Strength-Based PD

“You are allowed to be a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously.”  – Laura McBain


Over the last 30 years, I have seen a lot of different models of staff professional development.  We have brought in speakers, sent people to workshops, provided books to read, held focus groups, and offered after school classes, to name a few.  Very often, the topics for the PD have been created by administrators or small groups of teacher-leaders (e.g. the district curriculum committee), and the topics have focused on areas identified as weaknesses or areas in need of improvement. Our math scores have dropped – let’s bring in a math expert to teach teachers to do a better job teaching math.  Students are misbehaving in classrooms – let’s show videos at a staff meeting on effective student discipline techniques.

So how successful has this approach to PD been over the years?  You can answer that question for your own schools by thinking of issues you have had and the PD you provided to rectify these issues. Did it work?  From my point of view, I would have to say that the efficacy of traditional professional development has been mediocre at best. This begs the question, “Is there a better way to for us to learn and improve our practices?”

After reading George Couros’s book, The Innovator’s Mindset, I may have found another approach to PD during the school year. In chapter 8, George writes,

What if we stopped operating on a deficit model, that focuses on a learner’s weaknesses and started operating on a strengths-based model that builds on the learner’s strength?

For the purposes of this post, let’s use the term “learner” to mean teacher, administrator, or student, because we all are learners, and we educators must be modeling learning for our students.

Couros shares some research that found that people were more engaged in their work when managers focused on their employees’ strengths – rather than focusing on improving their weaknesses (or ignoring them completely!).  He explains the need for strength-based professional development where educators further develop areas in which they are already strong.  I would add to this by including PD based on educators’ passions and strong interests.

I believe that if a person is passionate about a topic, or if she is confident in her skills, she will more than likely want to dig deeper and improve more quickly.  Conversely, if a person lacks confidence or is uninterested in a topic, he may “drag his feet” when asked to improve. This idea fits very nicely with Carol Dweck’s concept of the Growth Mindset.  “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

I am fortunate to work in school district that has moved most of the professional development work back to the local schools.  I think this is great, but we need a new, better model for this to be effective.  So, this year, I plan on implementing a strength-based mindset, or model, for PD.

At the start of the school year, we will ask staff members to reflect on their strengths, passions, and interests.  Then, we will survey them for PD ideas based on these.  The next step will be to sort the strength-based ideas into four or five similar clusters.  Each staff member would self-select a cluster based on a strength, passion, or interest, and NOT on a cluster where they felt they needed to improve.  

We will call these clusters “Learning Leader Cohorts,” or LLCs, that will meet at least monthly to study, discuss, and plan around their strength-based topic of choice.  Each LLC will be self-directed, will develops goals for the group, and will define measures of success for the school year. I will provide the resources they may need to dig deeply into their topics.  The LLC members will keep notes on their work in a shared document to which the entire staff will have access. Finally, each LLC will present their work to the entire staff at least twice during the school year.

The ultimate goal is to develop “home-grown” cohorts of experts on topics that are important to our school community.  Those cohort members will be the “go-to” people when someone has a question or would like assistance with a topic for which they are not as proficient. As George Couros writes, “Build upon each other to build something together.”


Using Twitter for School District PD

“Twitter is an amazing tool for educators!” – Anonymous  (at least I think someone might have said that.)

 Regardless of the source of that quote, I have come to believe this to be true.  When I first signed on to Twitter, I was not so sure, however.  I saw this cool new tool as another way to chat with people and share innocuous tidbits about their lives.

I now see Twitter as an invaluable source of information for educators.  The number of teachers and administrators using Twitter is growing exponentially, and these folks are writing about all of the important topics of the day. You can get opinions on all of these topics, and you can find amazing resources for teaching and learning.  Over the years, I have been to many, many professional workshops and conferences, and I have gained knowledge at these events.  However, I would argue that I have learned as much in the last few years on Twitter as I have in the last 29 years as an educator attending on-site professional development sessions.

Today was a watershed day in my life as a Tweeter.  Until today, I used Twitter on my own to connect with others around the globe, and I have participated in Twitter chats that I have found quite valuable. But, until today, I have done my Tweeting outside of the school day, on my own time.

