Introduction: Personalized Professional Learning
As education and pedagogy are ever-evolving, the importance of providing continuous, relevant, and effective professional learning for educators remains steadfast. However, the traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach to professional learning is increasingly being reevaluated in favor of learning that is personalized. Analogous to personalized learning for students, personalized professional learning acknowledges the diverse range of skills, experiences, interests, and passions that teachers bring to the table—and recognizes that individualized growth opportunities can lead to more impactful and sustained improvements in teaching practices.
Historically, professional learning for educators followed a “sit and get” standardized structure, where sessions and courses were uniformly provided to a broad audience. However, this method often failed to address the unique needs and interests of individual teachers, potentially limiting the effectiveness of the learning experience. In response, personalized professional learning emerged as an approach that tailors learning to align with the specific goals, challenges, and strengths of each teacher. By recognizing that educators are not homogeneous in their skill sets or objectives, personalized professional learning aims to empower teachers with the autonomy to guide their own learning journey, fostering a greater sense of ownership and enthusiasm for professional growth.
The shift towards personalized professional learning is driven by a combination of factors that reflect a deeper understanding of effective teaching practices. Schools are increasingly recognizing that teachers, much like their students, benefit from instruction that considers their prior knowledge and experiences. In addition, educational technology and digital resources have expanded the possibilities for delivering personalized learning experiences, enabling educators to access resources, collaborate with peers, and engage in self-paced learning. As schools strive to enhance student outcomes and more effectively respond to educator needs, personalized professional learning can help elevate teaching quality and, ultimately, enrich the learning experiences of students.
Background on Plymouth-Canton Community Schools
30 miles west of Detroit, Michigan lies Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (P-CCS), a K-12 school district encompassing 15 elementary schools, five middle schools, three high schools, and an alternative high school program. P-CCS is one of the largest school districts in the state of Michigan serving approximately 16,300 students. According to data from mischool.org (2022-23 school year), roughly one out of every ten students has an IEP recommending service, and approximately 23% of all P-CCS students are considered economically disadvantaged. In 2021-22, Plymouth-Canton Community Schools’ graduation rate was 87% with 78% of graduates college-enrolled six months after graduation.
Plymouth-Canton Community Schools boasts a unique structure as their three high schools—Plymouth, Canton, and Salem—are all situated together on one 305-acre campus known as Plymouth-Canton Educational Park (P-CEP). Completed in 2002, the three buildings combined house 280 teachers, counselors, administrators, human services staff, and learning specialists in addition to approximately 6,200 students in grades 9-12. While students are randomly assigned to one of the three high schools as their “home school,” they can take classes at any of the three high school buildings.
One of the benefits of their “park” structure and the sheer volume of students is that P-CEP is able to offer an extensive course catalog including some very specific courses such as an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history class. As Plymouth-Canton’s Chief Academic Officer, Beth Rayl, proudly shared, “We have some things that are very unique and prideful for us. For example, we don’t offer English 11. Instead, we have multiple English courses that are customized and created by teachers, such as Other Worlds of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Multicultural Literature, African American Literature, etc.” These courses were created and designed in response to student feedback and are based on state standards.
P-CEP offers many different pathways to personalize learning for students. They have extensive Career and Technical Education (CTE) programming including Automotive Technology where students experience hands-on learning in their 11 bay auto shop, Business Education, Computer Science, Computer Technology, Educational Foundations, Engineering and Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Graphics, Health Science, Hospitality and Culinary Arts, Marketing, and Technology Application. They also offer an Academy Program with multiple different academies and learning communities including an Arts Academy, Business Academy, International Academy and International Baccalaureate Program, STEM Academy, Smaller Learning Communities at the Park, and a Virtual Academy. In addition, new for the 2023-24 school year is their Early Middle College. Because of their educational park structure and the large volume of students they serve, P-CCS is proud of their ability to offer so many unique course opportunities for students as well as their ability to allow teachers to pursue passion projects in creating some of these courses and directing some of their own learning.
