Monday, July 21, 2014

Roadmap to a Job-Embedded Growth Model

I remember a few years back, during a meeting with teacher leaders, a tipping point that would ultimately change the direction of professional growth at my school. During this conversation, I was passionately sharing my experiences as a connected learner.  As social media embracement was not even a blip on the radar at this time, these teacher leaders were quite skeptical about the alleged benefits I described.  Undeterred, I continued to talk about the concept of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) and what it had done for my professional growth. I shared how its simplistic nature, built on conversations with educators all over the world, led to new knowledge development, resource acquisition, exposure to innovative ideas and strategies, support, feedback, friendships, and spirited discussion.  Best of all, at least in my mind, was the newfound ability to learn anytime, from anywhere, with anyone in the world for free.  Little did I know that this conversation set the stage for one of the most significant learning shifts we ever experienced at my school.

Once I got off my soapbox to catch a breath, one of my teachers said that this concept was great but questioned the amount of time that teachers had, in general, to engage in meaningful learning.  With all the many state mandates and district-directed professional development, as well as time after school devoted to grading and lesson planning, in her mind and many others, time was not readily available. Who was I to disagree, as her words were stark fact.  In concert, my teacher leaders said it would be great if we could have a job-embedded growth model as many organizations have in the real world.  Well, this is just fine and dandy in theory but much more difficult in practice.  

I wanted to try really hard to at least attempt to find a way to implement a consistent pathway to learning during the school day, as my teachers had requested.  Then it came to me, much to the chagrin of my Assistant Principal.  My inspiration came in the form of the Google 80/20 Innovation Model. The premise of this for a long time was that Google employees had to spend 80% of their time on their actual job duties, while the other 20% could be spent working on anything they were passionate about as long as it improved Google’s bottom line. When reflecting on this, the light bulb went on and I seized on an area of opportunity embedded in the eight-period day schedule.  In the end, we created our own Google 80/20 model at my school even though Google axed the program last year.

By contract, all teachers had to teach five periods. In addition, they each had a lunch, prep, and duty period, all 48 minutes in length.  It was at this time that I saw an area of opportunity in the form of non-instructional duties (cafeteria, hall, in-school suspension). Every teacher had one non-instructional duty period a day in their schedule.  By cutting the non-instructional duties in half, I was able to free up each of my teachers two to three periods a week, allowing them to engage in activities related to professional growth.  This was the birth of the Professional Growth Period (PGP).  In order to free up our teachers, my Administrative team and I assumed the duties that were cut to pick up the slack.  Now you see why my Assistant Principal was not happy with me at first.  Once we got rolling, though, we realized that our improving school culture did not warrant so much attention and supervision of duties, which eventually made it much easier for all of us.

PGP time for the past two years has been dedicated to my staff to become better educators and learners.  Depending on the semester, all teachers now have 2-3 duty periods off per week to engage in professional learning opportunities.  They have been encouraged to find their passion and work to define their purpose.  This time is spent learning, innovating, and pursuing ways to become a master educator.  Think of it as a differentiated learning opportunity that caters to each of my staff member’s specific needs and interests.  Sample activities include:

  • becoming a connected educator by developing and engaging in a Personal Learning Network (PLN)
  • researching best practices
  • developing innovative learning activities
  • creating interdisciplinary lessons
  • engaging in face-to-face professional development
  • learning to use new technologies
  • earning a digital badge
  • collaborating on projects with colleagues. 

This is the time that they desperately wanted and needed to improve their craft, build on innovative thoughts and ideas they always wanted to pursue and acquire new knowledge. It was stressed that this time was not to be used to make copies, leave the building to get coffee/food or socialize in the faculty room.  It becomes all about learning.  The expectation was and has been, that each staff member submits a learning portfolio at the end-of-year evaluation conference that demonstrates how PGP time was used to improve his/her professional practice.  The portfolio can be created in any way that fits the creative nature of the staff member, but should clearly identify what was done to:

  • improve instruction
  • effectively integrate technology
  • engage students
  • address the Common Core Standards
  • increase student achievement  

The PGP Learning portfolio has been presented at the end-of-year evaluation conference for the past two years and is one of the major artifacts used in the McREL observation/evaluation tool.  It can be created in any way that my teachers see fit, but it must clearly articulate what they learned and how this knowledge and/or skills were integrated into professional practice to improve student learning.  Adding more depth to the PGP process and portfolio has been the digital badge platform created by media specialist Laura Fleming to acknowledge the informal learning of our teachers.  The end result has been a proliferation of innovative practices as teachers have been empowered to take ownership of their learning through autonomy.  Removing the time excuse didn't hurt either.  


  1. Eric I love this whole concept and more importantly that you had the courage to make it work instead of stopping at the first roadblock. I can't imagine how excited I would have been to have that time. Heck, I love that time now when I am able to get up an hour or two earlier just to pursue some writing or reading goals. Thank you for leading the way and best of luck with your new job. I look forward to continuing to learn from your ideas, but more than anything I take much from your passion.

  2. Eric, it's great that you were able to give that time to your teachers. We continue to explore ways to make this happen, and with "Core Professionalism" now an important component of our teacher evaluation system, we will support our teachers to be self-directed learners who are exemplify our school vision of being explorers, discoverers, creators, and sharers. Looking forward to seeing/hearing you on Wednesday!

  3. Hello Eric. It was great meeting you at ISTE. Your professional learning structure is very similar to what I have envisioned for our school. It's validating to see how your school has made it work. Thank you for sharing these terrific strategies.

  4. A few years ago there was an attempt at my school to introduce more choice in regards to professional development. This meant that every second week staff could choose which session they went to. However it was also said that staff could follow their own needs, whether this be professional reading or whatever. At the time, social media was seen as a distraction and Youtube was blocked. Added to this, most staff felt threatened by having to 'justify' their own choices in learning, therefore for a school with over 400 staff, NO ONE that I was aware of took up the offer and simply went to those sessions on offer. I mused more recently about this with all the hype around Genius Hour ( Ever since, I have found so many different examples of where schools are putting such practises in place. It is exciting to see and spurs me on to push harder for it in my own context. I especially like the use of the digital badges to recognise effort.

  5. Aaron - I knew that there had to be some sort of accountability component, which is why we linked the digital learning portfolios to end of year evaluations for teachers. With that said though, the majority found great value in the time provided and would have still used the time effectively without it.

    1. I think that accountability is really important. If not at least to ourselves. Such professional development was not linked to our evaluations, but in hindsight I can see how that may have made a difference. I would imagine that once staff feel comfortable with the process and purpose, realise that it is meaningful, that they would not only use the time effectively, but really start to expand upon it. I guess it is about persistence and finding those early wins. Change is never easy.