Guest Post: Jumping in the Sandbox – Personalizing Professional Development

by Rachel Rydzewski, Principal, Muskego Lakes Middle School

As I invited a team of teacher leaders together last spring to co-create school-wide learner profiles for students, I knew I had to jump in the sandbox myself to consider adult learner profiles. How could I invite teachers to take this journey to really get to know their students without expecting the same of myself? As a learner leader, I wanted to take the risk alongside our teachers- seeking to truly know and understand who teachers are as people so I could better meet their needs as learners.  

My first step was to reflect on my limitations, so I tapped a powerful teacher leader who also serves as a tech mentor, Nancy Pasch, who made the adult learner profile come alive and the information on the profile easily accessible for both myself and my co-leader, Chad Krupar, Associate Principal. Then, our school-based leadership team provided input on the adult learner profile template before we launched them this fall- prioritizing time on a professional development day for staff to engage with the profile template, take the surveys, reflect on their why as teachers, share how they prefer to learn,  communicate how they prefer to receive feedback, and determine their love language for the workplace and more. (Here is our first iteration of our MLMS Adult Learner Profile.)

Reading the adult learner profiles was powerful, and we were honored teachers trusted us to get to know who they are from a different vantage point. Chad and I left comments and asked questions on the electronic profiles. We also used them to:

  • Understand each teacher’s purpose and why for teaching
  • Gain insight into staff’s social-emotional dimensions
  • Recognize staff strengths in order to continue to build collective efficacy
  • Better understand specific aspects of our schoolwide constellation that our teachers were looking to grow in
  • Show appreciation based on staff preferences
  • Commit to planning professional learning opportunities reflective of their learning styles

learning styles graphAs Chad and I quickly recognized our staff’s learning style preferences, we knew that the goal was, in part, for staff to use the information about themselves  to advocate for their learning and pursue opportunities that best fit their preferences. We also knew that we had a responsibility to consider how we could use what we knew about staff to better meet their needs for professional development opportunities. We needed to model reflection that led to action because our hope was that staff would adjust their practices as well after reviewing student learning preferences in their own classrooms.

So, in response, we committed to moving away from talking through slides for PD and began to incorporate interactive and tactile components to professional development, ie sorting activities, Socratic seminars, Kahoot, watercolor and digital design, and more. We are still on the journey of shifting professional development opportunities to a learner centered paradigm but we are committed to the journey.

In response to a microcredential I authored on customized professional learning pathways, I also took the risk of offering customized learner pathways for a professional development day.  I elicited feedback from our school-based leadership team on the pathways but was more nervous than I anticipated as the day finally arrived for staff to dive in to the pathways.

As Chad and I joined different spaces to sit alongside teachers and listen, my fear subsided as their conversations, level of engagement, and co-creation of products to show their deeper learning were incredible. I witnessed our band director sharing his goal-setting practices with a PE teacher. I heard our special education teachers launch student-led progress monitoring communication for teachers and families.  Just a sampling of some of the learning that was a result of the customized learner pathways:

  • Two of our co-teachers created a video to demonstrate their learning related to questioning. (See video here for those interested, credit to Allie Witkowiak and Jodee Korves, 6th grade teachers at MLMS)
  • Our 8th grade social studies teacher and teacher leader Laura Tsakonas created an Insider Tips page on Academic Conversations which she then allowed me to share with all staff.
  • A group of teachers shared their learning on a Padlet so they could return to it and use one another’s learning to advance student-led goal setting in their classrooms.

Personalized PD dayWhen the time came for the customized pathways learning portion of the professional development day to end, the room I ended up in did not seem to even notice the clock.

Following that portion of our day, I received an email from a staff member sharing that the customized pathway was “a strong example of what I could create and use with students.” This teacher went on to share how much she appreciated having voice and choice in her professional learning. Furthermore, on our exit ticket, 95.7% of staff reported that their time focused on the customized pathways was an efficient and effective use of their time.  A staff member also shared, “I enjoyed the time to learn in my style.”

In transparency, a staff member provided feedback on our exit slip that he/she was “distracted to ‘do it right’ versus get learning out of it.” That feedback reminded me how often our students experience that same feeling. I also reflected on the challenges that arise when both students and adults take the driver’s seat as learners and how we can continue to support learners to work through those feelings in order to gain the confidence to navigate their learning.

We are on a journey to flip the script at Muskego Lakes so our culture reflects a learner-centered paradigm. And in order to model what it looks and feels like to put the learner at the center of all we do, Chad and I as building administrators and co-leaders are committed to transforming adult learning at MLMS as well.  If our teachers are aware of their strengths and have self-knowledge of how they learn best, they are equipped to radically transform what learning looks like at Muskego Lakes for not only themselves, but for our students.

Rachel is a Middle School Principal for the Muskego-Norway School District in Wisconsin. If you have questions or would like more information about the work she is doing in Muskego, follow her school @MLMSmuskies or email at

Photo and graphic courtesy Rachel Rydzewski