The Importance of Personalizing Professional Learning
Upon being hired as Plymouth-Canton’s Chief Academic Officer in 2019 (just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), personalizing professional learning for their educators was an initiative Rayl tasked their curriculum and instruction team with right away. With all of the pathways that P-CCS offers to their students, it only made sense that they personalize learning for the adults, too. This allows them to model the personalized learning they hope students experience in classrooms. According to Rayl, the pandemic helped move their plans forward more quickly than they might have otherwise as in-person professional learning was not an option for quite some time. It was during the pandemic that P-CCS made the transition to using one single learning management system (LMS)—Canvas. Doing so helped to establish a common language within the district to begin discussions about not only how to provide instruction for students in a virtual or hybrid model, but also about how to build professional development in the same way–in hybrid and virtual environments–using and leveraging the technology available with Canvas.
As they began to develop their repertoire of professional learning courses and opportunities in Canvas, they started internally with many of their first courses being built by their curriculum coordinators and instructional coaches. P-CCS also began developing some foundational framework pieces to enable their teachers to come together and have opportunities to share their professional practice with one another such as Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and time during district-provided professional development (DPPD) days. P-CCS knew they wanted to capitalize on the expertise of their teachers, it was just a matter of determining how to get staff to feel comfortable sharing their knowledge in a professional learning capacity—without it feeling evaluatory. Rayl explained that it continues to be a process of building trust and skills within their staff so they are more willing to share what they are already doing well with others.
While they routinely look inward first and do the majority of their curriculum development work in-house with their teachers, P-CCS knew they would have to also incorporate external expertise and partnerships to provide additional professional learning and support. They continue to work on leveraging external partnerships and balancing that with what they can provide themselves and have already established internally.
What Personalized Professional Learning Looks Like in Practice
At Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, staff are offered synchronous as well as asynchronous professional learning options. District-provided professional learning days are laid out for the year, and staff know in advance which days will be synchronous or asynchronous. Asynchronous professional learning is offered during a window of time (e.g., Sept 1-Nov 30). Within this window of time, staff can choose different learning options, based on individual interests, from focus areas the district has specified. According to Rayl, they have found that opening up longer windows of time for teachers to take advantage of additional professional development (PD) certified for SCECHs (state continuing education clock hours) has been successful as educators have taken advantage of the extra time to complete more courses.
P-CCS uses Canvas Catalog—a course catalog system and part of their LMS, Canvas—to manage their professional learning options. Canvas Catalog allows them to tag each PD offering with associated keywords in order to help educators find and choose the courses and opportunities that are most applicable to their interests. Within Canvas Catalog, P-CCS can offer courses curated in-house by their own staff as well as courses from other educational institutions (e.g., REMC Association of Michigan, Michigan Virtual).
In order to assimilate new staff into the school district’s culture, P-CCS created a new teacher induction program, which is also housed in Canvas Catalog. It is set up similarly to a passport: teachers receive stamps for completing different learning opportunities. It lays out a plan for teacher professional learning in their first three years, and while it is very structured, it incorporates opportunities for teacher choice within different areas of learning based on areas of individual need and prior knowledge.
Figure 1. Screenshot of professional development course offerings in P-CCS Canvas Catalog
Personalized Learning Pathways
Rayl proudly described how P-CCS has created a framework to allow for some very personalized learning pathways for all of their educators. Rather than simply taking courses, educators can piece together professional learning and artifacts that demonstrate their understanding in order to earn SCECHs. For example, if a teacher had to read a book for a graduate class, P-CCS could certify the approximate number of hours they spent on their learning and certify that with their framework. Or if a teacher attended a webinar, discussed with their professional learning community (PLC), and created an artifact for application in their classroom, that could count as well. As Rayl explained, “Our belief is that learning opportunity is as valuable for a teacher as them sitting in some workshop that is disconnected to what they’re doing.”
