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Keeping Personalized Learning (the Main Thing) the Main Thing

By: Nick Ganster on May 31st, 2017

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Keeping Personalized Learning (the Main Thing) the Main Thing

Personalized Learning  |  School Districts  |  Classrooms  |  Leadership

When I reflect on how far we have come since last summer I am impressed by how much hard work everyone has done to begin to make personalized learning a reality. Our district PL council engaged in serious debate over our vision of PL, our roll out plan (cohort vs. all-in), and our areas of priority and focus. Our PL building leadership team collaborated on expectations and commitments, agreed on base model designs for PL in our classrooms, turn-key trained the core four, and started the process of developing a formal support structure for teachers transitioning to PL in their classrooms.

Before I get into the real point of this post I'll begin with some information that will frame most of what I talk about:

  • Marion Central School District is located in Wayne County in upstate New York approximately 25 miles from Rochester.
  • The Jr.-Sr. High School is small by traditional measures having only about 350 students in grades 7-12.
  • I am a second year principal. I spent 3 years as an 8th grade science teacher, 7 years as a chemistry and physics teacher, and 3 years as a high school assistant principal.
  • 7 months ago I knew almost nothing about personalized learning.
  • 6 months ago school issued devices were non existent, now we are a 1:1 school.


Ok, now let’s flash forward to today…

Our teachers have spent countless hours planning their first PL lessons in preparation for “launch.” Some have already taught their launch lessons, reflected with their colleagues and are already iterating. Some are scuba diving near the reef frolicking with dolphins; while others are wading in the surf periodically getting hit by an unexpected wave. In both cases, our teachers are in the water moving deeper towards full implementation of PL in their classrooms. Listing the work that our faculty and administration have done with regards to personalized learning makes me proud, and yet I still wonder just how the heck we pulled it off given all of the “other” work we do in public schools that still needed to get done.  

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of that “other” work that we educators continue to do along with our transition to personalized learning: planning engaging lessons, grading papers, working with students in crisis, maintaining a positive and culturally sensitive classroom environment,  addressing changes in state standards and curriculum, formal classroom observations, integrating technology, school board meetings, fielding student discipline issues, work-life balance, selecting properly lexiled informational text, maintaining an accurate gradebook for parents, attending to social and emotional learning, setting up laboratory experiments, master scheduling, collaborating with colleagues, annual reviews in special education, staffing changes, arranging instrumental lesson schedules, working with an instructional coach, maintaining professional certifications through professional development, and communicating with parents. Any of the aforementioned “other” duties can become both urgent and important depending on circumstance and timing. How can we, as educators, be sure that we don’t get unwillingly trapped into making personalized learning play second fiddle to any number of the traditional school “to do” list items. How do we keep personalized learning priority number one?  How do we keep “the main thing, the main thing?”

Author Stephen Covey is credited with making the assertion that a leader’s primary function can be surmised with the following; “the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” Albeit grossly simplistic, it is dumbfoundingly profound to a new school principal like myself. The quote actually has begun to serve as my “true north” compass point as our school continues to shift to personalized learning while simultaneously doing all of the “other” work. Here are a few things that I have learned that can really help keep PL "the main thing:"

Delegating the Urgent and Important: As a principal I look to create systems that can endure a turnover in administration. In essence, the school should be able to run without me. My job is to work myself out of a job. There is no question that I have relied heavily on my assistant principal and office clerical staff to handle many, if not all, of the urgent and important building management issues that arise at any given moment. Trusting my staff to do this work provides time for me to keep personalized learning at the top of the priority list. It’s part of the reason I can write this blog without feeling overwhelmed!  

Teacher Leadership: No principal can create positive instructional change in classrooms from the top down. Teachers have the credibility with their colleagues. Tapping into the raw talent and leadership potential of specific teachers is a non-negotiable. As they walk the path to PL they will become the champions of it and their colleagues will follow. Despite my best efforts to keep PL the “main thing,” issues arise that must take priority. This is where you can depend on strong teacher leadership to forge ahead with PL as “the main thing.”

Time and Support for Teachers: The teachers need time to learn about, and work through, the nuts and bolts of PL before they can put their new learning into practice. I have found that simply providing time to the teachers to make PL a priority helps them keep PL as “the main thing.” We are currently exploring formal ways to embed support for PL to our teachers to make the time that they are given even more meaningful.

Widespread Communication Plan: Frequent communication surrounding PL is critical both internally and externally. Frequent communication in the form of a school newsletter can create foundational knowledge of exactly what personalized learning is, and what it looks and feels like within a classroom. I actually settled on a two electronic newsletter approach. I currently distribute one internal newsletter for faculty and staff, and a second external newsletter for parents and community members. The internal newsletter is highly focused on the educator's perspective, the why, and the how of personalized learning. The external newsletter provides weekly updates to parents on the initiative process, and the changes that their children can expect to see in their classrooms.      

The “One Initiative” Mindset: The shift to personalized learning in a school should not be thought of as another “thing to do.” The best mindset is to find ways to focus all the “other work” through the lens of personalized learning. This is not always an easy cognitive exercise, but the more we can redefine and innovate our old way of doing business through personalized learning the more powerful, important, and nonnegotiable the PL initiative becomes.

I decided to write about this despite knowing that the reader will almost certainly infer that I may have recently struggled with “keeping the main thing the main thing.” Make no mistake, this professional struggle is real, not only for me, but for all educators who are taking personalized learning to heart and working to the best of their abilities to make PL a reality through whatever role they play at their school. I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but if my experiences and reflections can give you insight on keeping personalized learning “the main thing” then I am content knowing that I have struggled on your behalf!  

- Nick Ganster is currently the principal at the Marion Jr.-Sr. High School in Marion, NY

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About Nick Ganster

In his 15th year as a public educator, Nick Ganster is the principal at the Marion Jr.-Sr. High School. Prior that, he spent three years teaching middle school science, seven years teaching high school chemistry and physics, and three years as a high school assistant principal.

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