Located just west of Lansing, Michigan, Grand Ledge Public Schools (GLPS) is home to approximately 5100 students in grades K-12. A point of pride within the district is their 2022-2027 Strategic Plan which guides their work around specific SMART goals (see Figure 1, right-hand side) and reflects their beliefs about student learning (see Figure 1, left-hand side). Their Strategic Plan is also directly reflected in their approach to professional learning, which was the focus of our conversation with Dr. Barnes. They have reshaped professional learning within the district, something Barnes is extremely proud of. GLPS has shifted away from the way professional development has traditionally been delivered—in a “sit and get, one-size-fits-all” model—to a more personalized, impactful approach that promotes continuous growth as well as collaboration within their staff.
Dr. Barnes talked with researchers from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute in May of 2023 about how GLPS has personalized professional learning. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. Responses to each question are from Dr. Barnes.
Figure 1. GLPS 2022-2027 Strategic Plan
Why was it important to personalize professional learning?
When I started with the district in 2019, our professional development framework was very traditional and discontinuous, with synchronous learning only occurring during the first half of the school year. Staff did have some flexibility to guide their own learning as there were provisions in the contract for online professional development (PD) and what we referred to as FlexPD. However, because it was very much up to the individual teacher to find opportunities to fulfill the majority of these requirements, the learning taking place was very disjointed as opposed to fitting underneath the umbrella of a strategic plan or a clear district vision. We knew we needed to shift to align our professional development with the goals of our strategic plan.
The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated our need for personalized learning as our staff needed timely, individualized options based on their unique needs. This led to our partnership with Michigan Virtual to offer online course options that are directly tied to both our district’s vision and our instructional goals. We built a system that combined asynchronous and synchronous professional learning as well as optional, personalized drop-in office hour sessions. This flexibility allowed us to meet the evolving needs of our educators as well as ensure that the learning taking place supported our strategic plan as well as our beliefs about student learning.
Where do teachers have choice in terms of their professional learning options?
We offer a menu of professional learning options through Michigan Virtual that align with our strategic plan. Teachers log in to their individual learning portals to select courses curated specifically for them. They can pick and choose courses that best meet their needs and goals, which allows them to take ownership of their learning. While there is dedicated time built into the calendar year for this asynchronous professional learning to occur, staff ultimately complete it in a place and at a pace that suits their needs.
Additionally, all of our K-6 teachers participate in peer observation multiple times a year. While peer observations do happen at other grade levels, it is done systematically K-6 as part of a SMART goal. Principals collaborate with staff to design schedules that work best for their individual buildings. Some adopt floating substitution models, allowing teachers to observe peers while ensuring classes are covered. Importantly, we make every effort not to encroach on planning time. This is another example of personalized learning because staff get to choose who they want to learn from and observe. The key here is that every teacher is expected to engage in observation, giving them agency in their learning.
Being observed can elicit a feeling of vulnerability. How have you been able to alleviate that for your staff?
Establishing a safe space for teachers is paramount. We’ve been very adamant from the get-go that classroom observations are about the observer and what they want to learn, not about any sort of evaluation of the teacher. It is crucial that teachers understand the focus of these observations is on their personal growth, not any sort of critique of who they are observing. This mindset shift was crucial in making the process successful. Additionally, since it’s a requirement, it has become a normalized practice rather than feeling like we are singling out individuals.
How do you manage and track professional learning?
Michigan Virtual manages the tracking of individual learner progress in their professional learning courses. They provide us with regular reports as well as provide SCECHs (State Continuing Education Clock Hours). Additionally, we have an organized system of our own to manage all of our other individual and collaborative professional learning opportunities. Each year, we set up a Google Doc that serves as a single spot for teachers to access forms, track participation, and manage their SCECHs. This dual system ensures accountability and helps to keep everyone informed and organized.
Are there any adjustments you’ve had to make to your approach to professional learning?
Some of the lessons we learned about how to better provide professional learning made their way into our current teacher’s contract. We utilize the provision in Michigan’s Pupil Accounting Manual that allows you to count professional learning time as instructional time (see page 15), and we adjust our schedule accordingly. So now we have professional learning every Wednesday all year long. Rather than having all of the half or full-day PD sessions like we previously had only at the beginning of the year, we divided them up throughout the year so that we have ongoing professional learning happening weekly in all of our buildings.
This dedicated weekly time (right before or after school) for professional learning is typically used to work toward individual building initiatives or building improvement projects. Usually led by department leaders or building administrators, it also provides our teachers time for departmental or grade-level collaboration looking at instructional practices such as standards-based grading.
