hands are planting flowers in the ground as an illustration to show how planning professional development like a gardener

Planning Professional Development Like a Gardener

Mid-May and early June traditionally mark the end of the school year and graduation ceremonies and celebrations.  Early May brings with it an important milestone for many Kentuckians. The first Saturday in May is the traditional day on which the run for the roses at the Kentucky Derby takes place.  However, for me and many other gardeners, the first Saturday in May has a different significance.  For gardeners in Kentucky, Derby Day is the deadline to have your garden planted. 

Since Derby Day is the gardener’s deadline, that means many things have to happen before the beginning of May.  One has to prepare the soil, map out the plant arrangement, and choose the amount of each vegetable and flower variety to be planted. However, even before this preparation phase, there is a  planning phase or assessment phase. The gardener has to consider what happened during previous years as he or she plans how to approach the gardening adventure this year.  

What was the condition of the fruit or flowers produced in the garden in the previous year?  Were the vegetables able to flourish to their full potential?  Were the plants able to overcome attacks from insects and resist diseases? How did the flowers respond to the surrounding weather conditions?  Did they wilt at the slighted weather change, or were they able to adjust and stand tall rain or shine?

Education and Gardening

Education is very similar to gardening. Both are focused on growth. Many of the same questions the gardener asks to evaluate the past and the plan for the future are similar to the questions instructional leaders ask at the end of the school year. Both sets of questions require reflecting on the past and looking forward to the next year. As the graduation speeches are delivered and the faculty end-of-year interviews take place, what are you learning about the strengths and areas needing improvement with the growth plan for your school?

If your role includes providing or planning professional development for others, helpful questions include the following:

  • Were the professional development events or programs provided for faculty, staff, and instructional leaders successful?  (Our blog What Successful Professional Development Looks Like may help you answer this question.)
  • What was the heart, head, and hands condition of the educators and students by the end of the year?  
  • Did the students grow spiritually and academically?
  • Did the faculty flourish to their fullest spiritual and professional potential? 
  • Were the educators able to help the kids flourish to their fullest spiritual and academic potential? 

Assessment is Crucial When Planning Professional Development

It’s funny how typically a great deal of effort is put forth planning professional development events and programs, yet often little effort is extended to assess the results. Do you know if the dollars and time spent to educate resulted in long-lasting changes in the classroom or school culture? Sometimes the results take a while to manifest themselves. However, it is important to watch for the results.  

When training teachers in how to provide biblically integrated instruction in the classroom, I include a section on assessment of learning. I take time to explain the importance of assessing the biblical thinking of students. If we don’t gather evidence of students’ thinking and attitudes related to the biblical principles revealed in the content, we basically are saying we don’t care if they learn it or not. 

The same idea carries over to professional learning. If we don’t take the time to assess the application of professional learning, we are basically saying, we don’t really care if teachers use it or not. 

At Transformed PD, we believe that guiding teachers in how to provide Christ-centered instruction, ultimately influences the spiritual formation and worldview development of students. We aim to facilitate a renewing of the mind according to Romans 12:2 with both teachers and students. So how do we assess the impact of professional learning?

How to Assess the Impact of Professional Learning and Development

Here’s where the gardener’s questions can be used to guide the assessment of professional development, as well as guide the planning of future professional development.

  1. Did professional development change the culture of the classroom or regular classroom practice?  Changing classroom culture and practices takes place over time. It is important to provide support and accountability to teachers in order to have the new ideas and methods become a “way of doing school.” Teachers need collaborative time to plan together and time to visit each other’s classrooms. Guidelines, or rubrics that describe what excellence looks like should be explained, modeled, and practiced. These support and accountability elements help make the “new thing” become part of everyday practice.
  2. What was the resulting condition of the teachers’ and students’ minds and hearts in the garden of school this year?  Were the teachers and students able to flourish to their full potential?  Were they able to overcome attacks from the enemy? How did the students respond to the surrounding cultural conditions? Did they wilt at the slightest cultural challenge, or were they able to adjust and stand tall rain or shine?

