My New “First Day of School” Experience

by Dria Setter, Professional Development Specialist

As a new(er) member of the professional development team at the Institute for Personalized Learning, this is the first year I didn’t experience your traditional first day of school. I honestly wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. After 18 years, I didn’t experience the bustle of 500 students through the front door with looks of excitement, bewilderment or confidence. I didn’t have 25 young learners trickle into my classroom, filling their lockers with notebooks and markers. The morning bell didn’t ring, the announcements didn’t signal the start of the day. Instead, I had a new iteration of “the first day of school.” I had the opportunity to start the year with almost forty adult learners gathered together in Monticello, Minnesota in mid-August to dig into a design academy. Not only was this the kick-off to a new school year of work moving forward with learner-centered education, but it was also the kick-off of our newly updated Leadership Design Academy.  

There was energy in the air that I can’t compare to anything other than the first day of school. Teacher leaders, learning coaches, and administrators from the Minnesota school districts of Albany, Rocori, Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, Watertown-Mayer, Columbia Heights, Mississippi Heights, South Washington, and St. Francis gathered together in small teams for two days to discuss and analyze learner-centered practices as they have existed in their district. The conversation was rich, the questions were probing, and the participants were reflective. Not only did teams look at what learner-centered education meant to their team and their district, but they began to create a common language as it relates to personalized learning. What does it mean? Why are we making the commitment? These were not easy questions to answer. In fact, it was the answers to these questions that would guide their work moving forward. It was a big task, but the teams were ready and willing and, most importantly, able to do so. The level of commitment these teams had was amazing. They challenged each other, supported each other, and ultimately, came together to find meaning and value in the work they were doing.

The teams then went on to analyze their current learner-centered practices to determine whether or not they aligned with the “what” and “why” of the work. Again, after thoughtful conversation and sometimes needing a Diet Coke break, teams ultimately identified how they were going to move forward. Each team tackled an issue specific to their district and crafted an action plan to support their continued journey in learner-centered education.

It was exhausting, yet rewarding work. Sometimes there were more questions generated than action steps. Doesn’t that lead to deeper thinking and reflection, and ultimately forward movement? When it was all said and done, the time was well-spent. A participant from the academy emailed us to say, Thank you for thoughtfully guiding our work this week allowing our district so much time to build part of our path toward personalizing learning for our St. Francis Area School learners. We did indeed accomplish great things these last two days!” This may not be a slightly crumpled sticky note left on my desk at the end of the day, but it sounds like a successful “first day of school” to me.

If you are interested in joining the newly redesigned Leadership Design Academy, the first cohort begins in February. This experience is a great fit for district-level leadership teams at any point in their learner-centered journey. Contact us for more information.