I have spent a lot of time thinking, reading and talking about how to improve professional development and meeting structures. The early focus was in considering how to make meetings meaningful and productive, where everyone’s input was essential. Since that time I have endeavoured to develop structures and models that ensure that all required time together, whether that be professional learning of the entire staff or small team meetings, be essential to all those involved.
Last year, as Deputy with oversight of curriculum and PD, I knew that not only did I want to rethink the structures that support our student learning (stay tuned post to come), but I also wanted to rethink the structures that define our staff learning. Fortunately, I work in a school where the leadership team are open to approaching things differently.
This led me to think about what needs our previous formats fulfilled and whether they reflect the significant changes in the way we collaborate as professionals today. My conclusion was that in a transparent and open environment, where ongoing communication, feedback and input is fostered, the formal meeting procedures are not necessary.
Our meeting structures were very typical of most schools. Our whole staff meetings were structured by an agenda and run by a chair, with minutes taken. The agenda was dominated by the delivery of information with intermittent opportunities for staff to provide input. Predominantly the information was relevant to most but not all, sometimes, only relevant to a few. Staff were generally accepting and compliant of being talked at, however, this was completely in contradiction to the discourse we aspired to promote in classrooms. Our school’s vision is driven by developing creative, vibrant and resilient learners guided by knowledgeable, innovative and passionate staff. These meetings were certainly none of these things as a standard.
I may be being extremely critical here because having recently sat in a very traditional and boring meeting run by an external facilitator outside of education, I know that as a school we have come a long way in our structures that relate to PD and meetings. Continuous development and growth can go unnoticed, and I know that others who come into our structures are surprised by the way we facilitate staff collaboration.
Nevertheless, by the first term break of last year, I was already frustrated by the manner in which we were continuing to conduct our meetings and professional development, and ultimately I am the one responsible.So hand in hand with the opportunity to shake up our teaching timetable structure came the opportunity to shake up how we come together and collaborate as staff.
My experience in schools has been staff meetings and professional development occurring at the end of the day. Personally, as a participant in PD or meetings, the end of the day was always a challenge. I had a growing pile of emails and marking, not to mention I was fatigued from a day of work. If I learnt a strategy or approach in a PD session I had no opportunity to put it into action immediately as my teaching day had ended. My energy was low and I was less likely to contribute as energetically or spend any time reflecting on how the PD was relevant to my practice. As a facilitator of PD or convener of meetings, I was always conscious that others involved potentially felt similar. I would try to streamline the meeting structure as much as possible, not to keep people longer than necessary, and I would try and facilitate PD that was meaningful and interactive with a range of success.
So what did I do about it?
Initially, I looked at what we had historically used meetings for and I asked questions about the purpose of these meetings.
- Can the information be communicated in a different way?
- Is the information necessary for all stakeholders?
- Do staff have the opportunity to contribute and how is that possible with over 80 people involved?
- How long do meetings need to be?
- What happens when critical information needs to be shared but doesn’t align with meeting days?
This resulted in 5 aspects that I wanted to drive the structure of meetings.
- More personalised, only those who are invested or required need attend
- When it can be communicated in a memo or email, then so be it
- Keep gatherings short and targeted so that there is no time to waffle or waste time – so short that people can stand during the meeting
- Utilise the morning when staff are alert & can immediately act, or put strategies/learning into practice
- Allow flexibility for staff to schedule time for their own collaboration with peers
As a firm believer in the power of language, I also knew that in changing any structure, I had to think about how the terms we used would inform a change in approach. I considered how language often dictates our expectations. If we have only experienced meetings in traditional ways, then we tend to expect the same. So “huddles” became the word I used to describe how the new approach could work. Huddles for me implied short urgent periods of time when teams come together to share critical information or make collaborative decisions that are relevant to everyone in the huddle (my basketball background influence).
Whole staff after school meetings were eliminated.
Morning Huddles were introduced: a maximum of 30 minutes starting at 8:30am and scheduled via our Learner Management System (Daymap) so that all staff can see scheduled times on their teaching calendar. Huddles could be used for whole staff quick touch base, teaching teams, year level teams, quick PD, PLC’s, professional practice, committee and action group planning – pretty much anything that means bringing a group together to collaborate.
Three weeks in, there has been a range of positive feedback from staff. No after school long, drawn out meetings has meant that staff are free to utilise their afternoons to work in their teaching teams to plan and design or even to go home!
This time last year, whole staff were scheduled to have spent up to 480 minutes together in whole staff or Learning Area meetings. This year staff have spent up to 390 minutes in required sessions which have mostly been Professional Development. So already in the first three weeks of school, staff have gained an hour and a half more to utilise for their benefit.
What have I noticed?
