Teacher Leaders Creating Change in Kenai
The team was sitting together after the final workshop for the final wave of schools jovially enjoying the moment with a sense of accomplishment. We did it. Teams and plans are in place and the momentum is palpable. As we focused on the task for the next hour we had set aside for strategic planning, the question surfaced immediately…What now? The flood gates opened and the previous celebratory moment became distant somehow as we stood staring at the warp speed status…warp 8, warp 9. What did we need to maintain a steady-on course at warp 10?
We are a rural, Alaskan district the size of West Virginia with an impressive amount of diversity within our realm. Our challenges are significant, but this point in our growth is not unique to us. Our Education Elements partners had seen this before. In the Kenai, we navigate our waters with practiced skill, but we are talking about changing our paradigm…We are now operating under the belief that everyone in our organization deserves their learning and growth to be personalized. Can we personalize professional development for teachers? Is it possible to build leadership opportunities for teachers who don’t want to leave the classroom? Can teacher leadership impact the culture of professional growth in schools?
Yes! This IS possible!
As we looked across the table at our Education Elements partners, we asked them to share how others before us have answered these questions. And so, the Personalized Learning Champs were conceived. Known as the PL Champs, this is a teacher leadership program here in Kenai. Led by myself, Amanda Adams, and John Pothast, the Director of Innovation and Strategic Planning, the PL Champs program supports teachers representing each school in the district who want to continue their professional growth in personalized learning while also learning how to support other teachers through leadership at their schools. The PL Champs interact within a three-tiered support system that helps to traverse the distance and diversity of this district. The PL Champs have continuous infusions of content and sharing within the group that they then take back, and the Champs, together with their school’s PL Team, utilize and turn-key different pieces and opportunities as suits their growth needs at the school level.
The “why” of this approach has a clear trajectory for the Kenai district. Our work is driven by our School Board’s 5-year Strategic Plan, in which there are three goals. Among the mandates in the plan is the directive to “develop a culture of continuous innovation within all schools across the district” with professional learning that is “embedded and ongoing”. In order to do this, we chose to trust in the expertise that we have within our ranks. PL Champs do not just turn-key the content that they receive as part of the program. They facilitate discussions among their peers to allow the opportunity for sharing, collaboration, brainstorming, and passion for their work to flourish. A key part of the PL Champs is developing teacher leadership. Colleagues at the school level know each other well and deeply respect each other. The PL Champs capitalizes on that by offering driven, growth-minded practitioners the opportunity to deepen their practices and help others do the same.
One key component of the PL Champs is voluntary participation. The Champs are people who want to grow, who want to work with others instead of the lonely silos so typical of our profession. I feel deeply excited and honored to lead this project! The process of designing and leading the PL Champs is the culmination of many learning experiences leading up to this point. I am fusing pieces of different experiences in organizational leadership, event planning, flexible course design, student-driven learning, andragogy and instructional coaching all into the community of practice that is the Champs.The design is driven by me, but the Education Elements team is invaluable by providing resources, leading workshops, consulting with the Champs, providing feedback and guidance. The expertise that the Education Elements team has to offer proves valuable continually and on many fronts, and they have served as equal members of my team in this endeavour!
The response from the Champs has been overwhelmingly positive as we have launched it. It looks like we are on the right track supporting, honoring, and celebrating incredible practitioners! As a result of engaging in this work, our team has some learnings for others who may want to create a similar program to our PL Champs. Here, we share the keys to the success of such a program, as well as resources to help you along the way.
5 Keys to PL Champs Success
1. Know your “why” and communicate it clearly
- The vision for PL Champs was clearly defined by the project leaders and supported the district’s strategic plan. Knowing the “why” behind the initiative allowed our team to communicate the purpose of the program with teachers and principals in order to generate interest and build buy-in.
- Simon Sinek talks about this in his Ted Talk “Start with Why”
2. Building leadership efficacy
- As educators, we know that teachers are the experts within their classrooms, and the PL Champs program supports teacher growth and leadership at an individual level outside of the classroom. This includes training on thinking at the school and systems level. In rural Alaska, schools range from having a staff of 3 to a staff of 50. Teacher leaders are supported in identifying school needs and thinking about what and how to share with colleagues. The materials provided at professional development sessions are all given to the Champs and are chunked for easy retrofitting to fit the needs of specific schools.
- Resource: Developing Innovative Leadership: A Series of Competencies
3. Lots of choice
- Choice drives everything in the PL Champs program. As an opt-in leadership development program, the Champs themselves and their school sites opted in after an initial pitch from our team. The PD sessions are based on survey data and participants have choice in the sessions they attend. This allows the Champs to focus on the areas of need for their schools and also gain professional development in leadership and further deepen their knowledge of the Core Four. Champs also have choice in how they take resources and ideas back to their school sites, as well as which practices to apply to their own classrooms.
- See this resource from Survey Monkey “Best Practices for Every Step of Survey Creation”
- Core Four of Personalized Learning from Education Elements
4. Shared ownership
- Almost all aspects of the PL Champs PD sessions are co-led or facilitated by the Champs themselves. This practice has built a culture of shared ownership among the participants. Ways in which the participants co-lead include:
- Participant-led PD sessions at every PD workshop
- Colleague circles. Participants go through a version of the consultancy protocol in small groups, led by a peer. This facilitates leadership and collaborative problem-solving.
- The PL Champs program uses an opt-in volunteer model that is incentivized with course credit and practice application.
- Intentionally building a strong cohort culture with norms, giving participants time to get to know each, and incorporating the principles of adult learning for a positive PD experience.
- assume good intent
- reach out
- be open-minded
- respect other perspectives
- share liberally
- be human
- This article from Forbes “How to Build a Strong Team Culture in 7 Steps” and this blog post “Letting People in on the Why” from Bright Morning support these ideas.
- The PL Champs always celebrate learning and success! This contributes to the positive group culture and encourages participants. The underlying principle behind this is to make the most positive assumptions possible – everyone in the room are professionals, everyone is working hard, everyone wants to and can learn.
- Check out this resource from Elena Aguilar on the Principles of Adult Learning to support the learning and development of adults.
What are some of the ways you're supporting your team, and nurturing leadership in your school or district? Share in the comments or Tweet us @EdElements. If you're looking for deeper ways to engage, join us at one of our National Leadership Institutes taking place across the country on topics like Strategic Planning, Team Culture and Habits, and Innovation and Change!