Educators are as unique as the communities they serve, but there are benefits to getting everyone on the same page even when they aren’t in the same building. When educators row together as a team, districts generate a critical mass that pays big dividends for students.
“Anytime an educator learns something new and is excited about that learning, there is a ripple effect on those around them,” says Sheri Simpson, assistant director of digital and professional learning for Ohio’s Lakota Local Schools.
That’s why research shows it’s important to take a holistic approach to professional learning.
When educators learn together as a cohesive group, they are more likely to feel invested in the outcome. Being part of a cohort also provides built-in support and helps educators persevere in the face of roadblocks and stumbles. That all leads to sustainable progress.
We asked five leaders who have taken a districtwide approach to PD to talk about the benefits. Three of the following leaders sent district cohorts through ISTE Certification, which is a competency-based, device-neutral certification designed for ambitious educators who want to use technology to catalyze learning. Another district used the e-MINTS train-the-trainer approach.
Here are five benefits of a holistic approach to professional development.
1. Consistency throughout the district
Prince William County Schools (PWCS) in the Washington metropolitan area is the second-largest district in Virginia. As a decentralized district, independence is encouraged, and school leaders can forge their own path to success.
PWCS partnered with ISTE to implement a districtwide focus on future-ready schools by certifying 45 instructional technology coaches (ITOs), librarians, administrators and teachers. The district has an ITO placed at every school to support content-area teachers with embedded technology. In addition, ISTE included PWCS’s more than 7,000 licensed staff as ISTE members, giving them access to the ISTE PLNs, monthly newsletters, weekly webinars and conference videos.
A districtwide focus on the ISTE Standards means that even schools with different cultures work toward common goals. Consider a PWCS middle school and high school that share the same campus. One was a 1:1 elementary school where teachers comfortably incorporated technology. The second was a middle school where students primarily worked through packets.
Before the districtwide initiative, the principals of the two schools were not familiar with how the other school approached learning. As the initiative got underway, the schools created teams who visited every classroom in both schools.
Staff members observed each other’s practice and then met monthly with the ISTE Certified ITOs. Diane Harazin, supervisor of instructional technology, says this is an example of how schools can work together, even across a decentralized district.
"We are decentralized, but when it comes to instructional technology, we have a structure in place to create a unified vision with these instructional technology coaches," Harazin says. "The power behind our site-based management system is that those people who are true leaders lead. They pave the way and have this opportunity to do what they think is right," she says. "We have a vision in our district, but it's looked at differently in every school.”
2. Resiliency in difficult times
Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish Public Schools experienced four natural disasters back to back in 2021: two hurricanes, an ice storm and a flood. All of this is on top of the pandemic that disrupted public education across the nation. While some buildings sat empty with tarps covering the roof like big, blue Band-Aides, school kept going.
The Lake Charles, Louisiana, school district serves more than 32,000 students and is one of the state's top-ranked and most diverse districts. The district sent three cohorts of 24 educators each through ISTE Certification.
Although Calcasieu went virtual during the pandemic and the natural disasters, they were already a step ahead, thanks to Kim Leblanc, chief technology officer at Calcasieu Parish School Board.
Leblanc organized three cohorts for her district. Starting with a cohort of technology department staff, followed by a cohort of teacher leaders who could serve as model classrooms throughout the district. Leblanc ensured that there were Certified Educators at each school to plant the seeds of effective practice.
One of those ISTE Certified educators, Mitzi Vincent, helped Calcasieu start its first-ever virtual academy.
Vincent, a sixth-grade science teacher, was initially thrown for a loop when her district abruptly switched to remote learning. In her face-to-face classroom, she conducted a collaborative exercise to help students understand the factors that drive population. They would get into groups and discuss randomized scenarios.
She credits ISTE Certification for giving her the skills and know-how to recreate the lesson online.
Students worked in small groups of three or four in breakout rooms in Zoom. A virtual spinner replaced a plastic cup and virtual tokens replaced physical ones. Students used the tech tools to seamlessly communicate and collaborate virtually and student engagement was high despite the physical separation.
In addition, she’s helped her fellow academy educators transition more easily to the virtual classroom.
“For those like me who have been thrown into developing a first-time program, I look at the ISTE Standards, she says. “In other words, I want my technology to be daily, seamless for the kids and to give them greater choices in their learning.”
Multiply key people, such as Vincent, by the number of people they influence, and you can impact lesson design and develop common language across the district. Technology coaches influence teachers, librarians impact both teachers and students, and teachers impact students and each other because they are no longer isolated within their classrooms.
“I can say that the process of becoming ISTE Certified provided our district with a strong group of teacher leaders to not only create new opportunities and resources for our students related to the ISTE Standards, but it also allowed for the evaluation of current resources and practices,” says Heidenreich. “We were able to make existing experiences better, and as a cohort, we were able to apply our skillset to support the design and creation of an online model curriculum for our district.”
3. Peer-to-peer support
Ohio’s Lakota Local Schools, a suburban K-12 district with more than 16,700 students, implemented WEareEMPOWERED, a 1:1 initiative for grades 7-12, which included embedding technology and personalized learning in all its schools in 2018. As part of that districtwide initiative, Lakota offered a bump on the pay scale for its 50 ISTE Certified educators.
Throughout the certification process, the Lakota cohorts worked as accountability partners while building their portfolios. They discussed classroom assignments and how to better align those projects with ISTE Standards.
“They have people to lean on, ask questions of,” says Mary Snellgrove, instructional specialist for Butler County Education Service Center, which organized the cohorts for Lakota. “It ’s hard work, a heavy cognitive lift. [Certification] is transformative and teachers say their conversations are so much richer because they have a deeper appreciation for what they need to do in the classroom. They begin to bond and connect about improving the student experience. It ’s a good opportunity to get people who are not in the same space on the same page.”