I have seen more staff choosing to use their afternoons to catch up with their peers to program and design learning and I have seen five optional Professional Development Huddles offered (in just 3 weeks) in the morning with fantastic staff buy-in. These have included Google Apps, designing and using flexible learning spaces and strategies to facilitate responsible behaviours. Previously optional sessions run at lunch times, before or after school would attract minimal staff, which is always discouraging.
Time will tell if these structural changes facilitate the professional practice we aspire to achieve, but so far so good!
Part of my leadership responsibility is to oversee professional practice at my site, which I see as a responsibility to foster and promote a professional learning culture.
A professional learning culture is one in which we, as educators, are committed to our own growth and development as professionals as well as that of our peers. It grows out of a desire to continue to develop our knowledge and practice and to maximise opportunities for learning. Such a culture is integral to the high-quality teaching and development of innovative approaches to learning that we aspire to at my school. It means that, as leaders and teachers, we see ourselves, and are seen by others, as lifelong learners both of the speciality areas we teach and the practice of teaching itself. With education rapidly changing, we play a role in determining what “education” means in our context. This means that we need to continue to keep up to date with new developments and opportunities.
Every leader is critical in fostering a professional learning culture within a school. It is not only classroom learning or an individual teacher’s learning, instead, it is a commitment to learning as a valued activity in its own right, whether that be within formal learning settings or informal settings. It is also our disposition to learning that is critical. Are you engaged with issues and questions related both to your speciality areas and teaching and learning? Are you enthusiastic about sharing and learning with others, whether they be young or old? Are you actively engaged in the practice that is happening within our school and others? Do you model and champion an inquiring approach to professional practice? This is more than just keeping up with the latest initiatives, it is opening a dialogue and examining whether those initiatives are applicable to your context and whether the iteration of such initiatives can be developed to improve them for your community.
Dialogue is critical! As a profession, our growth is dependent on interactions with others whether they be students, peers, leaders, experts or industry. A professional learning culture requires collaboration in formal and informal ways, where the sharing of expertise and experiences benefits all. Observations and walkthroughs are effective ways of sharing and celebrating practice and opening opportunities to engage in professional reflection. A professional learning culture also relies on the essential input of students, the extent to which cannot be underestimated.
Whilst at my site we have established structures to support a Professional Practice Program, our professional learning culture is dependent on each and every individual, embracing and modelling a learner disposition.
Really keen to read and hear about other examples of work around professional learning cultures. Feedback and input is awesome!
This week I attended the Future Schools Conference in Sydney with two colleagues from my school. The value in taking teams to conferences, is in the conversations and perspectives you gain. This one was no different and Melissa Mulholland and Alison Buse were wonderful co-learners.
Whilst we had opportunities to explore a scope of ideas and takeaways from the range of presentations over the two days, it was the on the third day during our time spent reflecting and challenging each other to identify key immediate actions, short-term (semester actions) and longer term (within the year) was where the true value lay for me.
Previously when travelling interstate, the pressure to reduce costs often means that there is a rush to the door to catch a flight home, evident by the numbers who attended the final keynotes in each conference stream.
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) March 4, 2016
When booking our accommodation and travel, I was unaware that a significant event (MARDI GRAS) was on in Sydney and the flights reflected this significant event. Resulting in being cheaper to stay the extra night and fly home the following day. This turned out to be a valuable turn of events.
After checking-out from our hotel, we headed down to The Rocks at Sydney and found an amazing cafe The Fine Food Store (with WIFI). Over a delicious brunch we discussed and identified the various valuable learnings from the conference and planned for “what next”.
As two young leaders in my school, Mel and Alison demonstrated such a commitment to their own development and the improvement of our learning community. It reminded me how fortunate I am to be surrounded by passionate, enthusiastic, committed educators. It also reinforced how crucial it is to tap into people’s passions, talents and skills.
So for my first takeaway from Future Schools 2016 ……. if you can, plan to include immediate time to reflect, review and plan actions together after attending a conference. Absolute bonus if it’s interstate, and you’re on Sydney Harbour, the sun is shining and it’s 28 degrees.
I recently attended EduTech in Brisbane, Australia’s largest education technology conference with 4 colleagues from my school. It was a great opportunity to join likeminded educators from all over Australia to share and engage in ideas delivered by highly respected professionals and some legends of our time. These speakers are continuing to shape learning in Australian schools and across the globe.
Perusing the programme, I knew exactly who I did and did not want to see. Being connected through twitter, watching TEDtalks regularly, reading educational commentary and blogs means that the names of keynotes and many of the workshop presenters were very familiar to me. This is where I began to wonder, is being too familiar with these ideas and stories and attending these events robbing others who may benefit more from the experience?
