By: Christina French and Krista Heidenreich - Guest Authors on July 17th, 2019
The Principals' Journey to Personalized Learning
We are Personalized - This was the number one goal in our new District Strategic Plan. It was not, “We are moving towards personalization”, or “We are learning about personalization”. It was simply WE ARE, and this opened the door to panic and excitement and an immediate call to duty. We quickly turned to the Ed Elements learning cycle for development and direction. Looking at our implementation from a learning, practicing, reflecting and owning standpoint has not only allowed us to dig deep into the progress of our work, but has encouraged us to pivot when needed. And pivot we have! Our journey has blossomed into an undeniable excitement that we have not seen in our teachers and administrators in years. One Principal even stated, “providing a vision, and working alongside Principals to develop strategies and tactics to support implementation has made me feel like a better instructional leader than at any other time in my career.”
We began our journey for personalized learning in the 18-19 school year with a pilot at our two freshman buildings. At this time we focused not only on learning for ourselves as district leaders, but also empowering teacher leaders in the pilot buildings to bring this work to life in classrooms. We worked closely with our Innovation Specialists, teachers on special assignment, to provide ongoing, job-embedded support and modeling for teachers. We also built a team of classroom teacher leaders called LakotaNext who would learn and lead alongside us.
We put so much of our time and energy into training and empowering these teachers to support buildings, that we may have somewhat lost sight of the group that TRULY drives the culture and practice of our buildings...our principals! Of course, we invited and encouraged our secondary principals to be part of the personalized learning PD since the beginning, but we also know that principals have buildings to run and the reality is that they don't have subs and it can be difficult for them to step out for full days of training.
No worries, if we empower teacher leaders, then the teacher leaders can support the principals, right? Wrong.
Not wrong in that these teachers can't or won't support their building leaders, but wrong in that support isn't enough. Buildings need to be LED by principals, and principals want to lead because they are the instructional leaders.
The struggle is real when it comes to balancing instructional leadership and managing a building, but leaving principals out of these important personalized learning experiences because they have to be present to manage buildings is not an option. Time to pivot.
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The Journey Begins
We recognized in January of 2019 that we had to figure out a plan to support and empower our principals around personalized learning. We knew that in order to make this work lasting and meaningful we had to start with the culture. We knew that if the culture was strong and supportive then our planning, lessons, classrooms, attitude, and result would follow suit. After all, our Principals asked us to “define personalize learning and provide small, digestible bites as we chart our journey and grow.”
In true personalized form, we had to begin our work with a driving question that we could revisit often and use to guide our work and keep our focus. We asked ourselves, “How do we provide the foundation for principals to become instructional leaders of personalized learning in their buildings?” and “How can we support and inspire principals and teachers to bring their own energy and ownership to the PL journey?” Our guiding principles followed our strategic plan - everything we do is designed to provide a future-ready, student-centered learning experience for every single child. Which we quickly realized that for us that meant we could not plan out the work in advance, be overly prepared and run PD as we had in the past. We had to follow the same cycle we were asking our principals to try and we turned to the Ed Elements Responsive Org Playbook. The playbook gave us the ability to tailor our “plays” to meet the needs of our learners and also left them with a “play” they created to help them to move forward. This model forced them to own their own learning before growing the learning of their staff. Before we knew it, they were saying things like “I am ready to lay the foundations with staff on the journey. We are starting with developing strong formative instructional practices. We will then lead them on a journey to building student agency. The “they” is a team we built in the building called “the personalizers.”
See how the leadership team in South Brunswick School District has approached strategic planning in their district and schools.
Making PL a Priority
As mentioned previously, one of the struggles for principals is finding the time to step away from the current reality of leading their buildings to take on this new work. We had some existing opportunities that we could redesign but also saw a need for additional opportunities.
Monthly District Principal Meetings
We began with a structure already in place, our monthly district principal meetings. These meetings typically involved principals getting information from various departments in the district but when we shared our PL plan and need for time, our executive team was on board for us to use the majority of the three hours per month for personalized learning PD and planning. (Important note...we also made sure to repeat each of these PL sessions on a different day that month for Assistant principals who were not at the monthly principal meetings since both admins couldn't be out of the building at the same time.)
