It’s time to put the passion back into teaching and professional growth.
Episode 74 of the Hack Learning Podcast explores Passion Projects, as illustrated in Hacking Leadership, by renowned school leaders Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis, in Hack 8: Passion Projects for Adults. Here is an excerpt:
THE PROBLEM: STAFF MEMBERS NEED TIME TO CULTIVATE PROFESSIONAL GROWTH
Astoundingly, supervisors ask teachers to differentiate instruction for each student even as they continue to give exactly the same professional development to every instructor.
Administrators often put teachers from assorted grade levels, content areas, knowledge bases, and interest ranges in a room for full-day training, expecting the quality of education teachers offer to improve as a result.
While there are clearly times that all educators in a building need the same information, each teacher needs individualized learning as well. If differentiation meets the individual needs of all learners, then this best practice should apply to the professionals as well as to their students.
We know you may not have control over district, state, or federal initiatives. Until educators have a strong voice in such organizations, having initiatives imposed on us is our reality.
If you’re asked to be part of the decision-making body, go do it. If no one approaches you, seek out opportunities to participate in influential groups.
Hacking leadership is about finding a way to succeed by circumventing obstacles. As we deal with the system as it now exists, we can hack ways to meet the individual needs of staff members while still maintaining the integrity of initiatives.
THE HACK: PASSION PROJECTS FOR ADULTS
Our students have profited extensively from Genius Hour, a specific time for them to learn about something that interests them and to express that learning in any format that they choose.
It occurred to us that we could pattern professional development on this success, creating opportunities for teachers to learn what they want when they want and how they want. While scheduling a specific hour for students to explore their passions integrates well with the current model of the school day, reserving similar time for teacher learning presents problems.
Aside from the issue of what to do with the students while their teachers are learning, holding any school time sacrosanct for a particular purpose is almost impossible for teachers, considering the variables that affect every workday.
Teachers have a propensity to “eat last,” or not at all, when it comes to their learning, often because a teacher’s job involves such a variety of complex tasks that little time is left over for lunch, let alone learning.
Professionals deserve our trust in their desire to improve and extend their learning.” -Joe Sanfelippo & Tony Sinanis
Passion projects allow individual staff members to delve into topics they feel passionately about exploring while administrative teams provide the time, resources, and opportunities for the learning to flourish.
The passion project professional growth model allows people to choose topics and decide on a personalized learning plan. We have not rejected any teacher’s learning plan goal in the last three years.
We want people to own the process and take it on in a way that suits them. We trust teachers to find an effective process, although we specify two non-negotiable elements:
1) Every plan must include a student data component so teachers can reflect on the process and satisfy state requirements for educator/teacher effectiveness or whatever your state is calling it. Analyzing student data allows educators to reflect on ways to integrate emerging trends and patterns into practical classroom applications. We want to be very clear that the data should inform but not drive decision making. There is a distinct difference.
When data informs decisions, teaching professionals consider the data and other relevant information to find ways to improve student learning. In contrast, having data drive decisions implies that reading the data objectively determines future actions.
Giving teachers the opportunity to own their learning from start to finish shows how much we value their work and abilities.” –Hacking Leadership
Many factors should influence decisions about instruction, and we want to give the professionals who work with the students on a regular basis the latitude to make decisions as they see fit.
2) We ask simply that teachers strive to get better. As teachers work to improve, leaders must be willing to stand back and allow them to progress at their own paces. Growth is particular to each individual—teachers change at different rates according to their needs, backgrounds, and abilities. We have to trust people to improve without constantly trying to quantify that improvement.
We want to make sure we are not criticizing someone’s growth, especially since making errors is a common sign of taking risks. Progressing in a complicated endeavor like teaching tends to be a recursive process, one that is unlikely to happen if teachers do not feel wholly committed to their goals. Trust your staff to be professional by allowing them to take ownership of their own learning.
We have seen a significant increase in collaborative effort as teachers work through their growth model goals. Most goals are more carefully written, more rigorous, and more innovative than they were before we initiated passion projects. People take bigger risks when they set their own goals because they feel personally compelled to increase their capacity to help students.
Even though a few teachers will try to skirt the system by creating a goal that is easily attainable, remember that allowing teachers to choose their own goals has not caused these people to “cop out.” They would have done the same thing with the antiquated processes of the past.
Rather than responding to the problematic few by attempting to control everyone, we need to make decisions based on our best people. They are the ones we need to make happy. Giving teachers the opportunity to own their learning from start to finish shows how much we value their work and abilities.
What You Can Do Tomorrow
Stepping out of the professional development comfort zone is going to take some time and a great deal of trust. When you implement passion projects some staff members may search desperately for a topic they can commit to. Many have been told how, when, and what they will learn for years. What you can do tomorrow is provide time, resources, and opportunities for your staff to engage in professional growth.
Finding ways to offer any of these three things to your staff right away will establish innovation and ownership as part of school culture. Once staff members trust the process, they’ll be eager to continue learning on their own.
- Get teachers thinking about their passions. Introduce the idea of passion projects and ask teachers to begin thinking about what they want to work on so that they will be prepared to dive into their projects as soon as you can make time available to them.
- Pass good resources on to teachers. Once you know the goals and interests of your staff members you may be able to provide suggestions for relevant resources. This is where we see leaders moving to the middle to facilitate the passion projects. We are not leading the charge, but connecting staff members and resources. Find connections between different topics of interest so you can put people into contact with each other. Keep your staff in mind when you come upon resources, whether online, face-to-face, or in books and journals.
- Shoot off a short email or stick a photocopy in a teacher’s mailbox.
- Both of us use Twitter a great deal, so when we see an article or resource on Twitter that would fit someone’s goals, we retweet the post and tag the staff member.
- Giving specific help with resources need not cut into the budget and it’s worth your effort because supporting professional growth is such an essential component to growing as a staff. Proving that you value a teacher’s work elevates your instructional leadership.
- Provide opportunities for informal meetings. The first step is to listen when you ask your staff what kinds of connections they need. Then, find a way to make opportunities for those connections to happen.
- This could be in an “’Appy Hour” after school where staff connect and talk about apps that are working in their classroom.
- It could be in a “Lunch and Learn” where a group spends time discussing a topic of their choice.
- It could be an asynchronous meeting using a platform like Voxer to discuss a book or topic of their choice.
Understand that the opportunity to connect may yield few results when you start. Your first meeting may attract only three people, but think of it this way: Three people showed up and learned something. Once word gets around that the meeting was useful, more people will filter in.
Find your passion
To better understand what a Passion Project looks like in action, check out Hacking Leadership: 10 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Learning That Teachers, Students, and Parents Love.
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Hacking Leadership excerpt is copyrighted material, reprinted here with permission from Times 10 Publications