Sitting amongst a sea of educators in anticipation of the first keynote, Sugatra Mitra, it was not hard to be excited. I had seen his TEDtalk, read many of the articles and responses to the Hole in the Wall Project, I had even read and tweeted Edna Sackson’s (@whatedsaid) recent post about his visit to her classroom. Needless to say I had a fairly good understanding of Sugatra’s message. Then I sat and listened to stories I had already heard, ideas I already believed and opportunities I believe children deserve. It was difficult to tweet anything to contribute to the dialog that I hadn’t already discussed. It was a challenge to discuss with my peers, ideas that I had not already processed and I thought, how very privileged and spoilt I am! Three years ago, this keynote would have been incredibly inspiring, motivating and uplifting, but yet I felt a smidgen of disappointment. Being connected to an amazingly rich and diverse PLN online has led to an abundance of information and sharing that many of my peers currently do not access.
Why should I continue to have these opportunities at the expense of others? Why shouldn’t the likes of “me three years ago” be given the opportunity to be inspired instead?
Whilst sharing a taxi with Dan Haesler on our way to the airport, I asked Dan, whether he thought it is a waste for the already converted to be attending these events. We briefly discussed the obvious benefits and the challenges we face getting the “unconverted” to make the most of the events and how the financial investment is also a consideration. In the short ride we really didn’t come to any solid conclusion, but to suggest that it would be preferable to take a mixture of “newbies” and “converts”. So part of my responsibility having my school invest in such liberties, is to ensure that I make sure my experience at the conference develops into something more than just a “takeaway” and perhaps open the door for others to access these ideas.
When I introduced the concept of Passion Projects to our team, I described it as an opportunity for our students to learn and explore ANYTHING they wanted. This may have been a little intimidating, as I was immediately fielding questions of how we could possibly support our students to learn completely different concepts and showcase them in completely different ways. Most of our students need significant support to complete anything out of routine (we work with students with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities) so these questions were fair and justified.
Fortunately I work with extremely passionate staff, but most fortunately they are willing to hear me out and give things a go.
One of the plans we set in place was to group our students with an adult mentor based on the category of their interest. This was very successful and meant we could support our students on their passion of choice and they could learn from each other as they worked to problem solve and manage their projects.
Reflecting on this process has me wondering why we wouldn’t facilitate the same opportunities for staff.
What if at the beginning of the year, we;
1. asked “what is it that you want to learn?”
2. grouped people into PLCs regardless of their experience/faculty/position but based on their learning interest and
3. allowed them time to support each other and direct their own learning
I wonder then if the word “Professional Development” would continue to be a dirty word?
As part of the #SAVMP George Couros has asked that we share how we ensure the learning we do goes viral. I believe through sharing our skills, our learning and our experiences we grow ourselves and those around us. I am always willing to give my time to share my own experiences and I truly value those that invest their time in me, whether that be one to one, a small or a larger group or even via the connected web and social media.
This term, in my own attempt to meet the diverse needs of our 70 odd staff, I facilitated two whole school PD sessions as part of a team working towards building strategies for better classroom practice and utilising technology. I chose to target Formative Assessment, as this follows from previous work we have been doing as part of our Differentiation Project, is something we know we can definitely improve and will impact student success and the promotion of growth mindset.
I began each session with a short introduction to the concept and provided staff with several options to choose from, each focussed on simple takeaways that teachers could implement in their classrooms. Fortunately I had a great group of people willing to give their time and expertise to lead workshops and share their examples and resources.
The first session included these workshops:
Peer critique: Staff gave examples how they promote useful peer critique based on the idea that feedback must be kind, useful and specific. Staff shared how they using GoogleDoc comments and Blog comments can facilitate and model peer critique for students.
Journals and portfolios as reflection tools: Staff shared how blogging can be used as journals, port folios and reflective spaces. Examples were also showcased for how to develop portfolios for the Arts.
Quizzes and surveys: Staff showcased PPTs for Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Jeopardy and explored how simple fun quizzes and games can provide valuable insight into student understanding and misconceptions that can be corrected in “Just in Time” lessons. Plenaries were also exampled as ways of revealing student attitudes, reflections and understanding.
Each workshop was led by at least two teachers who utilise these strategies in their own classes. They provided examples and templates for staff to develop right there and then to use in their classrooms.
Staff feedback from the session was overwhelmingly positive. The only criticism was that they wanted an opportunity to access the alternative workshops as well. As a result, we facilitated a similar session 3 weeks later, giving the same options but also adding a few differentiated strategies to include for their planning (RAFTs and Choice Boards).
Some workshops catered for up to 15 participants whilst others only had 5 or so. What was most appreciated by staff was that they had choice, they were not being dictated to but instead shared with.