These meetings were the perfect face to face opportunity to launch the Principal's Journey to Personalized Learning. We adapted the First 20 Days of Personalized Learning for teachers to be a tool for principals to use with staff in a "practice what you preach" approach. We started with culture and moved through the rest of the 18-19 school year creating, curating and providing resources that both built necessary foundational knowledge of personalized learning while also introducing and modeling strategies and experiences that principals could easily integrate into their building leadership. The response to these meetings was energizing, to say the least and principal feedback more than validated our decision to just do it! Our building leaders are so excited to be owners of this learning and planning, especially because they know that they are the drivers of implementation in their buildings. They are embracing the movement and understand we are not planning for perfection. One principal even stated, “I would love to begin the work in our building of PL for all students. To move teachers from being comfortable in their current practices to being open to try (and even possibly failing) something new.”
We wanted to make sure the learning and planning around PL were ongoing so we scheduled weekly virtual check-ins with principal teams by grade band. This allowed us to touch base, talk about PL each week, keep principals in their buildings and also brought the principal and assistant principal(s) together at the same time. In true Ed Elements form, our agendas included a check-in, opportunity to build the agenda on the fly, some type of learning and sharing around PL and a check-out. We stayed true to the time allotments and these 30-minute meetings proved to be super effective and efficient. (Not to mention a great opportunity to model effective meeting practices for our building leaders.) Wondering what this looks like? Take a look: Lakota Virtual Admin Mtg Example
In order to effectively do the work we had to change our mindset for learning ourselves. We quickly pivoted from focusing on development “done to” our staff to development that was “driven by” our staff. We had to be creative and innovative and most importantly LISTEN to them and their needs in order to determine our next steps. What we heard them asking for was first to “develop a scope and sequence to focus the work,” and secondly to “develop a plan in which all professional development (within their building) aligns with the principles of PL.” This is the platform launching our 2019-2020 work. Looking for a secret foreshadowing of what’s to come in Lakota...which is not so secret since we are blogging about it? Think personalized learning pathways for teachers, learning vs. exposure, play building, cross-grade level, subject area and admin team reflection groups, personal portfolios, design challenges, and peer observations...and guess what, we have set the stage for our principals to take charge and lead the charge - WE are Personalized.
Are you looking for ways to introduce personalized learning to your school? Not sure where to begin, short on time, or trying to establish clear buy-ins? The PL Toolkit will guide your PL implementation for up to 12 months, giving you and your team a low-stakes way to bring personalized learning to your school.
About Christina French and Krista Heidenreich - Guest Authors
Christina is a former teacher who loves teaching and learning. In her quest to add to my professional toolbox, she took a leap into the world of administration before she felt ready. She quickly realized this was the best decision she had yet to make, as it fueled her passion for change. After eight years as an elementary school building principal, she took another blind leap to accept the position of Director of Elementary Instruction and this took her right back to her pedagogy of teaching with the mindset to lead. Only now, she knows how to instill the change necessary to transform. When she is not digging into curriculum, she can be found spending time with her husband and four daughters on the lake or running endless miles in brightly colored tennis shoes. Feel free to reach out with any questions, firstname.lastname@example.org or join her Twitter PLN @LakotaElemLearn. Krista Heidenreich is the Director of Digital and Professional Learning in Lakota Local Schools in Liberty Township, Ohio. She has twenty one years experience in teaching and administration. Krista attended Miami University, Ohio for her undergrad as well as to receive a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology as well as a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. Krista currently leads a team of nineteen Innovation Specialists who support classroom teachers with job-embedded, hands-on support for all things instruction and also works in collaboration with other directors in her department to lead personalized professional development for principals in Lakota. When Krista isn’t working, she loves camping with her family and visiting flea markets and antique shops! Feel free to reach with any questions, email@example.com