5 tips on personalizing learning for adults

The same strategies used to enrich learning for students also benefit teachers and staff
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 9, 2019

Personalizing learning, when done right, provides amazing benefits for students. And personalization—through providing flexible tools and content, incorporating learner ownership and reflection, offering targeted support, and using data—also aids adults.

Leaders of school districts across the country—including ours, the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township in Indiana—are increasingly focused on cultivating principals and teachers by offering more personalized professional learning.

The reasons for this shift are:

Professional learning is a model for classroom instruction. Teachers tend to replicate the teaching styles they experienced as students and the styles and processes that have helped their own students succeed. If district leaders truly want to embrace personalized learning for students, they need to model it regularly with teachers and building administrators.

Great, engaging professional learning helps districts retain great teachers. Many districts like ours struggle with teacher turnover. One of the best ways to retain teachers is to create a culture in which teachers have a voice in the decisions being made about their training and classroom instruction. Personalizing professional learning does this.

When Indiana adopted the Indiana Academic Standards, our school district leaders shifted the instructional model to focus on personalized learning for our 12,000 students. But we soon realized that we needed to do more to support our staff members during this shift. In short, we realized we needed to take care of our teachers in order to help students succeed.

In 2012, with the help of a Race to the Top grant, we partnered with the education consultants from Education Elements to personalize professional learning for our staff.

We implemented these strategies that other school leaders can replicate:
Offer teachers a menu of professional development options. Choice is important. We solicit teachers’ feedback on how they want to receive their PD. If they prefer online PD, we offer it. If teachers want in-person training sessions, we provide them.

Provide support to teachers and administrators who want to pursue outside PD opportunities. For example, if a principal wants to go to a specific conference or workshop to learn more about a topic, we help them do it.

Support teacher collaboration. We identified teachers who excel in a particular area, and we invited them to serve as teacher leaders. They now work with their colleagues to collaborate, sharing tips and discussing successes and failures. This collaborative model is an extremely powerful way to support and engage teachers, especially those who are new to the profession.

The personalized learning journey for our staff is still underway, but we’ve learned many lessons so far. Here are five tips for school leaders looking to personalize PD for their staff:

  1. Capture baseline perception data. It is helpful to survey staff members about their PD needs and perceptions. Acknowledge their concerns and adjust the process if necessary.
  2. Spend as much time in classrooms as you can. It sounds simple, but understanding what teachers are doing is important. One of our strategies is to do “empathy walks and talks” with both teachers and principals to learn about their needs and concerns.
  3. Superintendents should meet one-on-one with their leadership team members. I introduced this practice during my first year as a superintendent, and it was powerful to hear the concerns and ideas from building leaders. I was able to provide them with direct feedback and support.
  4. Find a good consulting partner. Outside consulting companies can offer valuable insight and support to district leaders who are working through instructional redesigns or strategic planning. Our partnership with Education Elements has helped us personalize learning for our students and staff, and it has been invaluable. Look for a company that is responsive and has a track record of success.
  5. Consider the “whole adult.” It’s important to recognize that adults bring outside-of-work experiences to their jobs. Make sure you are supporting your staff’s professional growth as well as their mental and physical health.

Teachers are a school district’s most valuable resource. As school leaders, we have to make sure they feel valued. If we do that, they will succeed—and so will our students.

Tim Hanson is superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township in Indiana.