Leadership in Personalized Learning
“You can’t buy personalized learning…” I read this statement by Richard Culatta recently and it really resonated with me because personalizing learning is about skilled teachers, not students working on computers for a large part of a day. Yes technology can support and enhance the learning, but what it actually comes down to is good teaching practices, implemented by teachers who are prepared to learn, collaborate and reflect, and take risks (and sometimes fail) to improve the learning process for their students. Good teachers are a crucial element of personalized learning.
The role of the school leader is to build trusting relationships and a culture where teachers feel comfortable enough to consider a new approach, like personalized learning. Teachers want to feel inspired by an empathic leader who will listen and respond to their questions and concerns. They want a leader who will explain to parents that their students are actually learning in a rigorous environment even though it is a lot of fun. That school does not have to be boring and this is PBL. Teachers need their leader to work on their behalf and deal with ‘the system’. Teachers want what is best for their students, a leader who will provide the support they need to succeed and who will get out of their way and let them experiment when they need to.
I’m not naïve and I know that this is not easy work, but with the right leadership strategies, schools/districts can move towards their own vision of personalized learning.
If teachers understand how personalized learning makes the learning process easier and leads to learning that sticks and improves achievement, then they will be more likely to jump on the personalized learning bus that the school leaders are driving.
Our vision for personalized learning in Westford was focused on guided math and project-based learning. Our strategy was to start with the few teachers who were banging down the doors to get on board, totally excited by the idea of giving students more control over their own learning and meeting them where they are both academically and emotionally. This is where we started our journey. These were the teachers who understood, or were hungry for the ‘why’ and were clamoring for the ‘how’.
We modeled personalized professional development where teachers drove their own learning with school visits, study groups, PLCs, action research, conferences, on-demand webinars, online communities, playlists and resources. Teachers worked in teams to learn more about personalized learning and as they learned and experimented, the enthusiasm and momentum grew ‘organically’, and it was contagious. One teacher who used to hate teaching math actually started to like teaching it and was excited that now her students enjoyed it too!
Slowly but surely more teachers jumped on board; they liked being able to start where they felt comfortable, to take small steps and to collaborate with their colleagues who now had more skills and expertise. They saw guided math in action in their colleagues’ classrooms and very much appreciated the benefits. School leaders showed flexibility and patience which meant this was a low-stress strategy for teachers.
Were there any expectations set? Yes, everyone knew that in one way or another they would be boarding the bus, but they were given the time, trust and support they needed to be successful; to do personalized learning in a way that worked for their students, in their class. Meanwhile, leadership monitored for consistency and made adjustments where necessary.
What did we learn? For us, leadership in personalized learning is about personalizing how teachers learn, building trust and relationships, and good teaching practices. It’s about flexibility, patience and a culture of being able to take risks. Above all, teachers are looking to leadership to inspire them and do what is best for their students.
About Julie Baudreau - Guest Author
Director of Digital Learning, Westford Public Schools, MA