Their ultimate goal is that teachers create customized learning pathways for themselves. Rayl envisions teachers discussing with their evaluator or mentor the professional learning they have chosen to complete and how it has changed their practice—the latter of which, according to Rayl, is the most important part. Reflection and application are emphasized in all professional learning at P-CCS. As she explained, having educators reflect on how they are growing personally and professionally based on what they are learning is often the missing piece.
Leveraging Staff Expertise
At Plymouth-Canton, they know how important it is for teachers to have opportunities to learn from each other. They take pride in the expertise of their staff and capitalize on opportunities for staff to learn from each other during district-provided professional development days (DPPDs) as well as time spent in PLCs. They are also considering how to leverage time in different ways to provide additional structures and opportunities for staff-to-staff learning. One such idea is implementing a teacher leadership academy during the summer, which Rayl stressed, “would be able to provide teachers who don’t necessarily want to leave the classroom and go into administration a pathway to leadership from where they stand.” P-CCS is also working to build an innovative cohort of teachers who are willing to take some risks knowing they have permission to fail. “As we look to shift away from traditional instructional practices, people need to feel like they have a safety net,” Rayl explained, and she hopes that this group of teachers across grade levels and disciplines will inspire others to step out of their comfort zone and take some risks, too.
Providing instructional coaches is another way that P-CCS has personalized professional learning, and, as Rayl admitted, “they have really been key to helping support and grow our teachers.” Rayl wisely pointed out that even the highest level of professional athletes have a coach, so utilizing an instructional coach doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good enough job—they are there to help staff grow and learn. Their instructional coaching staff is made up of district-level coaches, building-based coaches, as well as some P-CCS staff that serve as instructional coaches for part of their work day. Based on feedback indicating staff didn’t want to leave their classroom to be a full-time instructional coach, they began offering some part-time coaching positions to allow teachers to remain in their own classrooms, closely tied to students and instruction. This option provides teachers with voice and choice and allows them to balance doing what they love with sharing their knowledge and expertise and helping others. By asking teachers what they need help with, their instructional coaches are providing individualized coaching for teachers without it feeling evaluatory or punitive, which helps build trust.
There are several indicators that the work P-CCS is doing to personalize professional learning for their educators is worthwhile and valued by their staff. Several times throughout the year, staff are surveyed regarding their professional learning. Through the responses, P-CCS can keep a pulse on the areas that staff feel they are strong in, areas they could improve or are lacking, as well as what additional expertise may be needed. They always consider if they have the internal expertise first, and then if not, work to find an external subject matter expert. They have found that their teachers are no longer shy about giving their opinions and have been pleased with not only the high response rates to the survey itself but also how highly satisfied and positively received their professional learning is. P-CCS takes this feedback very seriously and works with teachers to make sure their professional learning is meeting staff needs.
Rayl proudly shared that one of their biggest measures of success is that the culture around professional development has changed. People embrace it now, and they have found that staff are actually present during synchronous professional learning sessions. As Rayl explained, this is because what they are learning “is important to them, they see where they are using it, and it’s job-embedded work. People seem to feel like it [professional learning] has meaning and value to them. We hear that in their language and we see that in their responses.” Staff are focused on professional learning and understanding how to apply it in their classrooms, which has not always been the case. Rayl explained that as they continue to build more professional learning courses, they have found teachers are taking them not just for the SCECHs, but because they are genuinely interested in the content and because it’s helping their practice, which Rayl remarked “is a really cool unintended consequence.”
It is not surprising that personalizing professional learning for a staff the size of Plymouth-Canton Community Schools has posed some challenges. According to Rayl, the logistics of tracking individual learning for 1100 certified teachers district-wide are very time-consuming. They have found that synchronous PD is actually more time-consuming to track and manage as in-person attendance can be challenging to verify. With asynchronous learning, they have found tracking to be easier because the evidence of completion—an artifact showing evidence of learning or simply course completion—makes learning verifiable.
