December 2

Reaching Cruising Altitude: Persisting with Professional Learning


Over the course of a year, I experience many takeoffs and landings in airplanes ranging from CRJs to Boeing 737s. Sometimes, I come across nervous passengers who hold their breath through the ascent and tightly grip the armrest during the occasional turbulence. They aren't quite sure about this whole “flying” thing, and it's not until the captain comes on the intercom and (unintelligibly) announces that we've reached a comfortable cruising altitude that everyone relaxes and settles in to work on their laptops, read, nap, or start their movies. Even though everyone's on the plane together, the trust, comfort, and speed comes when we reach a cruising altitude. It's time to get going!

Those of you who are teachers and building leaders will know that the same is true of professional learning and new initiatives. At first, there's a huge learning curve and possibly some resistance to overcome. Some folks are nervous and aren't quite sure about where this whole thing is headed. When we as leaders (teacher leaders, building or district administrators, PD providers, and coaches) provide enough time, support, and resources to see teachers through to “cruising altitude”–proficient and mostly independent implementation of the strategy or initiative–the teachers who are along for the ride will be confident in their ability to move ahead and make progress. However, not every site that introduces a new initiative or strategy reaches “cruising altitude” before ending training, support, or collaboration time, and that is often a recipe for disaster.

As the calendar year draws to a close and teachers here in the U.S. begin to wrap up their first semester, I have been reflecting on the success of various cohorts of teachers I've worked with this year as a Project-Based Learning consultant. Thankfully, many sites I work with have the long range in view. Leaders at every level plan to see teachers through the initial stages of learning about and experiencing PBL, planning and refining units, and implementing units over a long period of time. By investing in that critical “takeoff” and “ascent” period and seeing teachers through to their “cruising altitude,” leaders gain teachers' trust as well as ensure that they are confident in their abilities to enact their newly-honed skills with students.

Leaders, when we provide an initial training, we're taxiing.

Leaders, when we provide a follow-up training, we're contributing to take-off.

Leaders, when we have teachers collaborate, write and design PBL units, refine their work in peer reviews, and see multiple examples of PBLs in action, we're ascending.

We need all of these components over a long period of time to reach “cruising altitude;” otherwise, we are in danger of teachers stalling out before they experience success.

Leaders, how can you support your staff to reach “cruising altitude” in the initiatives you are asking teachers to enact?

If you'd like to discuss your site's plans for implementation of PBL, feel free to set up a call by emailing me at [email protected].


initiatives, PBL, professional development, professional learning

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