Our original plan was for this ongoing professional learning to occur in weekly 50-minute sessions. However, we found that certain weeks (e.g., the week before spring break, winter break, the last week of school) are not necessarily an ideal time for effective learning. To account for this, we lengthened our weekly professional learning to one hour. Going forward, we are also considering the addition of some professional learning time before the start of the school year to more effectively kick-start initiatives. We are evaluating feedback from our teachers about these 25 hour-long professional learning sessions and exploring potential improvements to the structure.
We’ve also adjusted our processes to establish alignment: our individual building MICIP goals feed into our district-wide Strategic Plan goals, which helps to ensure we are all working towards the same larger goal. Our MICIP and Strategic Plan goals are also part of our teacher evaluations, and so our weekly professional learning sessions are aligned with these goals as well. So now, rather than having disparate pockets of professional learning that teachers are responsible for fulfilling on their own, we have an entire system aligned toward achieving our larger district-wide goals.
How did you ensure stakeholders were on board with making these changes?
When I first arrived, the district had a clear appetite for change as our staff was dissatisfied with disconnected, one-off learning sessions. Drawing from my prior experience as a high school principal where we aligned everything with building goals, I knew this was the direction to take. I engaged principals and teacher leaders in collectively building and shaping the system.
We continue to rely on collaboration and involve stakeholders. For instance, our District School Improvement Team—made up of building principals, central office instructional staff, instructional coaches, and teacher leaders—plays a pivotal role in crafting our professional learning plans. We just spent our last few meetings determining what areas of focus we should continue or discontinue, and then, given what we want to accomplish, building a professional learning plan around those areas, engaging our teacher leaders and principals to have authentic input during the process.
The way we talk about collaboration from a leadership perspective is that my job is like bumper bowling—it’s my job to create the bumpers, and then everyone bowls. I’m not going to tell you how to roll your ball down the lane, but my job is to put those bumpers up.
What are some challenges you’ve experienced along the way?
Despite having an appetite for change, our primary challenge was shifting the established mindset around professional development, which, at the time, was very traditional. Historically, professional development was synonymous with passive, lecture-style sessions. From an administrator standpoint, that’s pretty easy–you just have to book the person who’s going to be doing the talking, but it’s not necessarily effective.
What we are doing now requires engagement—engagement from principals, our central office, teachers, and teacher leaders. Transitioning to a personalized, collaborative model demands purposeful leadership learning. It requires training, feedback, and collaboration that we didn’t necessarily have to do before. We have introduced specific training sessions for principals focusing on instructional leadership and distributed leadership models to determine how to cultivate and create teacher leaders who can also do this work.
Has this shift in your professional learning been successful?
We have witnessed significant growth in NWEA assessments across the district, which can be tied to some specific instructional strategies rooted in our professional learning. Results from surveying the staff also reflect positive sentiments toward professional learning and the implementation of district initiatives.
More qualitatively, teachers’ ability to work cohesively towards common goals has noticeably improved, enabling a more focused and aligned approach. We not only understand our strategic plan and our building goals, but we also understand where we are in terms of achieving those goals because it is a consistent conversation. I don’t think this happens without the professional learning system that we have in place.
And maybe most importantly, our philosophy of professional learning—not professional development—has drastically changed. Our staff embraces this continuous, collaborative, personalized learning that is guided by our strategic plan.
Do you have any advice for school leaders wanting to personalize professional learning for their staff?
Start with a clear philosophy of professional learning. Ensure it’s not only clearly communicated but also embraced by leadership. Shift the focus from “professional development” to “professional learning.” It’s not about checking a box—it’s about continuous growth and a philosophy within the district that professional learning is important and serves a greater purpose.
Professional learning is much more impactful when learning is being led by teachers, and when you’re developing things that you can use not only collectively, but use right away in your own classroom—that is powerful professional learning, and teachers want that.
Additionally, ensure that your structures align with your philosophy. Regularly review and adjust so you aren’t doing the same thing every year just because that’s the way you’ve always done it.
Grand Ledge Public Schools’ approach to professional learning showcases a commitment to both personalizing learning as well as aligning professional development with strategic plan goals. Their collaboration with Michigan Virtual combined with their own system for tracking and managing professional learning has been instrumental in streamlining the process while ensuring that every hour of learning counts towards the collective growth of the district. By offering a menu of options for staff to choose from, enabling staff to observe and learn from one another, and creating consistent and collaborative professional learning time, the district has not only improved teacher engagement but empowered staff to shape their learning.
For another example of how a Michigan school district is personalizing professional learning, read Tailoring Learning for Teachers: The Power of Personalized Professional Development (Plymouth-Canton Community Schools), which includes a list of resources providing insight into what other organizations are saying about personalized professional development, who else is doing work to make professional learning personalized, and other examples of school leaders learning this type of learning. Resources are accompanied by a short description.