Currently, staff in their teaching and learning department track and manage P-CCS professional learning with spreadsheets including tracking course/learning completion, cross referencing learning engagement, and ensuring staff use the correct PIC (personal identification code) in order for the learning to be certified for SCECHs. Working with the state in terms of getting staff learning certified poses challenges as well as systems aren’t always updated, processes change, and tracking data in spreadsheets is tedious. Thankfully, P-CCS has enough staff to have a dedicated SCECH coordinator, which helps immensely. However, not every district has that luxury, especially not those that are small.
To reduce some of these time-consuming challenges related to tracking their personalized professional development, P-CCS is working with a group of app developers who have created an app (for mobile or desktop use) that they hope will be, as Rayl put it, “process altering” in terms of helping them manage professional development for their staff. The app should help them track and certify both synchronous and asynchronous professional learning as well as SCECHs, and should also generate a transcript for their educators.
Sometimes simply shifting to something new—a new process, procedure, or way of thinking—poses challenges, and that change can be hard for some people. Rayl explained that staff were used to getting credit and SCECHs from simply attending professional learning (“seat time”), but the emphasis now has changed to applying the learning. This required a big shift in people’s frame of mind because historically, it has been more about putting in the time and getting the credit versus actually reflecting and talking about how it can be applied and is making a difference in the classroom for students. According to Rayl, getting some staff to do the application piece was difficult at first until they understood why it was so important.
Advice for School Leaders Considering Personalized Professional Learning
Rayl offered several pieces of advice for school districts that may want to personalize professional learning for their staff. First, she emphasized the importance of knowing and understanding your audience. As you build out your structure, make sure it is user-friendly, and get feedback from those who will be using it (staff members) along the way. Find out what it is that your staff needs and wants in terms of professional learning, and make sure to incorporate that into your structure.
Next, make sure to network with other school districts, and always be willing to share what you’ve created. P-CCS has always been more than willing to share structures, frameworks, and models they’ve created. “Collaboration is key,” added Rayl. “There’s a lot we have to learn from other people, and we like to share what we’ve learned as well.” By talking to others and networking, you may learn what challenges others who have already gone down the path you are setting down yourself have experienced—you may learn from their mistakes and save yourself time and resources.
Finally, she added that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask other districts or school leaders for help and advice, but also understand what worked well for one district might not work the same for you and yours.
The shift towards personalizing professional learning represents a significant departure from the traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach to educator development. This transition is driven by a recognition of educators’ diverse backgrounds, skills, and aspirations, ultimately leading to more impactful improvements in teaching practices. By tailoring professional learning opportunities to individual educators’ needs and interests, P-CCS has successfully cultivated a culture of enthusiasm and ownership for personal growth. This transformation is facilitated through the use of technology—their LMS, Canvas, as well as Canvas Catalog—which empowers educators to explore learning opportunities aligned with their individual goals, fostering reflective and meaningful learning experiences.
The challenges identified by Plymouth-Canton Community Schools emphasize that adopting personalized professional learning is not without its hurdles. Tracking individualized progress and engagement related to professional learning on a large scale demands strategic solutions. The shift in mindset from passive attendance to active application of learning also highlights the need for ongoing communication and support. They are still working towards creating additional and more frequent opportunities for teachers to collaborate and open their practice to each other. Creating this collaborative culture is a work in progress.
Despite these challenges, the success P-CCS has experienced offers valuable lessons for other school districts. The importance of understanding educators’ needs and wants, embracing collaboration, capitalizing on the knowledge and expertise of your staff, and adapting structures based on user feedback cannot be overstated. As educational leaders navigate the evolving landscape of education, pedagogy, and professional development, personalizing professional learning helps to foster a culture of continuous growth, adaptability, and innovation among educators.
The following list of resources provides 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.
