Differentiating Learning for Teachers

A few weeks ago I “attended” Principal Lyn Hilt’s session: “Differentiating Learning: It’s Not Just for Students!” at the  Reform Symposium Worldwide E-Conference.

A common comment/complaint I’ve heard from other administrators is that their teachers have become complacent, lost their spark or are stuck in their old (teaching) habits.  After attending Lyn’s session, I started to wonder: Why have they become complacent? Why are they not continuing their own professional learning?  Have we given teachers an environment in which they have had an opportunity to continue to grow as professionals? Have we given them the autonomy to expand their knowledge/skills and take risk in the classroom?

We are all too familiar with professional development being something that is done to you.  It may have been an outside speaker that came in for what I call a “drive by” in-service or top-down professional development that teachers had no input on.  Maybe you attended a conference and then didn’t take the time to reflect and implement what you learned.

What I am learning about professional development is:
1. It must include differentiation for staff
2. It must include deep reflection

When an educator is learning something new this is the concrete experience part of the experiential cycle. This could be while reading about a new strategy, observing another classroom, or learning at a conference. Next they need to try to implement this in their classroom with students.  Then, the teacher needs to have an opportunity for reflection. I’m sure we’ve all been in a conference/training in which we were asked to jot down a thought on an exit slip or a post-it note at the end as a method of reflection (I’ve asked my teachers to do this). While this is better than nothing, it is not enough.  Reflection needs to be deep and involve analysis.  You need to dig deep: this could be blogging, discussing with others. Reflection needs to be systemic and is an expected part of the process in order to be powerful.  Then you will be ready to make conclusions and generate conclusions on the effectiveness of your strategy and its impact on student learning.

Just this past week my teachers (and teachers from 5 area districts) had the opportunity to attend the Regional Summer Teacher Academy and choose different sessions that they were interested in.  This was a first ever opportunity for our teachers that I organized with another principal, Aaron Olson.  This took many, many hours for us to plan and pull off, but it was worth it for our teachers.  You can find out more about it here.

While our time is limited, I hope to continue providing teachers with more choice in their professional learning this year.  I am going to start Tech Tuesdays so that once a month teachers can share (if they want to) any resources/tools/tricks &tips that they have with others.  Our monthly staff meetings will be professional development meetings (I sure hope they will all pay attention to my emails that contain the “nuts and bolts” news, because I don’t want to waste time on that in the meetings). As we implement Daily 5/Cafe school-wide I realize that teachers are all in different phases of implementation. Some of them have taught with Daily 5/Cafe for a year or more and some will just be getting started. I want to organize our time so that they will all benefit and continue to learn from each other.

In addition, I want to try to model learning and professional growth for my teachers by being transparent about my learning.  I have previously kept this blog a secret and maintained a separate blog for my staff that just contained my weekly memos.  This year I plan to share this blog with them and cross-post some of my reflections with them.  In addition, I am going to ask for teachers that will allow me to join them in the classroom and co-teach with them so I can continue to practice the best strategies that I want my teachers to use.  Finally, as we add an instructional coach to our staff this year, I want to find ways that we can model for the staff how to give feedback and learn from each other (I don’t know how this will look yet).

photo credit to: cc licensed flickr photo shared by Ron Houtman

This was originally posted on Reflections From an Elementary School Principal


  1. TMSillis said:

    It’s so important to have professional learning affect classroom practice. Reflection on learning and how practice is affected needs ‘deep’ analysis. One way we have gone about this is to have the learning, discussion and then have teachers develop their own “action research” to implement what they have learnt, return to the whole staff and discuss the outcomes. Very powerful learning takes place and also plots future direction enabling a proactive and realistic strategic management plan.

    August 15, 2011
    • Terrific model for professional development and school leadership. I’m sure the Academy inspired teachers with vision and shared goals for the new year ahead.

      August 15, 2011
      • Hi there,
        I think you are correct that differentiation is really needed for our teachers, and the understanding that we honor their choices to direct their own learning. How else can we expect them to do the same for their students? My colleague Peter and I have created a model of PD around technology in Ontario that is very successful and it definitely involves teachers developing a PLN.

        You can check out our model here: http://mindsonmedia.ca

        We are working on developing some support materials for teacher leaders who are interested in providing this kind of event. It’s a work in progress but it’s been very successful so far so we are continuing to develop it and hope to have some more info this fall!


        August 15, 2011
  2. I love that you want to teach with your teachers to model best practices. I think I’m going to ask about doing some of that this year…:)

    August 15, 2011
  3. Morning,

    Having lived through painful experiences as a teacher and struggled with top-down teacher evaluation frameworks, I’m enjoying working from a teacher inquiry stance with teachers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC now.

    Teachers own the process and direct their learning in ways that are personally meaningful.

    Some research we draw from :
    Inquiry as Stance
    Marilyn Cochran-Smith & Susan L. Lytle

    The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research:
    Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn Through Practitioner Inquiry
    Nancy Fichtman Dana & Diane Yendol-Hoppey

    Be well,


    August 15, 2011
  4. My school has started dofferentiating PD- and I love it. I find differentiation especially useful when sessions are about classroom use of technology.

    Also, I think the differentiated model helps admin empathize with teachers who implement classroom workshop models. Differentiation must be carefully organized, must consider efficient movement of individuals, and requires specific classroom management procedures.

    August 15, 2011
  5. I meant “differentiating”- hazards of typing on a mobile device at 6 am.

    August 15, 2011
  6. Paul Rogers said:

    Blurring the lines between the way providers of PD work with teachers/adults and teachers work with students/young people is a very useful way to think. Just like with students engagement is key; in fact, when bored learners brains go into a state of stress. Tapping into the expertise in the room, i.e., building on existing background knowledge, involving learners in co-constructing knowledge for everyone in the room, and, yes, providing personalized feedback to learners are all strategies supported by the research. The National Writing Project has done this kind of work for years.

    August 16, 2011
  7. Laura Lee Matthie said:

    I am quite interested in hearing more about this Daily 5/Cafe – what is it all about?

    August 17, 2011
    • PrincipalJ said:

      Wow, thank you to everyone for all the comments!! Laura, Daily5 is a framework for literacy and the Cafe Strategies are what you teach. I made a video at our school to inform our school board/parents and it has ended up being used in other trainings around here for teachers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oT1MMgzILDI If you watch it, I just want to make it be known that the kiddos at the end were NOT prepped on what to say. I just pulled random kids out of classrooms and was amazed beyond belief of what they were telling me!!! I also talk about the decision to go school-wide here http://principalj.blogspot.com/2011/02/decision-to-go-school-wide-with-daily-5.html
      Of course, you can learn FAR more from “The Sisters” (Gail and Joan–the authors) at http://www.thedailycafe.com

      August 17, 2011
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