The answers to these questions can be used to identify the ideas, conditions, and methods to be introduced, changed, or adjusted in the garden of school. Professional development is one means of responding to the identified strengths and areas needing improvement.

Tips for Planning Professional Development After Assessing

When I’m planning my garden, I have to make some difficult decisions about what not to do. I love to fill the garden with as many varieties, and colors of vegetables and flowers. However, fulfilling my desires has proven to be detrimental to the plants. Here are some gardening guidelines that can be applied to professional development.

  1.  Prioritize. It is important to limit the number of plants, rather than planting too much. In my effort to try it all, the plants end up competing for nutrients, light, and air. Thus, only a few plants do well. The rest may survive but are weak and spindly.  

Sometimes professional development can be the same.  Many great programs, speakers, and book studies are scheduled for a single year in an effort to address all of the areas needing improvement. Yes, it’s all important, but it’s not all equally important now.  Focus on the most important need and design professional development programs around that.

  1. Maintain support. Provide continued attention and care rather than a big push at the beginning.  I’ll dedicate several full days and entire weekends to preparing the soil, removing the weeds, placing the seedlings, and watering thoroughly in spring. Yet as spring turns to summer, I must continue each week to remove newly emerging weeds, prop up plants, and add more soil improvements. Otherwise, the plants will be overrun with weeds, disease sets in, and the plants weaken. Gardening is not just a beginning-of-the-year event. Gardening is a long-term investment in time and resources to nurture plant growth toward a healthy harvest.

Similarly, once the prioritized focus of professional development is determined, the next year or two require a long-term investment of time and resources. Teachers need continued attention and support throughout the year to implement the professional development concepts and methods.  Watch for obstacles that crop up, hampering teachers’ ability to continue with the professional development program. How can those obstacles be removed or addressed? How might faculty members need to be propped up with support in the way of resources, time, or collaboration?

  1. Share Leadership. It is important to keep the garden to a manageable size rather than one that’s too big for a single person to manage. As the visions of shelves full of canned vegetables and jams filled my head, I had to come to the realization that I was going to need help managing the gardening process and the resulting crop. I solicited helpers. The helpers didn’t need to be gardening experts, but they did need to care about the plants and know how to attend to them.

As an instructional leader, you don’t need to manage the professional development efforts alone. Use helpers. Train some of the teachers to be coaches for professional development efforts. Spread the responsibility.  

Prioritize, Maintain, and Share Leadership Like Jesus Did…

Think of examples of professional development that took place in the Bible. Jesus provided professional development to the twelve apostles. He took three years to explain, model, and give them practice in how to make disciples who would make disciples. Jesus prioritized, maintained support, and shared the leadership. It seems as though we should do the same.

 I recently received a call from a Head of School requesting that we begin planning for Transformed PD to work with their teachers on Christ-centered instruction. The leader explained that they did a book study on worldview, and had speakers come in for a couple of days to teach about biblical integration.  

Then he said, “I’m just still not seeing it happen in the classroom. I can’t be with each teacher to make sure they use what they’ve been taught. We need to be coached.”

This instructional leader had prioritized but had not considered how to maintain and share the leadership. At Transformed PD, we will explain, model, and provide practice with biblical integration in the classroom using a coaching model. We work with each school to maintain support for applying what has been learned by providing schedules, regular feedback, and rubrics to guide success. Shared leadership is developed as part of the coaching model we put in place.

Assess and Plan Now for a Strong Future

In just a week or so, the students and the teachers will be home for summer break. Before the end of school gets too far into our rearview mirror, take the time to assess the success of the professional development efforts. Prioritize the focus of professional development. Create a one to two-year timeline that describes how the concepts or skills will be explained, modeled, and practiced. Envision how to maintain support for the teachers. Predict potential obstacles and conversely how teachers will be propped up with resources and time to continue on their learning path. Plan how leadership responsibilities will be shared. 

Plan professional development like a gardener.

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