The Humble ISD Instructional Support Center was buzzing with excitement this summer as the district launched a brand new teacher training initiative.
Dr. Ann Johnson, executive director of curriculum and instruction, began the initiative shortly after starting in her current role in October 2016. Johnson leads the curriculum and instruction team of Stephanie Coronado, Melissa Leigh, Lisa McCorquodale, Stefanie Perry, Rachel Smith and Jennifer Wilson.
Teachers were queried about their professional development desires, and responded with a need for more hands-on training and authentic learning, a style of learning that encourages students to create a tangible, useful product. Johnson’s team wanted to shift the focus from traditional compliance-based training to a more enriching experience. Wilson explained: “Rather than teachers signing up for training just to fulfill their required number of hours, we asked them how they wanted to grow and then designed the sessions based on that.”
The result was a summer program called the Power of Possibilities of over 300 workshops attended by 1,800 teachers and administrators.
The team didn’t really benchmark from other districts. They knew they wanted something vastly different than the usual compliance-based, “sit and get” instruction.
“When I started in this job in October, and listened to our focus groups’ specific professional learning needs, I quickly realized we had so much talent here in Humble ISD with such a strong knowledge base of teaching standards. I’ve worked in districts where the teachers didn’t even know the standards. It’s so different here, and I felt like we were not fully utilizing the talents of our teaching team as much as we could be,” Johnson explained.
She also explained that for a district this size, her team’s capacity had to expand to provide an on-campus support base. So the team shifted their philosophy to do more on the campuses. “It’s not about sitting in an office. Our philosophy is that we should be on the campuses interacting and planning with teachers and leaders,” Johnson continued.
The team had three goals for the sessions: hands-on learning, interactive sessions, and a product as the end result--an idea, a lesson plan, a strategy or a project to take back and finish in the classroom.
The sessions were more rooted in innovation than in compliance, but Johnson says that one non-negotiable was that all sessions had to be based on the TEKS, the state standard Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills K-12 public school curriculum requirements for every course. State-mandated standardized tests are designed to measure student acquisition of TEKS knowledge.
Nationwide, professional learning has dramatically shifted over the last few years. While content remains much the same, the overall strategy, instructional design, and classroom tools are markedly different.
Director of Professional Development Stephanie Coronado explained: “Children are different today. We reach them differently through technology and engagement.” Educators are provided with options to personalize their own professional learning rather than the single lecture “sit and get” model. Teams tasked with providing professional development are facilitators of learning rather than top-down managers.
Prior to this summer, professional development was prescriptive. “We heard about a problem on a campus, and devised isolated training to solve it,” explained Lisa McCorquodale, director of curriculum and instruction. She said the courses previously offered were done in silos and very restricted; only math teachers could go to math courses, for example.
This summer, the team wanted to change that approach. “We didn’t just want teachers to get their hours in. We wanted to see where we could be innovative and take things beyond that old model. Teachers were no longer limited. We offered everything to everyone. It was a huge mindset shift for all of us,” said Stefanie Perry, director of curriculum and instruction. Sessions were totally optional, and select workshops called creative sandboxes were scheduled so that teachers could bring their own topics.
The team was hoping to get 75 people to sign up, anticipating that teachers might be tired from just finishing the school year and therefore unmotivated to participate in training, or hesitant to try something new. Instead they got hundreds and hundreds—and hundreds—of registrations. The team rapidly shifted gears in February to get the program up and running by June.
The team gleefully explained that they had elementary teachers mixed with high school teachers, math teachers mixed with RELA instructors, and teachers from different campuses working together for perhaps the first time.
“Teachers absolutely took advantage of this summer, and it was a huge ‘aha’ moment for us,” explained Rachel Smith, district elementary math coordinator.
The instruction covered all areas, including special education, MOSAIC and students with lower socioeconomic status, who comprise one-third of the district. The team was thrilled to see the kids’ levels of engagement, which can be harder to achieve because of their unique challenges in life. The concept of passion projects was taught to allow all students to research a topic of interest.
A third grade Lakeland class started with the topic of pollution, noticed how much trash was thrown away at lunchtime, and developed their own passion project to solve the issue. The kids were excited that they got to do a special project, normally perceived as reserved only for the academically advanced students.
“Teachers could self-direct. Some took baby steps, while others took the ball and ran with it big time. We encouraged them to do whatever they were comfortable doing,” explained Melissa Leigh, director of professional learning. Some teachers attended 10 sessions or 14 sessions; some teachers attended nearly every day of the summer, amassing 40 to 50 hours in professional development credits. “PE, math and science teachers developed cross-curricular units together, they didn't intend to but it was the result of the collaborative session,” Leigh explained. A high school teacher asked for something on Twitter, an elementary school teacher answered, and the two are now a team.
Teachers worked right through lunch and after the end of the instructional day; they were even spotted after sessions having excited conversations out in the parking lot on 100-plus degree days. They wanted to keep working. Teachers texted teachers in other districts to applaud the innovative sessions. This summer’s sessions cost $152,360 compared to last summer’s $289,054, an average cost of around $6.50 per seat.
Johnson says they filled more seats and the training was more effective.
Newly hired teachers participated. News spread like wildfire through word-of-mouth and Twitter. Excited teachers took concepts back to their principals, who then wanted to participate further. Many teachers have begun teaching the concepts at their own campuses.
“We had teachers contact us who had been at a June session and wanted to do a creative sandbox on their campus, and we did it,” said Perry.
Many schools like Atascocita High School redesigned their opening days based on what they learned. Some community members participated in sessions on innovation, and students participated in student showcases, exhibiting skills they had learned. One Humble High School student spoke at convocation about his experiences.
“It was powerful for the teachers to see this,” Johnson said.
In the past, the team typically never got feedback after compliance sessions, but this summer’s message was “Keep it coming!” Sessions scheduled for the first early release day/professional development day in September are already booked. Principals are asking, and campuses are calling, for more.
Trustee and former Humble ISD teacher Nancy Morrison agreed.
“I heard so much about us accomplishing TEKS in a different way. It’s great to see what professional development looks like for kids of today who are engaged in their own learning. I love that the summer sessions weren’t set up so that teachers were ‘talked at.’ Instead, it was interactive and teachers got away from the traditional paper and pencil principles. This wasn’t cookie cutter; they explored different pathways of learning. Teachers told me they got something out of every day, every word. They’re gung ho. I haven’t seen this much excitement in years,” she said.
Johnson said that a wonderful side benefit has been the different energy that was created, as well as the relationships and caring that evolved. Teachers met other teachers they maybe would not have, and teachers saw Johnson’s team in a different light as well.
“We genuinely care about teachers. We truly wanted them to feel special this summer, so we provided these extra touches to let them know we are here to support them,” Johnson said.
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