The ISTE cohort brought together teams of teachers from different schools across the district who may not have otherwise connected. Lakota’s Innovation Specialist Kim Carlson implements much of the professional development for her district.
Carlson and her team of fifth grade ELA teachers love a 48-hour challenge they experimented with. The teachers assessed their students’ understanding of a district standard on themes using an online program. The team met to see where the kids struggled with the standard and discussed ideas for changing instruction in response to the data.
Over the next 48 hours, the team changed their lesson plans to focus on areas of deficiencies. When the team reassessed, the students had mastered that content standard. Using the language from the Educator section of the ISTE Standards, Carlson became an analyst by using data to inform instruction.
Krista Heidenreich is Lakota’s director of digital and professional learning. ISTE Certification, she said, challenged her to dig deep into a lesson on digital citizenship for third graders to think about her leadership and the impact it has at every level.
“It was helpful to put the district work under the ‘ISTE microscope’ and see how aligned we are throughout the implementation process. It fostered a lot of good conversation and allowed me to see not only our successes but also some areas where we could be stronger in our practice.”
4. Equity across schools
Located in the southwest corner of Alabama, Baldwin County runs along the Gulf of Mexico and spreads across 66 miles as the largest county east of the Mississippi, encompassing some of the wealthiest as well as the most impoverished areas of the state.
Equity is an issue for Alabama's Baldwin County Schools, but one of technology's great promises is to level the playing field for all students through personalized learning.
Of course, a foundation of pedagogy must exist for educators to use technology appropriately for all students. Baldwin decided to use a train-the-trainers program called Enhancing Missouri's Instructional Network Teaching Strategies (eMINTS) and covered 150 teachers a year in the two-year program.
The central office staff pushed out professional development to district schools through curriculum leaders and classroom teachers who have been through eMINTS training. All this means a teacher leader makes sure the training reaches every school in the district.
Katie Nettles, a consulting teacher, says the program has been successful for teachers across the board, even in special education classes. Nettles worked with a teacher whose special education students participated in a pull-out class during which they were reading The Diary of Anne Frank. The teacher assigned essays about the book, but the special education students had difficulty writing.
The teacher, who doesn't consider herself very tech-savvy, had the students design a virtual field trip of the Anne Frank home and do a Google presentation. Students rose well above their teacher’s expectations and made her think that she had been holding them back.
"The professional development of teachers is what caused that change. With that, students were better able to work together, seek out information and think critically about what they are seeing," Nettles said.
5. Harnesses the potential of technology
Dry Creek did not start its technology integration with a clean slate. In 2012, the rural Northern California district in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada spent $2.2 million to update and rewire classrooms. In 2013, Dry Creek added some 1:1 Chromebooks and focused on adding devices over the next several years.
Pre-pandemic, Dry Creek recreated the position of technology director. The district hired Bryan Wilke because he had classroom teaching experience and an edtech background. The focus shifted from devices to empowering Dry Creek students in the classroom.
"The reality is that most of us rushed out and bought devices without much training or forethought about how to support student learning," Wilke said. "I'm always looking for the next iteration to make that work better. We have to account for the fact that our staff needs more training on every device and that our users are at different levels.”
Dry Creek developed a Tech Integration Committee, which meets regularly to develop an overall plan to address the different levels of tech competency throughout the district. Wilke says the committee started by looking at ISTE Standards, then backward-mapping existing projects. The result is project-based learning that is more in-depth and interactive.
The California state standards require fourth-grade students to learn about the state and the region. Coyote Ridge fourth-grade teacher Jamie Albracht-Halsey, also on the Tech Integration Committee, taught this lesson for years but says it was dry with little interaction or creativity.
Albracht-Halsey looked at the ISTE Standards and tweaked the project to incorporate the Knowledge Creator, Digital Citizen and Creative Communicator standards. She had students use Google Maps to plan a trip across the state, documenting their places on an interactive map by adding pictures and text. Kids shared their projects through Flipgrid and reflected by writing blog posts as they went on their journeys.
"Incorporating the ISTE Standards and backward-mapping the project made the subject come alive for students," says Albracht-Halsey. "Some teachers are excited, and some are reluctant, but teachers realize we're not going backward with tech. It's here to stay and doesn't have to be scary. They don't have to know everything before they put these tools in kids' hands."
The Tech Integration Committee spawned professional development after school, led by teachers like Albracht-Halsey, who have implemented successful projects. The PD is a cafe model with multiple types of classes requested by teachers. Teachers are reimbursed for this professional development, which demonstrates to teachers that the district considers it essential and values their time.
"Some people think it's just one more thing, but one of my charges is to shift that mindset. Kids are already doing it," Wilke says. "If it's meaningful, it makes the information live beyond something out of a book."
These districts were ahead of the game. By now, almost every school in the nation has shifted to 1:1 in response to the pandemic. While education technology is now an integral part of any school, infrastructure doesn’t help students unless it’s built on solid teaching practice. A whole-district approach to professional development empowers instructional designers, library media specialists, technology coaches, and educators to bring equity, resiliency and lasting change to their districts.
“I believe the ISTE Certification process excites teachers as they examine their own practices and use the ISTE Standards to try new methods of teaching,” says Sheri Simpson, Lakota's assistant director of digital and professional learning. “That new energy can then be felt throughout the building and district.”
Jennifer Snelling (@jdsnelljennifer) is a blogger from Eugene, Oregon, who writes about educators using technology to empower students and change the way we learn.