- Rethinking the Role of the Instructional Coach (Edutopia): Creating the capacity for educators to fill both the role of an instructional coach and a teacher allows them to remain grounded in the classroom and pedagogy. This may also make it easier for others to receive their help and feedback, from the perspective of a colleague.
- Teachers Are Students Too: Rethinking Professional Development is Key to Student Recovery (Ed Post): Author and CEO/co-founder of Modern Classrooms Project shares several ideas for how to rethink professional development and make learning more actionable and valuable for educators.
- A 5-Step Plan to Improve Professional Learning in Your School (EdSurge): Consider these proposed five steps to develop a professional learning plan rooted in a vision for the future.
- This series of three blog posts focuses on how The Center—an Iowa-based organization that facilitates networks of educators and community-based stakeholders to co-create rigorous, authentic, learner-centered ecosystems as pathways to future readiness—is providing customizable web-based tools and resources for educators seeking to move to a competency-based system.
- A Roadmap for Personalized, Competency-Based Professional Learning (Aurora Institute): This first blog post focuses on understanding how The Center uses reflective practices to determine real-time professional learning needs at the individual, building, and district levels.
- Designing Data-Driven Personalized Pathways for Professional Learning (Aurora Institute): This blog post focuses on what adult learning looks like when leaders in a school or district design, lead, and personalize complex change using educators’ target zones of development and shared problems of practice.
- Let Educators Drive: Gradual Release to Learner-Centered Design (Aurora Institute): This blog post focuses on how teachers can be supported to develop autonomy and leadership over their own professional learning and apply it to specific problems of practice in their learning environments.
- What Personalized Professional Learning Pathways Can Do (KnowledgeWorks): Heather Townley of the Ohio Personalized Learning Network shares her thoughts on personalized professional learning and where she hopes education will go.
- Why PD Must Be Learner-Centered, Too (Aurora Institute): Author Diana Lebaux explains the The Teacher Collaborative’s signature Co-Lab program and approach to improving professional learning which revolves around their framework for Student-Centered Learning and its four core principles: authentic experiences, student agency, flexible structures, and assessment for learning.
- 5 Ways to Foster Learner-Centered Innovation Through Professional Learning Cycles (Learner-Centered Collaborative): Learn about five ways to foster learner-centered innovation through professional learning cycles instead of one-and-done events. Coyote Springs Elementary (Prescott, AZ) and Meridian School (Seattle, WA) share how they are making this work in their own contexts.
- Changing How Students Learn Starts With Changing How Educators Learn (Learner-Centered Collaborative): Author Katie Martin explains how it is possible to shift professional learning from compliance to empowerment as well as some key elements of a learner-centered approach to professional learning.
Michigan Virtual/Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute Publications
- Modernizing Professional Learning, Modeling Effective Practices For Student-Centered Learning (MVLRI): In this first post in a short series of three blogs about designing effective professional learning, Senior Professional Learning Specialist Anne Perez shares how Michigan Virtual’s Professional Learning Services team has adjusted and modernized their professional learning for the educators with whom they work.
- Professional Learning Preferences landing page (Michigan Virtual)
- Part 1: Street Data and Empathy: Revealing What Educators Truly Want from Professional Learning (Michigan Virtual) What do educators actually want out of their professional learning experiences? Professional Learning Specialist Anne Perez explains that educators definitely have a preference for when and where they learn as well as who is leading the learning.
- Part 2: A Framework for Empathy: 3 Steps Leaders Can Follow to Center Educators’ Needs and Wants (Michigan Virtual): What do educators want? What do they need? What ideas do they want to share with decision-makers? Author Anne Perez shares a framework for empathy and steps leaders can take to center educators’ needs and wants.
- [Infographic] Educators Talked, We Listened: Professional Learning Survey Results (Michigan Virtual): This easy-to-read and digest infographic breaks down the feedback received from surveys and interviews with K-12 educators about their professional learning preferences.