A Teacher-Powered Approach to Professional Development

It’s a normal Friday morning at Holy Family Academy, a two-year-old independent Catholic high school in Pittsburgh with 100 students. While students engage in projects at our partner sites off campus, faculty gather in our innovation lab for weekly professional development time.

Our director of innovation kicks off the morning with a round of Rose, Thorn, Bud, a design-thinking method that faculty use to describe the details of their week. Pairs of co-teachers huddle around tables filled with laptops, Post-its, and design templates to prepare “teach and lead” sessions. In this mini edcamp, faculty take turns leading inspiration sessions. For faculty, this time is not only about planning their professional growth but also about learning together as a community.
 
We know that for innovation to flourish in school, the idea of “learning is for everyone” needs to be an attitude as well as an activity. Building this learning culture starts with providing opportunities for support, reflection, and growth among faculty. Tactically, it means creating space and time for faculty to collaborate, co-teach, and learn from each other.
 
Teacher-centered professional development can be a practical way to create an active learning community. After all, how many times have teachers made jokes about professional development or rolled their eyes at the “sage on the stage” leading some one-off session during an in-service day? Imagine if professional development focused on meaningful, challenging, feasible goals and was woven into each faculty member’s regular schedule?
 

Faculty members participate in a "teach and lead" professional development session. Credit: Holy Family Academy.

We Start with a Wish

Meaningful professional development is exactly what we’ve started at Holy Family Academy. This year, we implemented the WOOP (wish, outcome, obstacle, plan) goal-setting framework from the Character Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. In this framework, faculty members design personalized professional development plans and gain power through “teach and lead” sessions. We begin by helping faculty members identify meaningful wishes, ones that are challenging but possible. Recent wishes include learning how to infuse mindfulness into the classroom, planning new field-based learning opportunities for students, and incorporating new technologies into courses.
 
“The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking,” says Gabriele Oettingen, whose research guided the WOOP goal framework. “Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”
 
WOOP is just one example of a teacher-powered approach to professional development, which shifts control away from school administration and enables faculty members to own their learning. In this method, faculty members learn their strengths, work to identify common interests and partnership opportunities with other faculty members, and commit to at least four hours of professional development each week. Dedicated instructional innovation coaches move beyond the roles of traditional curriculum or ed tech coordinators to roles of co-teachers, peer mentors, and planners. These teacher-leaders take a reduced teaching load and catalyze changes in teaching and learning.
 

Teachers engage in weekly professional development. Credit: Holy Family Academy.

Weekly Professional Development: How We Do It

In Holy Family Academy’s effort to reimagine teaching and learning for both students and teachers, every Friday the entire faculty works on WOOP goals on campus, and students learn in the field as part of our Network Campus program. About 18 to 20 faculty and some staff meet for about three hours to engage in peer mentoring, design thinking, and prototyping. Sometimes they meet as a large team; other times, they gather in small teams of three to five teachers from different disciplines. In this process, they form personal learning networks with their peers, and note barriers to growth and innovation.
 
Faculty also receive support from our director of innovation, our principal, and even me from time to time. As head of school, I believe it’s important to participate regularly to stay connected to the pulse of our learning community as we build our culture. I meet with our academic administration team weekly to plan a strategic and meaningful professional development plan for the school. Our principal and director of innovation execute that plan and provide me feedback on how it’s working. We stay nimble and make adjustments as needed.
 
As school leaders, we try to accommodate faculty members’ wishes if budget and space permit. For example, if a teacher says using more technology in the classroom is a barrier because of a lack of equipment, he or she makes a request to school leadership and typically receives permission to purchase the needed equipment.
 
In addition to the WOOP goal-setting framework, we regularly use different design-thinking methods to guide and shape our work as a community. We innovate at the macro levels of school decision-making, such as parent-teacher conferences, as well as the micro levels, including the lunch line. Our design-thinking methods include:
 
Rose, Thorn, Bud
How it works: Participants seek positive outcomes, outcomes that require iteration, and opportunities for growth.
When to use: To reflect on how a program, event, or lesson went.
 
Creative Matrix
How it works: Participants generate new ideas for multiple problem statements or stakeholders.
When to use: To foster a collaborative voice with large strategic initiatives, such as designing a new schedule or reimagining an advisory program.
 
Difficulty Impact Matrix
How it works: Participants identify which ideas will have the most impact and are least difficult to execute. This visual approach helps people see whether an idea is realistic. 
When to use: To generate ideas after the creative matrix or some other method.
 
Faculty members also all learn and leverage their top five strengths from the Gallup StrengthsFinder tool. It’s useful in building teams and finding complementary partners. We share our strengths and promote partnership and co-teaching with those who have diverse skills.
 
At a recent faculty professional development session, we designed three prototypes for one of our programs for all students called the Learning Hub Advisory. The program meets three days a week and focuses on supporting students’ social and emotional wellness and growth. This fall, we will move our advisory program to the end of the day three days a week. The new three 80-minute blocks will also allow for flexibility. Assemblies, clubs, and advisory will have a dedicated space. Students will stay with their advisors for three years. We also plan to use Classcraft, a role-playing game, to manage, motivate, and engage students.
 

How You Can Do It

Through these weekly professional development sessions, we expect to continue to redesign and improve the school experience. You can do the same. Here are six ideas to consider.
  1. Create a director of innovation and learning position, an interdisciplinary role that spearheads the organization and supports personalized professional development.
  2. Create creative space for collaboration, co-planning, and co-teaching for faculty reminiscent of a coffee shop.
  3. Design incentive programs that offer faculty innovation grants and fellowships with release time to partner with peers on WOOP goals.
  4. Design in-house edcamps for faculty. Spend a half-day at one of your in-service meetings with the faculty in charge of the learning.
  5. Use design-thinking methods to build empathy, be inclusive, and co-design your school with your faculty or solve problems in your community.
  6. Invite student voices into your professional development efforts — ask students to lead sessions about using social media, such as Twitter, or the latest and greatest apps that might aid in their learning.
If your school is not yet able to dedicate the collaborative planning time or release time for professional development, technology and blended learning approaches can be a good place to start. For example, on a recent in-service day we permitted and encouraged faculty to work remotely from any location. Using Google Apps for Education and online resources in our Learning Management System (Canvas), faculty had the day to complete a virtual scavenger hunt and share personalized findings and interests with the entire faculty. Our faculty members can also share key activities and learning in an ongoing, real-time basis by using our school hashtag, #HFAInnovates, on Twitter and Facebook.

We’re Stronger than Ever

We’re finding that giving faculty members ownership of their learning has created buy-in, excitement, and momentum for school initiatives. By focusing on self-empowerment, using methods such as WOOP goals, and lifting barriers to growth, the faculty can become nimble and entrepreneurial. Never before have these mindsets been as important to cultivate in our faculty and students as they are today.
 
I have seen firsthand how personalized professional development is transforming our culture. At an in-service day not long ago, some faculty members participated in tai chi in our Mandarin classroom. And recently after school, other faculty members were using the laser cutter for the first time to build custom-designed pieces for a maker showcase event at the end of the year. These wishes — part of their WOOP goals — have come true. It’s thrilling to see our teachers making such progress.
 
 
 

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