which has helped our school codify schoolwide goals and strengthen our vision for PL at our school.

Getting to know the context of the school and its systems has helped me lead more change at the school. Based on meetings with the Blended Learning Team, I developed our Microcredential Hub, a professional development site that allows all of our teachers to gain recognition as they learn about personalized learning, edtech programs and other related skills. I also worked with Education Elements to build out a personalized learning implementation plan, and with the Learn Platform to develop a process to assess the efficacy of our blended learning programs.

Things have been gaining steam over the past few months, and one thing that has become clear is that my school doesn’t need a full time “personalized learning guy.” They need someone to help our leadership team make informed decisions on how, when and why to pursue different types of practices that support personalized learning. Someone teachers can turn to to when implementing these new practices—a person they can collaborate with to brainstorm, experiment and reflect.

That’s why I’m transitioning to part-time as I enter a remote curriculum development role. In my new position, I plan to continue supporting the staff and I’m hopeful that once the initiative isn’t in the hands of a single person, the school will thrive.

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