Today was different.  We held an all-district inservice day for our teachers.  No students; only teachers. One of the scheduled activities for all staff members was to participate in a 30 minute Twitter chat that was led by administrators and instructional coaches.  Eight relevant topics were presented to staff to discuss.  Each chat was offered at two different times during the day.  Here are the topics:

Standards Based Grading #SBG109  

Project Based Learning #PBL109    

Classroom Management #MGT109

Connected Educators  #ConEd109  

Disciplinary Literacy   #LDC109  

Special Needs Topics #Sped109

ePortfolios   #ePort109   

Doing Things Differently #DTD109   

What a great idea for professional development within a school district!  (I can say that because it was not my idea!)  Because we all have so much to offer, discussing these topics in group chats had the potential to be valuable for all participants.  I can say that the chats in which I participated were terrific. I now can go back to each of these hashtags and read the string of comments to learn even more.  None of us would have been able to do that if we held in-person discussions in classrooms.  Furthermore, the discussions can continue forever if people choose to keep the chats going.  Finally, because these hashtags are public, we had other Tweeters from outside the school district joining our chats.  There is no way we could have gained insight from others if we held traditional face-to-face inservice meetings.

All-in-all, today’s experiment in Tweeting was a huge success from my point of view, and I would recommend that other school districts try this approach.  Feel free to check out our hashtags.  There were a lot of great thoughts shared regarding eight important educational topics.

For information on hundreds of ongoing educational chats on Twitter, check here.  Thanks to @Jeff_Zoul, @mfaust, @Arubin98, and @mikelubelfeld for bringing this idea to our school district!  Well done!

Have a Tweetful day!

Dave  @dbsherman

What Do You Believe?

The first week of school has ended, and I am happy to write that it was successful, despite all of the rain.  The week started out with two days of staff inservice meetings including my welcome-back faculty meeting.  I like to start this annual meeting with some type of whole-staff activity.  Some years, I will incorporate something fun or silly (like the year I sent the staff on a digital camera scavenger hunt around the building), and other years, I will try to create something motivational to get everyone revved up for the start of school.  This year, the focus was motivational (at least I was motivated!  I hope the staff was, too.)

A few weeks ago, I tapped into my professional online network (Twitter, MPC, and my blog) and asked the following question:

“I am looking for short and fun ideas or activities for my opening staff meeting. I’d like something to do with staff as a welcome back activity that will get everyone going, and that will start the year with a laugh or a smile on the teachers’ faces. Does anyone have any suggestions?”

I came across a video on LeaderTalk that lit the spark for me.  I focused on the word “Believe.”  What did I believe?  What did my teachers and other staff “Believe” about education and teaching?  I wanted them to reflect, so I created this slide show and shared it with everyone.

(Who slipped in that peanut butter slide?)

After sharing the slide show and watching the video at the end, I asked every staff member to write down what they believed in.  I did not set any parameters.  I simply asked them to write some personal belief statements and then turn the sheet over to keep these statements private.  I did not ask for anyone to share.

Next, my assistant principal and I led a discussion of Charlotte Danielson’s four domains as outlined in her book Enhancing Professional Practice:  A Framework for Teaching.  (This is must-read for all educators.)

We started with a KWL and we discovered that very few people in the room had ever heard of Danielson and her work.  Using a Google Document, we listed their responses to the question “What do you want to learn about Danielson’s four domains?” In addition, we asked the staff to work in groups to discuss “What defines exemplar teachers in the four domains of teaching?”

This really sparked an interest, and one teacher asked if I could purchase a copy of the book for them to pass around and read.  BINGO! That is exactly what I was hoping would happen.  I agreed that that was a terrific idea, and I suggested that I should buy the book for every teacher on the staff so we could hold monthly books talks.  That all agreed, so that is what I have done.  This will be a professional development focus for our staff this year, and we will discuss different sections of the book at our faculty meetings.

My AP and I also will be using the domains as a basis for our teacher evaluation  this year and next year.  The book will give us a common language about exemplar planning, class management, instruction, and professional responsibilities.

I ended the meeting with an activity suggested by Frank Buck in a comment he wrote to me.  I asked each person to write a letter to themselves, dated June 8, 2010.  They were to congratulate themselves on all of their successes over the course of the 2009-10 school year.  At first, I had a lot of confused faces looking at me until they realized that what they really were doing was developing goals for the year.  This letter was written on the back of the belief statements they had written earlier in the meeting.  When the letters were finished, each person sealed his or hers in an envelope which I collected.  I told them that the letters would be returned to them in June, and I hoped they would be able to celebrate all of the successes they wrote about.  In a sense, it is a time capsule to be opened in nine months.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the opening activities, and I think this helped us kick off the year with positive feelings.  A motivated, energized staff translates those vibes to their students, and I hope that has happened in our school.  From my point of view, it sure looked and felt like it when the students arrived on Wednesday.  Now, we need to sustain it for the whole year.