For many years, my school has been developing and fine-tuning our internal professional learning processes based on a foundation of trust in our staff and a belief that school and staff can support one another to grow together in ways that are meaningful and have profound positive impacts on individuals and community.
In 2018 we launched a choice-based set of pathways for staff professional learning, moving away from a linear, chronological cycle of mandated processes for staff development. Rather than being assigned, these pathways, differentiated for teachers and leaders at various levels (and outlined in this previous post), are decided through negotiation between each staff member and their line manager, as part of the annual reflection, goal setting and development conversation. These school-based options provide a flexible suite of alternatives that honour where our staff are at in their career journeys, and provide meaningful and research-supported ways for them to develop as teachers and leaders.
The process of setting goals, planning related actions and choosing an internal organisation-embedded professional learning pathway, is done in a cascading fashion from the beginning of each year. The school executive set the school goals and actions; then leaders set their own team and self goals, actions and pathways; then teachers set their own development goals and negotiate a pathway. In this way, individual goals are aligned within the framework of school strategic direction and priorities. The process also includes a reflection against the AITSL professional standards for teachers or principals, as appropriate to person and role.
I have been reflecting lately on measures of success of this model. How might we know that our approach to internal professional learning is having a positive impact? As part of the model’s implementation, we generate ongoing honest feedback from staff in order to refine the model each year, including via focus groups and anonymous surveys. For instance, in the annual staff survey, the pathway options, especially the Professional Learning Groups, were rated highly by staff. Additionally, our staff satisfaction with professional learning is above the national benchmark.
Lately I have been interested to see some unexpected measures of the success of this model come to light.
Firstly, in this second year of implementation, staff have been owning and advocating for their negotiated pathway. For instance, some staff were told that due to logistics, numbers or staff leave arrangements, their chosen option would not be viable. In these cases, staff have fought hard to maintain their choice, including planning alternate timelines and strategies for the pathway to be completed. They have been arguing the reasons for their choice, why it is meaningful to them, and how they can make it work in robust ways. We have had some people negotiating to be coached or mentored by particular staff with clear reasons as to why this is a meaningful partnership, and outlining the rigorous work they completed ahead of the pathways’ official start date. So not only have staff chosen options about which they are passionate, but they have begun the work of their chosen option ahead of time because of their belief in the value of its contribution to their professional growth.
Secondly, staff have been opting in to extra options on top of the required single choice. A number of staff have chosen to participate, for instance, in a Professional Learning Group on top of another process. This shows the value staff see in these collaborative groups that bring staff from across the school together to share thinking and practice around common interests and strategic priorities.
A number of staff are involved in the model as both participant themselves, and as a key actor in the learning of others. The model is leaking out to be owned and run by a range of staff who are acting as mentors, coaches and leaders of initiatives. This year I still oversee the Professional Learning Groups but am no longer running all of them; other staff are leading in their areas of interest, expertise and strategic priority. They are doing a wonderful job of breathing their own individual approaches to these groups, which are almost all oversubscribed.
Another measure of success of the overarching process is the explicit and reflective connection I am now seeing between applications for external professional learning and a person’s goals. The goal setting that happens at the beginning of the year has ongoing knock-on effects, including influencing the intentionality of staff professional development. Staff are clear about how their professional learning builds upon school strategy, team goals and their own personal goals, and they are active in seeking relevant professional learning opportunities.
It’s interesting to see the unexpected ways in which a change like our negotiated professional learning pathways model can influence professional culture, conversation and ‘the way we do things around here’. The COVA—choice, ownership, voice and authenticity—principles have resulted in increased staff engagement in and ownership of their internal professional learning, as well as connecting staff from disparate areas of the school. It reminds me of a participant quote from my PhD about the non-linear, surprising impacts of change: “it’s like oil in water”, fluid, unexpected and marvellous to watch.
Post script: I’m excited to be able to share more about this and other experiences in my upcoming book, available for pre-order from the publisher and all good booksellers: Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools.