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PD Educator: Kerrie Willis

January 31, 2019

Submitted by Kerrie Willis, Instructional Coach and TLC Coordinator at Washington High School, Washington, Iowa



As a high school instructional coach and the coordinator of our building professional development (PD) team for the last two and a half years, and as an English teacher and PD attendee and presenter for two decades before that, I’ve spent hundreds of hours considering PD.  For many years, my experiences with PD were in the form of mandatory trainings, supporting whole-district initiatives. In the past decade, our district moved towards a more teacher-lead approach, where building teams of teachers planned PD for colleagues. This structure became more formalized when our school received Teacher Leadership Compensation (TLC) funds two and half years ago.


Our high school PD team found our footing gradually in year one.  Year two, 2017-2018, we strengthened the vision and focus for our work:  connect everything we do in meaningful, intentional ways, so our purpose is clear to others, and so learning has a high probability of sticking.  Our team was strong, skilled, and highly effective. We created PD sessions responsive to teacher needs and interests, and based on research:

  • high-impact instruction strategies from Jim Knight

  • effect-size research and its implications from John Hattie

  • fostering dynamic student discussion

  • using feedback to drive learning

  • collaborating effectively with colleagues.


We built in teacher-choice:  we asked colleagues to suggest topics, then chose a handful of those topics to build resources and sessions around.  In short, when I looked at our work together over the course of the year, by many objective measures, our PD team had done everything to ensure high-quality professional development for our colleagues.


At the end of 2017-2018, we surveyed our colleagues about the year’s PD we’d constructed, using Elements of Effective Professional Development to shape our survey questions. We wanted to measure how close we’d come to doing what we set out to do.  Click here to view our results.


What was difficult to accept was that even our best efforts, broadest choices, and strongest sessions weren’t effective enough to create meaningful professional learning for all our colleagues. We were still craving deep professional inquiry and learning, as well as transfer to and impact on students in the classroom. The survey data told us this, and it was something the PD team grappled with heading into summer.  No matter how thoughtfully we created substantive learning opportunities, we were ultimately still forcing colleagues to select from a limited number of options at our PD buffet. Our PD was better by most measures than a one-size-fits-all-approach; our PD received positive feedback from many colleagues; our PD worked to some degree.  But John Hattie’s reminder resonated in our ears: it’s not just about what works, but what works best. We realized we were looking for the PD that worked best, and that we could not achieve that within the structure we were using.


This realization lead us to consider in earnest an individualized, personalized PD model several of us had heard Jarod Bormann talk about several years prior at the Iowa 1:1 Conference.  (To find out more about Jarod Bormann’s Professionally Driven Professional Development model.  I went on my own personalized professional learning journey to answer my problem of practice questions, about how I could most effectively do the following:

  • Multiply the teacher’s impact in the classroom.

  • Create plentiful opportunities for professional learning.

  • Foster professional conversations focused on student learning.

  • Create structures to support all of the above.


I read Jarod’s book, and I talked with Jarod about my questions, concerns, and ideas.  I reread other texts, with an eye to articulating (1) what makes powerful, effective PD, (2) how to structure personalized PD in such a way it would make sense and be productive for my colleagues, and (3) how to explain to decision-makers why this route would result in the greatest professional learning possible.  As summer wound down, I proposed a modified version of Jarod’s personalized PD to my district curriculum director, to my building principal, and to our building PD team. People asked questions--I had some answers--and we decided to move forward in optimism, banking on the possibilities inherent in deep inquiry about a problem of practice, time to research and implement and refine, and space to discuss challenges and successes with colleagues.


We are four months in to the process, and signs are encouraging.  As I read through the first round of reflections from PD, I had two revelations:

  • Our colleagues can go so much farther and faster if we encourage them and create the system where they can pursue their own problems of practice.

  • We as the PD Team could never provide the training, sessions, learning, or resources people were able to gather on their own or by talking to colleagues.

And teacher reflections are deepening as they delve deeper into their problems of practice, test out new strategies in their classrooms, discuss their findings with colleagues, and refine their practices.  


I am grateful our building and district was willing to dedicate two hours a month to this process. While I would like to build in more time, this two-hour time each month has yielded greater reflective thought, changes in practice, and collegial conversations.  Personalized PD has allowed us to start fostering what Charlotte Danielson calls “a culture of professional inquiry in which adult learning, teacher learning as well as student learning is part of the mission.”  By creating the best possible conditions for teachers to learn in professional development, we are creating the best possible conditions for students to learn in their classrooms.


Please reach out if you have questions, would like to share resources, or would like to continue the discussion about this ongoing process.


Kerrie Willis




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