Clear, shared, and focused: How to envision successful professional learning initiatives

If you’re a state or district leader looking at the data on how kids are doing across your system, chances are you’re longing to see some improvements. Whether your main concern is literacy, math, science, equity, or any other critical area, you know that teachers and staff are counting on you to help them move the needle on student outcomes and create the best possible environment for learning. And as a leader, you know the importance of great professional learning to empower your people and bring these goals to fruition.

And yet, even if you’ve risen to the position of a chief state school officer, superintendent, or leader of a particular office or program within a state education agency (SEA), you may not have been trained in the design and implementation of large-scale professional learning initiatives. The experiences you’ve had in your career and the skills you’ve developed have carried you a long way! But even the most talented leaders need their own learning and support to bring about significant and lasting change.

In this post, I’ll discuss the unique position in which many education leaders find themselves as they shoulder the responsibility of driving improvement across their systems. And I’ll offer some guidance on how to get started on the task of bringing well-designed, well-implemented professional learning opportunities to the people you lead.

I wasn’t trained for this!

I’ve had the privilege of working at many levels in education. I was an elementary school teacher and instructional literacy coach before I jumped to a state-level role helping schools across Idaho improve their literacy practices. Over time, I transitioned into a leadership position and oversaw several statewide programs that supported teachers and leaders. The thing was, I wasn’t trained for this type of work. There was a lot of on-the-job learning and trial by fire. If you’re a state leader who’s anything like me, you might not have been specifically trained for your role, either.

[B]egin by defining the nature of the challenge that you’re trying to solve.

Indeed, many SEA leaders enter positions of significant statewide influence directly from the classroom. Others have had leadership experience as school or district administrators. Typical teacher preparation programs get us ready for teaching and learning, while administrator programs cover things like education law, school leadership, and district governance. While these are illuminating experiences that produce many transferable skills, I’m guessing that most readers of this post never took a course in topics such as:

  • Designing and implementing a large-scale professional learning initiative
  • Navigating the political landscape of a state and influencing schools within local-control context
  • Writing and winning competitive federal grants
  • Creating and managing a state or federal budget for your program

Without expertise and skill in these and other areas, education leaders will likely have a hard time achieving large-scale goals. As a starting point, let’s focus on the first topic, designing and implementing large-scale professional learning initiatives, a process that begins with vision.

Develop a clear, shared, and focused vision

When thinking about improving outcomes across a state or large education system, it’s helpful to begin by defining the nature of the challenge that you’re trying to solve and being really clear about your vision and purpose.

We’ve all seen what happens when an initiative is launched without careful consideration or planning. A well-meaning team or program director may feel strongly enough about an idea for professional learning that they tell themselves, “Everyone will improve if I provide (fill in the blank) training.” They pay a vendor and direct their staff to spend valuable time and effort creating and delivering the training, only to realize in a year or two that it didn’t have the desired impact. While training conceived in this manner can still provide some benefits, it isn’t done with the end in mind. Rather, it’s done with certain activities in mind—and with the hope that these activities will produce lasting results.

There’s a better way. It involves developing a clear vision that is both shared and focused across all relevant programs and offices within the SEA.

Strive for clarity

To effectively plan a large-scale professional learning initiative, leaders in states or large districts need to be able to clearly articulate how the future should be different than the present. This is what forms the basis for planning with the end in mind. A state leader who wants to improve reading outcomes, for example, would not only need a clear understanding of what effective, evidence-based literacy instruction is, but also be able to articulate what success would look like at the classroom and student level.

Getting everyone on the same page is key to the success of any large-scale initiative.

A clear vision for how the different parts of a new initiative ought to work together—teaching, learning, assessment, evidence-based practices, leadership, and systems—forms a strong foundation for the rest of that initiative. Without such a vision, each project team, vendor, teacher, or staff member who’s working toward the goal will be guided by their own interpretations, which could mean different or conflicting visions from different groups. This, in turn, could lead to confusion for teachers and schools and additional work and effort as stakeholders figure out how to navigate different messages and support systems.

Share your vision

Getting everyone on the same page is key to the success of any large-scale initiative. However, that doesn’t mean stripping autonomy and agency from the talented folks you’re relying on to carry out your initiative. For example, if you have a vision for more effective literacy instruction across your state or district, you don’t need every teacher to adhere to exactly the same curriculum or lesson plans. What you do need is the assurance that every K–3 classroom is guided by the same basic set of core principles that underlie your vision.

To continue our example, teachers united around a shared vision for literacy instruction would all have access to high-quality materials that help them effectively translate the science of reading into practice on a day-to-day basis. Schools and districts would implement similar practices and protocols so that teachers are not left to forge their own path through what is one of the most complicated subject areas for teachers and students alike.

Stay focused

School leaders are understandably focused on growth and improvement, so you sometimes find them pushing teachers to improve literacy, math, and science all at the same time. On top of that, they might also encourage teachers to implement new social-emotional strategies and make sure they’re meeting the latest requirements for positive behavioral interventions and supports. But the human brain is simply not designed to focus on so many different things at once. To ask teachers to focus on multiple things simultaneously is really to ask them to focus on nothing at all.

Effective school leaders know this. When they work to improve their schools, effective leaders choose one priority and go all in. As Stephen Covey wrote in his classic book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The best leaders prioritize the most important thing they want to accomplish and then make sure it takes precedence over everything else. In the case of literacy work at the school level, for example, that means all the leaders’ and teachers’ energy will go into improving literacy, while everything else runs on business-as-usual strategies.

This mindset is incredibly important for state leaders. Too often, SEAs have fragmented and competing priorities. District and school leaders get bogged down trying to determine which state office most needs their attention. Should they be focusing on the Title I office? The school improvement office? What’s coming out of the Special Education Services team? Or perhaps the Content Standards group? Countless district and school leaders will tell you that they regularly hear competing visions from each of these different offices within an SEA, even though each office is under the same umbrella of the chief state school officer.

What all of this means is that it’s the SEA’s role to articulate a clear vision for its intended outcomes, focus most of its efforts on an aligned implementation strategy, and ensure that the vision and strategy are collectively and collaboratively shared by all the offices that interact with schools and districts.

Ask the right questions

A few crucial questions to ask when creating a clear, shared, and focused vision are:

  • What’s the focus? What is the one main thing our SEA wants to accomplish over the next couple of years to improve student outcomes?
  • What are the conditions? Is our SEA creating the conditions to encourage districts, schools, and teachers to focus on one main thing?
  • What needs alignment? What is our SEA doing that might be causing educators at the local level to fragment their attention and struggle to improve? Are all the offices, projects, and initiatives in our SEA focused on our shared vision? If not, what will we do about it? Do the professional learning initiatives and support programs we offer work together in a complementary fashion, or are they fragmented with little to no coherence and coordination?

Next up: Planning and implementation

After you have articulated a clear, shared, and focused vision, then it’s time to plan and implement your initiative. I’ll share some useful planning ideas next month, so please stay tuned for that. And if you’d like support developing your own large-scale professional learning initiative, please reach out to us. We’d be happy to help!

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